Joseph Hansen

How the GPU Murdered Ignace Reiss

The Swiss Police Caught One of the GPU Agents Involved and Solved the Crime

(February 1941)

Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 8, 22 February 1941, p. 3.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2015 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2015; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

On September 4, 1937, the Swiss police found the body of a well-dressed man on the Chamblandes road not far from Lausanne. His body was riddled with machine gun slugs. His hand clutched a few strands of gray hair. A Czecho-Slovakian passport in his pocket gave his name as Hans Eberhardt.

This name was already known to the Swiss police. An anonymous denunciation of Eberhardt as a “trafficker in drugs” had been sent previously to police headquarters.

The wife of the victim identified the body. He was Ignace Reiss. He had been a member of the Communist Party of the USSR, a high functionary of the GPU,decorated with the Order of the Red Flag. On June 27 of that year he had broken from the GPU, announced his decision to join the Fourth International, and gone into hiding to escape the GPU killers. The denunciation which had been sent to the Swiss police revealed facts concerning the aliases Reiss had used in line with his GPU duties – facts known only to his superiors in the GPU.

The automobile which had been used in the crime, a Chevrolet, was discovered. It had been rented from a garage by a woman named Renata Steiner. In the automobile, an overcoat was found bearing the label of a Madrid store.

Already at that time the GPU had launched its campaign of murder against anti-fascist militants in the Spanish Loyalist ranks who opposed Stalinism.

Many Loyalist veterans were drawn into the GPU ranks, as was later proved in the spectacular confessions of the Loyalist veterans who participated in the GPU machine gun raid on Trotsky’s bedroom on May 4, 1940.

The Assassins Identified

Police were soon able to positively identify one of the assassins of Reiss: Gertrude Schildbach. In her hotel room the police found papers, photographs, and a box of chocolates which had been treated with strychnine. These chocolates had evidently been intended for the Reiss family. The strands of hair ound clutched in the hand of the dead man were proved hy the police to be from the head of Schildbach. It was she who had lured Reiss into the trap, posing as sympathetic with his break from Stalinism, Schildbach had been brought into the Communist movement by Reiss and had worked with him in the GPU for years.

The police next uncovered the fact that Schildbach had not been alone in the hotel. In the room next to hers – he had arrived at the same time and they had asked for connecting rooms – a man had registered under the name of François Rossi. They later discovered his real name to be Roland Abbiat, a citizen of Monaco, born in London August 15, 1905. In his baggage, which like that of Schildbach had been left behind, the police discovered a map of Mexico City and the suburb where Trotsky was living, The authorities revealed later that the Russian consulate in Lausanne had previously applied three times for a passport in the name of “Rossi” with his destination listed as Mexico.

The “inseparable friend” of Abbiat, according to the police, was a man named Etienne Charles Martignat, born in 1900 at Culhat, France, who had been formerly employed in a gas factory, and who was accustomed to spend far more than he earned, apparently having a secret source of income.

The First Arrest

The first to be captured was Renata Steiner, who had rented the death car. She was 29 at the time of her arrest. Not as hard, yet, as a Jacson, she finally agreed to talk.

Converted to Stalinism after 1931, she had been to Moscow in 1934 and again in 1935. In 1936 she was offered work by the Soviet consulate in Paris, which sent her to the “Union for the Repatriation of Russians in Russia” (12, rue de Buic,Paris VIe). This was a cover name for a nest of GPU agents. Here she became intimate with Pierre Schwarzenberg, who introduced her to Serge Efron, GPU agent who posed as a Russian journalist. Schwarzenberg soon left Paris for Spain and was not heard from again. Steiner received her pay from Serge Efron. One of her first assignments was to trail Leon Sedov and his wife.

At various times she worked under the direction of Serge Efron on GPU assignments with Marcel Rollin (alias Dimitri Smirensky, born October 24, 1897, in Russia) with “Bob” (Pierre-Louis Ducomet, a Frenchman born January 18, 1902) -with Francois Rossi (Abbiat) and with three other GPU agents whom she knew under the names of “Michel,” “Andre,” and “Leo” (or “Adolphe”). Among the assignments this group carried out, besides trailing Leon Sedov, were the trailing of Reiss and of his friend in Holland, H. Sneevliet.

