Just when you think you know someone well…
15 June, 2017 — By John Gulliver
MANY of us harbour secrets which we shield from the world.
That is how I shall always think of Renate Simpson.
Tallish, bespectacled, calm, very calm, and a woman I got to know and like, or thought I knew.
Until that day, several years after meeting her for the first time in her Bloomsbury flat, that she casually gave me her sister’s memoir, Sonya’s Report – a sister who had led a double life as a writer as well as an agent for the Soviet Union, first in China, later in England where she passed on atomic secret to Moscow. Her sister’s real name was Ursula, her KGB code-name, Sonya.
Naturally, I was dumb-founded. There hadn’t been a word or a hint that anything like that happened in Renate’s family and, of course, she must have known about it.
Rente was a formidable intellectual in her own right. Her husband Arthur, a marine biologist, and she herself had written several books as well as a translation of a Karl Marx work. Even in the last year of her life – she died four years ago at 89 – she ran off an extraordinary piece of research into the acme of research, the good old PhD!
Renate Simpson with her husband Arthur and their children Ann, Ludi and Robert
But then she came from an extraordinary family – her father Robert, a famous statistician, her brother Jurgen, perhaps even better known as an economist, and a leading intellectual in East Germany whose death a few years ago produced reams of obituaries in the leading German newspapers, her sister Brigitte, a journalist, who lived in Hampstead, a communist and married to a leading trade unionist, Jock Nicholson, and Ursula of course.
All were communists – and espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union seemed to run in the family. Did Renate dabble, I wonder?
Readers may find it an interesting sidelight that Ursula briefly knew someone I helped to extricate from the jaws of Poland in the 1980s, Leiba Domb, perhaps the greatest of all spies in the history of the Second World War, who “conducted” a ring of spies working against the Nazis, known as the Red Orchestra. Leiba – like another Soviet spy, Richard Sorge – warned Stalin that Hitler was about to invade the Soviet Union but they were ignored.
I happened to visit Poland in the early 1960s and stay in Leiba’s flat while he was in a sanatorium.
Years later, his son Michael contacted me and asked me to help get his father out of Poland because of the rise of anti-semitism. The KGB didn’t want him to leave for the West because, they claimed, he held secrets.
I helped to run a publicity campaign about Leiba’s plight with the help of the Daily Mirror and a local solicitor Wendy Mantle who helped to found a firm now headed by Sir Geoffrey Bindman. Leiba was released and I visited him in hospital in London before he left for Israel.
And he, it turned out, had been involved with Renate’s sister.
• A book on Renate Simpson and the family has just been published: A Political Family – The Kucynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War by John Green, published by Routledge. It will soon be reviewed in the New Journal.