Happy Birthday Leopold Trepper!
A guest writer, Marcus Barnett, contributes this tribute to a heroic fighter who never gave up his hope for humanity's future.
Happy birthday to Leopold Trepper, who would have been 110 today!
Born into a Jewish working class family in Novy-Targ, Poland, Trepper was radicalised by seeing the struggle of coal miners repressed by Police in Silesia, and joined the Marxist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, moving to Palestine in 1925 to build socialism there. Having worked on a kibbutz with ‘boyish enthusiasm’ he became disillusioned by the Histradut (Zionist trade union)’s estrangement from and treatment of Arabs, seeing that it ‘was trying to perpetuate the very social relations we wanted to abolish’, and joined the Communist Party.
Having thrown himself into full-time work for the Ichud, a Communist rank-and-file network seeking to unite Arab and Jewish workers, he lived under conditions of general illegality; it is from here that he began working under his first false identity, Leiba Domb. After the British feared the Ichud’s growth amongst the small Palestinian working-class and (crucially) amongst the large, armed kibbutzim, he was jailed alongside two dozen Communist militants and deported to France, becoming a Communist militant amongst the immigrant populations of Marseilles and Paris.
In the mid-30s, he studied in Moscow’s International University under Esther Frumkin, the Bundist leader turned-Bolshevik. Alongside studying, he wrote for the Yiddish edition of Pravda, Der Emes, and discovered the grim reality of the Purges, where he saved a close friend at the expense of falling under suspicion himself. He was close to Jan Berzin, an Old Bolshevik in charge of foreign intelligence, who encouraged him to move West in order to collect intelligence on Nazi military, governmental and economic institutions. Berzin, upon developing this network, was signing his own death warrant, given that the current Party line was to appease Hitler and avoid war with Nazi Germany.
Thus the “Red Orchestra”, as it came to be known, was formed. Trepper had solid success in the early stages of the war in setting up the Simex Company in Brussels, assuming the identity of a Quebecois industrialist - “Jean Gilbert” - hobnobbing with high society and befriending Nazi officers and collaborators during the Occupation. An astute businessman, himself and his comrades Hillel Katz and Leo Grossvogel established themselves internationally through the sale of ‘quality rainwear’, and tied themselves intimately to the Todt slave labour organisation that was so crucial to the Nazi war effort. Prior to the German attack on the Soviet Union, he sent an incredible array of unique – and damning – information about Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union, including German troop movements to Soviet intelligence.
Having been rumbled, the core militants fled to France, were they continued activities and were eventually arrested in 1942, Trepper from the dentist’s chair. The Gestapo treated the charming Trepper leniently, recognising his potential as a future double-agent, and he in turn allowed them to trust their inclinations. After having fed them useless information, maintaining a high decorum that implied that counter-accusations from Soviet agents turned informant were blustering and nonsensical, he gained a level of trust with his captors that enabled him to live in a better cell and have access to pen and paper, and incredibly managed to send a report explaining the situation to Moscow.
After having given advice on local pharmacies to his ailing prison guard, he was asked to show the guard where the preferred store was. Astonishingly, the guard asked him to collect the prescription for him, and he seized the opportunity, walking through the entrance, out the exit, and onto the first bus to a safehouse he knew - above the headquarters of the collaborationist militia. With exceptional chutzpah, he stayed out the war here, regaining contact with the Communist underground, and fought with the Resistance in the liberation of Paris, being part of the group which took over his former prison.
Following war’s end, he returned to Russia, and was promptly jailed for 8 years in Lubyanka. He vigorously defended his position, avoiding execution because of his intransigence, and was amnestied in 1953. Following his release, he returned to Poland to his wife and three sons, who did not recognise him, and became a cultural leader in Yiddish-language publishing. After the Polish government’s anti-Semitic outrages in 1967, he attempted to flee to Israel, but was kept under house arrest until a wave of solidarity hunger strikes and international outrage forced his release in the early 70s. He died an unrepentant communist, defending a socialist future against the seemingly unbreakable realities of capitalism and Stalinism:
“We lived in the future, and the future . . . the absolute idea that gave meaning to our lives has acquired a face whose features we no longer recognize. Our failure forbids us to give advice, but because history has too much imagination to repeat itself, it remains possible to hope. . .
I do not regret the commitment of my youth, I do not regret the paths I have taken. I know that youth will succeed where we have failed, that socialism will triumph, and that it will not have the colour of the Russian tanks that crushed Prague.”
Readers who liked this may also be interested in the article from Jewish Socialist (1987)reproduced in my other blog, Historical Passages.