TREPPER. "No Regrets"
Leopold Trepper's life of commitment to fighting fascism and serving international socialism went largely unrecognised — until he died, when everyone tried to claim him as one of them.
says Charlie Pottins
Lenin once remarked that it was often the fate of great revolutionaries and fighters for the oppressed to be "canonised" after their death, turried into harmless icons to console and dupe the masses, by those who hated and pilloried everything they had stood for when alive. Were he able to look down from the beyond on his own mausoleum in Moscow, he would often have seen ample confirmation for that aphorism!
When Leopold Trepper died in Jerusalem in 1982 and it was reported that Israel had awarded him a posthumous medal, presented to his widow Luba by Ariel Sharon, it brought to mind once more Lenin's prescient observation.
Claimed alternately in Socialist Worker as "one of us" and by the Jewish Chronicle as having been "a Zionist almost in spite of himself", Trepper was truly neither. The wartime chief of the famous "Red Orchestra" spy network was a lifelong socialist, a proud and devoted fighter for the Jewish people and a firm internationalist. His heroic and brilliant activity as an anti-Nazi master spy certainly deserves recognition from the Jewish people; but he and his wife and comrade Luba also deserve something better than a medal from the soiled hands of Ariel Sharon!
On the Road to Socialism
Leopold Trepper's life and outlook might be summed up by the remark with which he opened a chapter in his book The Great Game (1977): "I became a Communist because I am a Jew".
Like many of his generation and background, as a youth Trepper had been drawn almost instinctively to the side of the October Revolution and the cause of socialism. For him the year 1917 had also seen, after the loss of a brother in the World War, the early death of his father from overwork and poverty. Trepper felt repugnance for the religion of the Rabbi who preached acceptance of one's fate and the will of "the Almighty".
"Instead of being fed, the people were crammed full of opium. I found out this truth not from reading Marx, whom I had never heard of, but from life in rural Poland — a good book for anyone who wanted to learn."
From this point on, the young Leopold Trepper became convinced that humanity must solve its own problems, and the Jewish problem with them — and not by prayer. His encounters with antisemitism and class struggle hardened his will to fight.
The long and winding road which was to take this boy from the poverty-stricken Galician town of Novy-Targ, by way of both Nazi and Stalinist prison cells, to his death in Jerusalem, first landed him on the shore of Palestine in 1924, as a chalutz (pioneer) and militant of Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist Zionist youth movement. The youthful ideal of creating a new Jew in a socialist Israel soon brought him and his comrades into conflict with the British Mandate and with the Zionist bourgeoisie and the Histadrut (Jewish trade union) leadership, too.
The young Jewish workers and pioneers were confronted with the difficult question of what to do about Arab labour. Leaders like Ben Gurion and Golda Meir saw their task as getting rid of the "problem", taking the path of separatism and national conflict, worker against worker. Trepper and others like him chose the harder, less "realistic" way, striving to achieve Arab-Jewish unity in a spirit of working class internationalism. They were increasingly isolated, attacked on all sides, and ultimately defeated. We are still paying the price of that defeat today. But we can take some inspiration from the courage and resolve of these early Palestine Communists who tried.
The hardship of victimisation, unemployment, repression, imprisonment by the British in Acre's medieval dungeons, deportation and the wandering life of a political exile, all strengthened Leopold Trepper's reolutionary commitment. In Paris, he worked tirelessly to organise the Jewish workers, launched a Yiddish community newspaper, took part in cultural work, and mobilised immigrant Jews into anti-fascist activity. Luba, who joined him after being hounded by the police in Palestine, was equally active, and represented the Party's Jewish section at the big 1931 anti-fascist congress.
As Trepper frankly acknowledges, during this period he also loyally carried out the Party's orders to combat the Trotskyists, whose influence he says "was very strong among Jewish communists."
Forced again to move by police repression, the Treppers went to the Soviet Union in 1932. At this time, there seemed much to bear out the high hopes he had placed on Soviet Communism. He saw a lively Jewish culture growing from the new life of Jewish workers and thriving Jewish collective farms and districts where Yiddish had become the official language. Five or six Jewish daily papers, Jewish writers published in editions of millions, university courses in Jewish literature, and Jewish students freed from the old discrimination, graduating to make their contribution to Soviet science and arts. From being synonymous with antisemitism and pogroms, the new Russia was becoming a serious contender with "the Promised Land" for Jewish aspirations.
But these fruits of Revolution were not to last.
A new counter-revolutionary wave, and new "Black Hundredism" was about to be launched by the Stalin regime. Trepper in his book faithfully records the fate of his old friends. and inspirers who perished in the Stalin purges, like Daniel Averbuch, a leader first of the Left Poale Zion and then of the Palestine Communist Party, who was recalled to Moscow and died in the Lubianka.
He describes how Esther Frumkin, once spokesperson for the Communist fraction of the Bund, and rector of the Marchlevski University for national minorities which Trepper attended, was sentenced to death on trumped-up charges in 1937. He recalls also the words of Averbuch's son: "My father was accused of being a counterrevolutionary, but I say that it is the leaders of the country, starting with Stalin, who are the real counterrevolutionaries". He too ended up in a Stalinist camp, as did most of the Averbuch family.
Although he was naturally closest to the Jewish victims and saw the devastating effect of this period on Jewish life, Trepper does not separate this from what was happening to the Soviet Union and international communism in general. His book refers to the frame-ups of old Bolshevik leaders and Red Army generals, and to the grim fate of German, Polish, Bulgarian and other communists who fell victim. Thus, while his feeling for the Jewish people is not in question, it is free from the narrow outlook which led others to merely see in this period reinforcement for their own prejudices and to draw reactionary conclusions.
