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Leopold Trepper

TREPPER, LEOPOLD (Leiba Domb; 1904–1982), former Soviet intelligence agent, head of the anti-German spy network known as "The Red Orchestra." Trepper was born in Nowy Targ near Zakopane, Poland. He was active in the Polish Communist youth movement and was imprisoned for several months. Afterwards he joined Ha-Shomer ha-Ẓa'ir and in 1926 went to Ereẓ Israel, where he soon became affiliated with the illegal Communist party and was detained several times by the police for his clandestine activities. In the Histadrut he became known as the leader of the Eḥud (Unity) faction which advocated workers' unity, intending to include Communists and Arabs. After the first conference of Eḥud (1927), Trepper was expelled from Ereẓ Israel and went to France. There he became active in the Jewish section of the French Communist party as well as in the Soviet secret service. In 1932, in consequence of the discovery of a Soviet spy network, referred to in the French press as the "Fantomas" affair, Trepper had to leave France and proceeded to the Soviet Union. In Moscow he studied at the Communist University for Western Workers (KUNZ) and was probably also trained for intelligence work. In 1938 he was sent to France and Belgium, where, under various covers, he played a central role in Soviet military intelligence. He organized and headed a widespread clandestine radio service which had agents in high echelons of the German military machine in Berlin. German counter-intelligence called the network "The Red Orchestra."

In 1941 Trepper warned Moscow of Germany's imminent attack on the U.S.S.R., predicting even its exact date, but Stalin disregarded these warnings as originating in "British provocation." During the German-Soviet war "The Red Orchestra," under Trepper's direction, contributed greatly, and sometimes decisively, to Soviet strategy and tactics. In November 1942 Trepper was captured in Paris by a combined team of German counter-intelligence and the Gestapo. They attempted to enlist his services for a sophisticated anti-Soviet operation in which he would continue his radio transmissions under secret German control (the so-called Funkspiel). According to previous orders from his superiors for such a contingency, Trepper pretended to respond to these overtures, thus saving his life and even succeeding in escaping less than a year later. During his imprisonment, he managed to smuggle out a detailed report, written in a mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish, which was transmitted to Moscow by underground Communist party channels and which contained exact information about his arrest as well as about the German control already established over parts of "The Red Orchestra." After his escape he resumed his intelligence activity.

In 1945 he was recalled to Moscow and on arrival immediately arrested. He spent ten years in prison and was constantly interrogated by the highest Soviet security officials. At a certain stage, during Stalin's antisemitic Black Year, one of the main charges leveled against him was the fact that in "The Red Orchestra" he had "surrounded himself with Jews" (some of them, like Hillel Katz, were old comrades from Ereẓ Israel), to which he replied that at that time Jewish Communists were the most reliable people he could find. In 1955 he was released and completely "rehabilitated." From then on Trepper devoted himself exclusively to Jewish interests. He submitted to the post-Stalin leadership a detailed plan to revive Jewish cultural life and institutions in the Soviet Union, but in 1956, after the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist party, he was officially informed that his plan had been rejected. He then went to Warsaw, where, under the name Leiba Domb, he headed the government-sponsored Jewish Cultural-Social Society (Yidisher Kultur-Gezelshaftlekher Farband) and its publishing house Yiddish Bukh.

In 1968, during the violently anti-Jewish period in Polish policy, Trepper decided to return to Israel, where members of his family had already settled, but was constantly denied an exit permit. This attitude of the Polish government, possibly a result of Soviet pressure, aroused in 1971–72 worldwide publicity and many protests, including hunger strikes by Trepper's sons in Jerusalem, in Canada, and at the United Nations building in New York.

Toward the end of 1972 a French court heard a libel action by Trepper against the former French secret agent Jean Rochet, who had accused Trepper, in a letter to Le Monde, of having collaborated with the Nazis and betrayed his comrades in the underground. Despite Trepper's inability to appear because he was not allowed to leave Poland, he won the case and Rochet was fined and ordered to publish the court's verdict.

Trepper was finally granted permission by the Polish authorities to leave Poland for England in order to undergo a serious operation. He stated that his plans included the writing of "the full and true account of the 'Red Orchestra,'" not merely as an intelligence network, but as an organization of anti-Nazi resistance in which Jews played such a prominent part. His memoirs, Le Grand Jeu, were published in 1975 and in English translation by the author in 1977 as The Great Game: The Story of the Red Orchestra.

Trepper settled in Israel in 1974. He died early in 1982 and was buried in Jerusalem.


D.J. Dallin, Soviet Espionage (19643), 139–40, 156–68, passim; G. Perrault, L'Orchestre Rouge (1967), passim.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.