Others involved in the crime were the Grosovsky couple and Beletzky, posing as employees of Representation Commerciale Sovietique in Paris, but in reality important GPU agents in Paris. On July 17, 1937, Reisa had informed these people, with whom he had worked many years, of his break with Stalin.

How the GPU Murdered Reiss

The Swiss police were now able to reconstruct the crime from the beginning.

Reiss had been suspected by the GPU heads of “deviations” during the height of the 1937 purge. Michel Spiegelglass, sub-chief of the Foreign Service of the GPU, was in Paris when Reiss decided to write his letter of rupture. Normally it would have gone directly to Moscow, but Spiegelglass, suspicious, obtained it within an hour after its dispatch. The same night Spiegelglass called a conference of a few high GPU functionaries and they decided that Reiss must be killed.

Reiss, however, received a warning from someone in the GPU service. This warning consisted of ringing his telephone several times during the night. Each time Reiss lifted the receiver, the line went dead. Reiss understood. He left Paris at once.

The GPU set out immediately to track him down. Ducomet, traveling with a false passport bearing the name of Woklav Cadek, left with Smirensky for Holland to keep watch on Sneevliet with whom they expected Reiss would maintain contact.

At the beginning of August, Renata Steiner and Smirensky, leaving Ducomet in Amsterdam, followed a lead to a house near Versailles, where they stayed four or five days waiting for Reiss to appear.

On August 25, “Michel” made an appointment with Renata Steiner in a cafe in the Place d’ltalie at Paris. A Russian 30 or 35 years old met them. He called himself “Leo.” The next day she met Leo again and with him “Rossi,” who told her to go to Berne, Switzerland, and await orders.

On August 28, Leo saw her off on the train, giving her a letter to deliver, a box of chocolates, and a tube of what appeared to be pills.

Rossi met her in Berne on August 29. She gave him the things Leo had sent, and acting under Rossi’s instructions took a room in the City Hotel and then rented a Chevrolet from the Casino garage.

On September 1, Rossi sent Renata Steiner back to Paris to deliver a letter to Leo.

Leo met her in Paris on September 2 at the cafe in the Place d’ltalie, read the letter she brought, and immediately wrote a reply for her to deliver to Rossi.

On September 3, at 8 o’clock, Renata Steiner met Rossi at the railway station in Berne. They left in the Chevrolet together with Gertrude Schildbach, whom Steiner now met for the first time. They traveled as far as Martigny. From this point, Renata Steiner was sent alone to Finhaut to watch for Ignace Reiss.

On Saturday, September 4, at the Finhaut railway station she saw Reins accompanied by his wife and child. She immediateoly telephoned to Rossi’s room in Lausanne.

Gertrude Schildbach answered the telephone. “Uncle has left,” said Renata Steiner.

Rossi came to the telephone and told Steiner to come immediately to Lausanne. When she reached Lausanne, Rossi sent her to Territet to search for the house where Mrs. Reiss was staying.

Unsuccessful at Territet, Steiner tried to telephone Rossi, but was unable to get any response to repeated ringing of his room. On September 5, she saw Mrs. Reiss and trailed her to her home. Again she tried Rossi’s room without response. On September 6 she read of the crime at Chamblandes, but “attached no importance to it.” On the 7th, she began to wonder and wrote to Paris for instructions. On the 8th the police arrested her.

A “Friend” Betrayed Reiss

In response to a letter from Reiss, announcing his split from Stalin, Gertrude Schildhach had written a sympathetic response. She came up from Rome where she was stationed to talk with Reiss. A woman, 43 years of age, she was rather short and masculine in appearance, wore glasses, dressed plainly, had graying hair. Her maiden name was Neugebauer; she was born in Germany. For twenty years she had worked with Reiss. At the time Zinoviev and Kamenev were shot, Schildbach had wept in talking about it with Reiss.