He is unforgiving to those who pretended they knew nothing until Khruschev's 1956 "revelations", but who were, in reality, "knowing accomplices of the liquidations, including those of members of their own parties." (a charge that applies to the British CP leaders, for example). Less fairly, one feels, he even accuses himself among those who did not rise up and who share responsibility.
"But who did protest at that time?" he asks, ''Who rose up to voice his outrage?".
"The Trotskyites can lay claim to this honour," Trepper answers, "following the example of their leader who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice-axe, they fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did."
In a remarkable tribute to those who were, after all, once his political opponents, Trepper praises the bravery of the Trotskyists who defied Stalin, even in the Siberian camps, going on to say:
"Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled with the wolves. Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed. They did not "confess" for they knew that their confession would serve neither the party nor socialism."
At War with Hitler
Leopold Trepper earned his place in history through activity in which his role and name had to be kept concealed, of course, and in which one mistake or indiscretion could mean death for himself and others. It required selfless dedication, courage, constant alertness and self-discipline. If his years of hard work and clandestine international activity had provided an apprenticeship, then his powerful desire to do something against Adolf Hitler was sufficient motivation. When General Jan Berzin of Red Army intelligence (himself to be a victim of Stalin's inquisition) approached Trepper with the opportunity to leave Russia and continue working for Socialism, the Jewish communist from Galicia did not hesitate: here was his great opportunity, he said, to fight the Nazis.
Fight them he certainly did. His network, a veritable "International Brigade" of dedicated agents, penetrated right into the heart of the Nazi state for its secrets. Hidden radio transmitters nightly relayed their information back to the Soviet Union. -on the latest German tank. the
Nazis' forces in Western Europe, the state of the Italian army. Relentlessly the Gestapo sought to silence this "Red Orchestra" and above all, to track down "the Chief". But even after capture, Trepper managed to outwit them and continue in the game.
His greatest scoop, however, shared to an extent with his lone colleague in Tokyo, Richard Sorge, was the one the Soviet leadership ignored: the warning of Hitler's invasion plans, of "Barbarossa". The all-powerful and brilliant genius Stalin knew better, his lackeys dared not contradict him and twenty million Soviet citizens were left to pay for the Great Leader's little "mistake". For that and for the previous murder of the Red Army's officer cadre - at which Hitler had openly rejoiced. The purges had also hit the Soviet intelligence service badly -Trepper's network was compromised and exposed to Gestapo attention largely through the stupidity and ineptitude of those Stalin proteges who had replaced men like Berzin.
Unlike Sorge, who was executed by the Japanese, Trepper survived the War, and to embarrass the Soviet leaders with what he knew. His return to Moscow brought him "postgraduate study" in the cells of the Lubianka and Lefortovo prisons, to further his knowledge of Stalinism. Not till 1955 was he released, and granted a Soviet pension. But Trepper's odyssey was still not over.
Disappointments, But No Regrets
In 1957 Leopold Trepper returned to Poland where he aimed to serve the remnant of Polish Jewry. There were the Warsaw Ghetto revolt commemorations; a post at the Yiddish Buch publishing house and then as president of the Jewish Social and Cultural Association. Most of the Jews of Novy-Targ, including many of Trepper's family, were in a mass grave. But antisemitism was not yet dead or buried. The veteran fascist Piasecki was alive and well and rumoured now to be a Soviet agent. There was a new figure looming from the security police, General Moczar.
In 1967, and more so in response to the student unrest of 1968, the new regime resorted to the tried weapon of old:
In 1967, and more so in response to the student unrest of 1968, the new regime resorted to the tried weapon of old:
"Yes", wrote Trepper, "more than 25 years after the end of the war, in the country of the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Jews had suffered more than anywhere else from Nazi barbarity, and under a regime that called itself socialist, the monster of antisemitism was rising from its ashes."
Against this background, the Treppers waged a long fight for permission to leave the country, winning international support as their case became known. It was, he would write, the "last and most painful battle of my life."
I have in front of me a photograph of Luba Brojde, taken in 1973 when the couple were in Denmark. It is the face of a woman who has fought and suffered, a tough face — but with all the warmth and irreverent good-humour that neither suffering nor oppressors could defeat. From Trepper's account, as a young and beautiful girl when they first met, Luba was not only a "born rebel" but one with a mischievous sense of humour; no respecter of authority. Having early in her career spent two periods in jail at the hands of the Palestine Mandate and the Jewish police, at a time when the Zionist Establishment regarded her and Trepper as outcasts, perhaps Luba sees a funny side to getting a medal now from the Israeli authorities!
For Trepper, who regarded the period when he was outwitting the Nazis and in constant danger as the finest hour of his life ("if I had to start all over again, I would do so with joy", he declared) perhaps an equally gratifying tribute came soon after he had left Poland, though it was unintended as such. The French security authorities deemed him still a dangerous character who must not be admitted to France.
Leopold Trepper epitomised a generation of Jewish militants won to the communist cause when the Russian Revolution was still young and uncorrupted. Despite all the pain and bitter betrayals, he never deserted the cause to which he had committed himself in youth, that of the Jewish people, of humanity and of socialism. He remained firm in his principles, and frank in his willingness to render a true account of what he had seen, however painful.
In 1973 at a meeting in Denmark he was asked whether he had not sacrificed his life for nothing. "No," replied Trepper. And he adds in his book:
"No, on one condition: that people understand the lesson of my life as a communist and a revolutionary, and do not turn themselves over to a deified party. 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."
We must pay tribute to Trepper, not as a dead hero, but as living inspiration for those of us who must take up the struggle he waged. If we can recognise the continuity, if we can learn as much as possible from the lives of fighters like Trepper, this will not only be the finest tribute, but a vital asset in our own struggles, today and tomorrow.
(first published in Jewish Socialist No.4, Winter 1985-6)