February 23, 1904 is the birthdate of the legendary Soviet spy Leopold Trepper, who before and during World War II headed the so-called Red Orchestra, the intelligence network that gathered information about the German military from several capitals in occupied Europe.
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Trepper was born in Nowy Targ, today a town in southern Poland, although then in Austria-Hungary. He was one of 10 children whose father, a failed businessman, died when Leopold was 12, leaving the family in financial straits. The same year his father died, Leopold became active in the socialist-Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair, eventually becoming one of its leaders in Poland.
Trepper was able to finish high school in Lvov because his mother made it her first priority, but he left university in Krakow without a degree to help support his family, working as a miner and construction worker. Already a committed socialist, he helped organize a miners’ strike, which led to his first imprisonment, at age 22, for several months.
In 1926, Trepper moved to Palestine, then under British Mandatory control. There he joined the Palestine Communist Party and organized a Jewish-Arab labor organization called Ihud (unity) within the Histadrut labor federation. For his Communist involvement, the British expelled him from the country in 1929.
After a brief period in France, where he worked as a Soviet industrial spy, Trepper went to Moscow, where he attended the Communist University for Western Workers and was recruited to the Red Army’s intelligence service.
In 1938, he was sent to France and Belgium, where he organized a Soviet network that gathered information from German military headquarters in Berlin and transmitted it by radio to Moscow. The Red Orchestra operated by forming trading companies that, using the cover of their real businesses, penetrated the German military organizations to which they sold materials, using the income to finance their espionage.
In 1940, the Red Orchestra attained advance warning of Germany’s plan to attack the Soviet Union, down to the date it was to commence in June 1941, but Stalin, not trusting the information, refused to act on it. The orchestra’s achievements also included the obtaining of vital data on German industry and the plans for Germany’s T6 Tiger tank.
The Germans, who were aware of Trepper’s network, which they dubbed Die Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), invested great efforts in cracking it. In 1942, Trepper was arrested in Paris. Subjecting him to intense interrogation, including by Hermann Goering himself, the Nazis tried to turn him into a double agent.
Although he agreed to cooperate, Trepper included hints in his messages to Moscow that he had been turned. Within a year, he had escaped captivity and resumed his work for the Soviets.
In 1945, Trepper returned to Moscow, where he was arrested and interrogated. The charges included having “surrounded himself with Jews” in the Red Orchestra. Although he was imprisoned for a decade, he avoided execution, and in 1955, after Stalin’s death, he was released and “rehabilitated.”
In 1957, Trepper returned to Poland, where he became head of the officially sanctioned Jewish Cultural-Social Society and its Yiddish publishing house. Finally, in 1968, after an international campaign on his behalf, he was permitted to leave Poland for England. From there he made his way to Israel, in 1974. In 1975, he published a memoir, “The Great Game,” about the Red Orchestra.
Trepper died on January 19, 1982, and received the funeral of a military hero in Jerusalem.