My family and other spies
Actress Helen Lederer’s mother was a codebreaker and her grandfather a secret agent. Until recently, that was all she knew
THE ACTRESS Helen Lederer knew from the age of ten that she wanted to act and perform. In a programme to be shown as part of the BBC’s Remembrance Week, she learns about two remarkable members of her family — her grandfather, Arnost, a “secret spy” during the war; and her mother, Jeanne Ablitt, who was a decoder at Bletchley Park. Both, it can be said, were well practised in the art of deception — the actor’s secret weapon.
Ms Lederer was born in Wales to an English mother and a Czech Jewish father, Peter Lederer. No-one in her family spoke about what they had done during the war, despite conspicuous family bravery on the home front.
In Home Front Heroes, Ms Lederer visits the two great British centres of subterfuge, Trent Park in north London and Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.
Trent Park was once a stately home belonging to the Anglo-Jewish aristocrat Sir Philip Sassoon, until it was commandeered by the British government during the Second World War. It became the unlikely residence for a group of high-ranking German prisoners of war, all full of swaggering confidence that the Third Reich would be victorious.
In fact, as Ms Lederer discovers, it was also the headquarters of an extraordinary eavesdropping operation run by the British, in which those who spoke good German listened in to the conversations of the Nazi generals. Hidden microphones and listening devices were installed in the bedrooms and living quarters of an estimated 84 German generals and a number of other staff officers. The intelligence gained by MI19, the British military unit in charge of Trent Park, is said to have shortened the war thanks to their effect on a number of crucial battles.
Ms Lederer’s grandfather, Arnost, was one of the secret listeners. “My family left Czechoslovakia one by one,” says Ms Lederer. “My father, first, then my grandfather, followed by my grandmother and my aunt.” Finally, in 1939, the family, originally from the spa town of Teplice but who had fled from Prague, re-settled in Hampstead.
Her father was sent to a school in Margate, speaking no English when he arrived.
“My grandfather, whom we knew as ‘Big Baba’ — my grandmother was ‘Little Baba’ — joined the Home Guard. But because he spoke good German he was approached by MI19 to come to Trent Park. Every day he left the house in his Home Guard uniform, but my grand- mother didn’t know he was going to listen in on the German officers.”
Meanwhile, over at Bletchley Park, the 21-year-old Jeanne Ablitt was in a hut, decoding top secret messages. “She came from the Isle of Wight and studied history at university, where she was recruited. She made lifelong friends in Bletchley, two of whom she later shared a flat with and who became godmothers to me and my sister.”
In the BBC film, Ms Lederer goes to Bletchley and meets two of the surviving code-breaker women, now in their 90s. “They didn’t know my mother, but they were amazing women and they were all so stoical — they just got on with things and they never talked about what they had done during the war.” Ms Lederer learns about her grandfather’s work from the historian Helen Fry. Now the property company Berkeley Homes is redeveloping the Trent Park site — but it will not just be housing. Ms Lederer is one of seven trustees for a new project at Trent Park: a museum to be dedicated to the work of the wartime secret listeners. The developer is Arnost, Lederer’s grandfather
supporting the project.
On November 11 the actress will be in conversation with historian Trudy Gold at Trent Park to discuss her grandfather’s work in an event to raise funds for the Secret Listeners Museum.
Ms Lederer says she made many discoveries during the programme and only regrets that she did not ask her mother more about her wartime activities. “But it was always brushed aside. Now my sister, I think, is going to be amazed at what we’ve found, and I am so grateful to the historians on the programme who have helped me”.
‘Home Front Heroes’ will be screened daily from November 5-9 on BBC1 at 9am. Helen Lederer’s episode will be shown on November 9
Cracking invention: the codebreaking machine at Bletchley Park below Helen Lederer Lederer’s mother and father on their wedding day