Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Red Orchestra

Last week I gave one of my occasional lectures at AACI, and this time I focussed on books that had influenced my thinking, when I read them as an impressionable young man in the 1960's.  Here I will only discuss one of these books, "The Red Orchestra" by Gilles Perrault, that was originally published in French in 1967 and in English in 1969.  It tells the incredible story of the Soviet Union's spy ring in Europe during WWII, and the fact that it was run by a Palestinian Jew, Leopold Trepper.
Trepper was born in Poland in 1904 and after receiving an education at the University of Krakow, unable to find any work, he ended up as a miner.  Soon he became an organizer of the miners and became a dedicated communist.  He was arrested by the authorities and spent 9 months in prison.  After his release in 1928, because it was dangerous for him to stay there, he joined a Zionist organization and emigrated to Palestine. There he continued his communist activities, organizing anti-British strikes, and was once again arrested and expelled back to Europe.  In France he joined a communist spy-ring gathering information for the KGB in Moscow.  He changed his identity several times and had passports under pseudonyms such as Leiba Domb. 
His abilities were noted and in 1932 he was called back to Moscow for training.  He returned to Belgium in 1938 and was tasked with setting up a spy ring mainly targeted on the British.  Trepper established companies using legitimate businessmen as fronts, such as the "Excellent Trenchcoat Company" with a branch in Ostend.   But, with foresight, Trepper realized that the Germans would be the main enemy of the Soviet Union and so he extended his activities to Paris.  Sooner than he expected the Germans conquered France and occupied Paris, and in 1940 Trepper, under the name of Jean Gilbert, was put in charge of all Soviet intelligence in occupied Europe. Trepper spoke fluent German, French and Russian as well as Polish and Hebrew.  He had a group in Berlin led by two dedicated communists, Harro Schultze-Boysen and Arvid Harnack, as well as networks in Brussels and Paris, amounting to 279 members, of whom 66 were Jews. 
Trepper cultivated contacts particularly with SS officers, who received lavish presents and attended parties run by Trepper's companies, such as Simexco in Paris. Information collected thru these contacts were transferred to Moscow by radio transmitters. They gave invaluable information to Moscow, including the date of the German invasion of Russia, June 22, 1941, and the specifications of the German Tiger tank. Since the radio operators were called "pianists" the whole spy ring was called an Orchestra and its conductor was Trepper.   The Germans were infuriated when they realized that a transmitter was operating out of Berlin, and they also discovered with horror that there were transmitters with similar call signs operating out of Brussels and Paris.  It took them some time to get organized due to inter-agency competition as well as technical difficulties.  But, eventually the Gestapo discovered the spy rings in Berlin and in Brussels and Paris. Many members of the spy ring were captured, tortured and eventually executed.  One of Trepper's main agents in Brussels Hersh Sokol was hung upside down in a cell and dogs were set upon him, however, he did not talk.  Eventually the Gestapo caught up with Trepper and he was arrested in Paris in 1942. 
The Gestapo did not realize that Gilbert, alias Trepper, was Jewish.  They treated him with consideration as the head of the Soviet spy ring in Europe and turned him, persuaded him to send disinformation to Moscow in order to deceive them. He called this "the great game" and used it as the title of his autobiography.  During WWII Trepper had led a high life, using the black market to make money and bribe people, and he did not share the terrible fate of his collaborators. This led some to question his loyalty, although he claimed after the war that he had always been a loyal anti-Nazi.  Over time he gained the confidence of his handlers, and even though he was always accompanied by two SS guards, he managed to escape from them in 1944.  He got them used to going to a pharmacy to get drugs he needed, and then one day he vanished because he knew that there was another entrance to that pharmacy. He used safe houses to make his way across Europe and managed to pass thru Germany and across the front lines into Soviet-occupied territory.
But, when he arrived in Moscow he was arrested and imprisoned by Stalin, who trusted noone, especially those who had been in contact with the Germans.  He spent 8 years in Soviet prisons, until the death of Stalin in 1953.  Then he was released, and chose to return to Poland and was appointed Chairman of the Jewish Community organization in Warsaw in 1955.  He remained there until he could leave in 1973 and died in Jerusalem in 1982.  I have a cutting from the Jerusalem Post dated Dec 24, 1988 (p. 9), of an article by Jon Immanuel entitled "The Palestinian Jew who spied for Stalin."  There is a grove of trees in the Sha'ar Hagai forest near Jerusalem commemorating Trepper and the other members of the Red Orchestra.  None other than Himmler himself estimated that the work of the Red Orchestra had cost Germany the lives of 200,000 soldiers during WWII.  Let this be his memorial.  Leopold Trepper exemplified the resourceful, tough Jew who showed us that Jews if organized could exact a great price from our enemies.
(PS. To see the Powerpoint version of this presentation go to http://jackcohenart.com/Lectures.html)


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