Schildbach arrived in Switzerland on September 3. She told Reiss that she was in absolute agreement with him, that she would break with the GPU, but did not know what to do in the future. Reiss told her that it was necessary to make a sharp break with the past and to join the Fourth International.

She asked Reiss to have dinner with her the following night, Saturday. Reins told her in a joking way, that he was without money. This was no obstacle to Schildbach. She had enough money and invited him to have dinner at her expense. Reiss agreed, although he told his wife that Schildbach, despite their long friendship, had produced in him a very strange and incomprehensible impression.

The police established that Reiss and Schildbach had dinner together and than left the restaurant. As it was quite late, the streets were deserted. They intended to take a taxi, but an automobile drove up. A man sprang out and struck Reiss on the head with a blackjack. Then they shoved him into the car. Reiss fought desperately before they succeeded in killing .him. In his hand were wisps of Schildbach’s hair when police discovered his body.

Besides those already involved, the police established that the GPU had prepared a second line of attack in case the first failed. GPU agents were stationed at Martigny and Mont-Sacconex under the direction of Vadime Kondratiev, an ex-White Guard.

Kondratiev had been stopped by the police at the Lausanne railway station. Marshall Petain was arriving from France to view the maneuvers of the Swiss army and all people in the station were checked. His passport was apparently in order, and they permitted him to continue his pacing back and forth not far from a Chevrolet with the license plates BE-20-662 (the plates of the car in which Schlldbach drove up to the hotel to rent a room, the same car in which the murder was committed later that day). At nine o’clock in the evening of September 4, Kondratiev had received a telegram from the Hotel Suisse in Martigny which read: “You are free; return home.” Police were able to trace his movements until September 9, when he disappeared.

The “Laxity” of the French Police

The Swiss police considered that they had enough evidence to convict Grosovsky, his wife Lydia, and Beletzky, three agents of the GPU stationed at the Representation Commerciale Sovietique in Paris; and they requested the Paris police to arrest them and hold them for extraditions on the charge of complicity in the murder of Reiss.

Grosovsky had already fled to the Soviet Union, however. Beletzky was questioned once by the police without their securing any information. He did not wait to be questioned a second time, but disappeared. Lydia Grosovsky was detained by the police and held for extradition.

But contrary to all precedent, and without permitting it to leak out into the press until much later, the Paris court in charge of the case released Lydia Grosovsky on bail of 50,000 francs. The Swiss authorities protested vigorously. They had already asked the French police to arrest GPU agents Gertrude Schildbach, Schwarzenberg, Spiegelglass, Serge Efron, Knepyguine, Grosovsky, Beletzsky as well as the others traced to the French border. Now the one GPU agent whom the French police had succeeded in arresting was permitted to go free! She was naturally never seen again.

The “laxity” of the French authorities was due to pressure from Moscow and the anxiety of the French government to keep in the good graces of Stalin in view of the growing threat from Hitler – this was at the time of the Franco-Soviet pact. From the viewpoint of the “democrats” at the the helm of the French state, it would have been poor diplomacy to permit the Swiss authorities to question the GPU agents who had been plotting murder on French soil.

The Plot Against Trotsky and His Son

The Swiss police also established that preparation were under way by this same group of GPU agents to murder Leon Trotsky and his son, Leon Sedov. The discovery or the map of Mexico City in the room of Abbiat and the three attempts of the Soviet consulate in Switzerland to obtain a passport for him to Mexico under the name of “Rossi” have already been mentioned. Abbiat, Serge Efron, Renata Steiner, Ducomet, Schwarzenberg, and Smirensky had also been trailing Sedov since 1936. They had succeeded in in striking up an acquaintance with Sedov and his wife and made daily reports to Smirensky on the progress of this budding friendship,

In January 1937 Sedov arranged to meet a lawyer, who was defending Trotsky against the defamation of the Stalinists in the Swiss press, at the small French town of Mulhouse. Ducomet, Smireneky, and Renata Steiner were sent to Mulhouse by Serge Efron to wait for Sedov. They took rooms in separate hotels and waited one week for Sedov to keep the appointment. At the end of eight days, Efron told them to return. