The Conductor (and master spy!)
24 September, 2020 — By John Gulliver
ONE of the most successful spies against Hitler in the Second World War, Leopold Trepper (pictured), escaped his last captors – with the help of a campaign by Hampstead journalist Martin Short who died recently.
I played a part in this story but first I must honour Martin Short whose natural enthusiasm for the campaign helped it to become successful.
It all began in the early 1960s when I, accidentally, went on holiday with my family to Warsaw behind the Iron Curtain in the frantic days of the Cold War.
The lure of excitement of going where I was not suppose to go was too much for me, so, I spent three weeks in Warsaw recommended by a friend, a businessman who did trade deals with the Poles and who arranged for my family to stay in Trepper’s flat in the middle of Warsaw, the city’s equivalent of Oxford Street – and returned to London sublimely unaware of who Trepper was.
His son Michael had been under strict orders not to say a word about his father or his illustrious past so naturally I knew nothing about it then. Trepper himself was said to be in a convalescent home at the time.
He was known by one of many aliases – Leopold Trepper – though his real name was Leiba Domb, a Jewish Communist in the 1930s who had become trained by the KGB.
He was sent to run a network of agents in France, Belgium and Berlin where he built up contacts among high German military contacts. The network was known as the Red Orchestra and Trepper was its “conductor”.
He linked up with another KGB spy, Richard Sorge, who, of all things, was based as a German diplomat in Tokyo. Both of them warned the Russians that Hitler was going to invade the Soviet Union – but the Moscow leadership couldn’t believe Hitler would do it, and ignored the warning. Weeks later Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
In the war Trepper, operating from Paris, ran his network which was recognised by British operatives as first class. But late in the war he was caught by the Gestapo, and Hitler, aware of the prize catch, ordered a soft form of detention. Trepper, a top resourceful operator, persuaded the Gestapo to let him go to a dentist in Paris – where he escaped, and saw out the war.
After the war the Russians suspected he was some sort of a double agent – otherwise how could he have escaped from the Gestapo? So on his return to Moscow in 1945 he was slung in the infamous Lubyanka gaol for several years before being released to return to Warsaw.
None of this I knew until his son Michael contacted me in the late 70s and asked me to help publicise his father’s plight – he wanted to retire in Israel but the Polish government under Moscow orders would not let him leave the country.
Martin Short’s natural enthusiasm and nose for a good story meant that he was able to run special pieces in the Daily Mirror along with me and the help of a radical woman lawyer, Wendy Mantle, who was then a partner at a new firm of solicitors set up by Geoffrey Bindman in Holborn, now knighted.
The campaign was successful – and Trepper was allowed to go to Israel. He came to London en route and was checked out medically in St Thomas’s Hospital where I met him for the first and only time. There he was, lying in a hospital bed – a smallish, barrelled-chested, strong-looking man. He thanked me as we spoke a mixture of French, German and Yiddish. We talked for about half-an-hour and said goodbye.
I lost track of him after that as well as his son who, I believe, settled in Sweden.
All this came back to me with the sad death of Martin Short who I met many times over the years. He went on to make riveting TV documentaries but he had an almost a boyish sense of excitement about life that gave him the energy and imagination to help him succeed so brilliantly in his craft.
• One of the best spy books on the subject of Trepper was written by a French journalist Gilles Perrault and is entitled The Red Orchestra. Trepper himself wrote an autobiography The Great Game published in Israel.