Trepper was no ordinary dental patient. The Germans had spent the last two years frantically looking for him, and that day in 1942 was a cause for celebration at Gestapo Headquarters in Berlin. Why? Because LéopoldTrepper (a Polish Jew) was the head of the Soviet spy ring in Paris which the Germans had nicknamed Die Rote Kapelle (The Red Orchestra) - and which had caused them much grief since the beginning of the war.
The Dance Begins
The Gestapo had nicknamed Trepper "The Big Chief" - and once captured he was treated with 'kid gloves' because their goal was to have him switch sides and work for the Nazis. So Trepper was not tortured for information, as so many others before had been.
He was taken to Gestapo Headquarters in Paris and given a fairly comfortable room - under close supervision - and the process of wooing him to their side began. For if the Gestapo could win him over, then they could feed the Soviets false information through Trepper and turn their own tool against them.
Realizing the Nazis were more interested in trying to flip his loyalties than in killing him, Trepper played along, giving them just enough information to let them think they were winning this high-stakes game. But he realized that his ruse of cooperation could not last forever; that he would have to escape before his usefulness expired, for once that happened, his days of relative comfort would be at an end.
As time went on, both jailers and the jailed became more at-ease with each other. His Gestapo handlers began to relax a bit - and they started working together in an atmosphere of, if not friendship, then of grudging collegiality. In-fact, one of the Gestapo agents had somewhat befriended him, and they often sat talking together for hours over a bottle of cognac - talking shop.
The agent drank a lot - and had confided that he suffered from horrible hangovers that nothing seemed to relieve. Trepper kept telling him of a "miracle cure" for hangovers he knew of - but it could only be procured at one particular pharmacy in Paris. He occasionally told the agent, "One day I'll take you there."
And sure enough, one day in September 1943 the Gestapo agent was suffering a particularly bad hangover, and he suggested that they go to the pharmacy Trepper had mentioned. It was called Pharmacie Bailly, near the Gare St. Lazare, and Trepper had chosen it because it occupied a very special location.
It was situated in a corner building and had entrances (and exits) on two completely different streets - the one not visible from the other. His original plan had been, once inside, to hit the agent over the head and bolt out the other door, so that those waiting in the car outside would not see him, and escape. But as luck would have it, this proved unnecessary.
As the car pulled-up to the pharmacy entrance on the Rue de Rome that day, just Trepper, the agent with the hangover, and a driver were inside. They stopped in front of the door, at which point the Gestapo agent (who was feeling too ill to even walk-in) told Trepper to go inside, retrieve the medication, and then come right back out - to which Trepper replied "okay".
Trepper then walked into the pharmacy, crossed through the busy interior to the other door on Rue du Rocher - walked out - and disappeared. Once the Gestapo agent realized what had happened he brought in troops to search the entire building and neighborhood - but The Big Chief was gone - and he remained in hiding till the liberation of Paris in August 1944.
A Parisian Time Capsule
As remarkable as this story is - I discovered something almost equally so the day I set out to see this corner in Paris. I simply wanted to see the area where this daring escape had occurred - but as I approached the corner I could hardly believe my eyes. There stood not just the same building - but to my great surprise - the Pharmacie Bailly itself was still there!
I stood for a long time staring at the pharmacy - imagining Trepper walking in one door - and - heart pounding - out the other. And my heart was pounding too as I walked into the pharmacy - stood silently and absorbed the atmosphere - and then followed his path out the other side - all the while attracting curious looks from the employees inside.
By the way - Trepper died in Israel in 1982 - long outliving his Gestapo captors.