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 Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY JENNI FRAZER

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

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