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When Germany invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, in spite of the political and economic pacts that the two countries had signed, the Great Patriotic War began. The Jews of the Soviet Union played an important part in this defensive war, fighting in every region, from the Arctic Circle in the north to the Caucasian Mountains in the south. Although Jews in the Red Army Intelligence, either as part of a bigger organization or as lone spies, passed on vital information, their role isn’t well-known. Leopold Trepper and Lev Manevich were two Red spies.



Leopold Trepper and the Red Orchestra

Leopold Trepper
Leopold Trepper

The Red Orchestra was a name used by the Nazis to describe a ring of Russian spies working against the Third Reich. The term Red Orchestra was used because each person in the ring was given a musical term: some were pianists; the leaders were conductors.

The Red Orchestra was made up of three different units. The Trepper unit was based in Germany, France and Belgium. The other two units were based in Berlin and Switzerland. German security forces were so concerned about the Red Orchestra that on this rare occasion they grouped their resources so that the SD, the Gestapo and the Abwehr worked together.

The Trepper unit, led by Leopold Trepper, gathered intelligence about the Nazi’s military power in Western Europe. The seven-part unit successfully infiltrated the Nazis and found out about troop deployment and even new tank designs.

Leopold Trepper, the son of Jewish parents, was born in Novy-Tang, Poland, on February, 23 1904. His father, who was an unsuccessful businessman, died in 1916, but despite their difficult economic situation, Trepper’s mother sent her son to secondary school in Lvov. After leaving school, Trepper moved to Krakow to study history and literature, but was forced to stop because of a shortage of funds.

Trepper joined the Bolsheviks and worked as a miner. In 1917, inspired by the Russian Revolution, he joined the Polish Communist Party. In 1925, he organized an illegal strike at Dombrova which earned him an eight-month prison sentence. A year later, Trepper immigrated to Palestine, joined the then-illegal Palestine Communist Party, and worked against the British until they expelled him in 1928. He moved to France where he worked for Rabcors, an underground political organization that was eventually broken up by French intelligence. He escaped to Moscow where he continued his studies and worked for a newspaper. In 1938, given his background, he was recruited by the GRU, a foreign military intelligence unit, which considered him the perfect candidate to set up a spy network disguised as a commercial company. The company, soon to be known as the Red Orchestra, probably the most successful spy network in World War II, set up branches in several European cities.

The Red Orchestra worked closely with the French Communist Party and succeeded in tapping the phones of the Abwher in France. By setting up a link with an anti-Nazi party in Berlin, Trepper was also able to provide detailed reports on the plans for a German invasion of the Soviet Union.

In the spring of 1942, the first Red Orchestra agents were arrested in Belgium. Some agents broke under torture, helping the Germans to liquidate the network in Belgium, Holland and Germany. In his autobiography, The Great Game, Trepper describes how, in 1942, he was arrested while sitting in a dentist’s chair. He managed to escape and remained in hiding until Paris was liberated.

He returned to Moscow in January 1945, where, ironically, Stalin ordered his arrest for betraying secrets to the Germans. He remained in prison until 1955, when he moved to Poland and became head of the Jewish Cultural Society. After the Six-Day War, Trepper, like thousands of Polish Jews, wanted to immigrate to Israel. Because of a letter that he had written to protest the treatment of the Jews, the Polish government refused to let him leave until 1973, when international pressure gave them no choice. He died in Jerusalem nine years later.


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Rhona Lewis made aliyah more than 20 years ago from Kenya and is now living in Beit Shemesh. A writer and journalist who contributes frequently to The Jewish Press’s Olam Yehudi magazine, she divides her time between her family and her work.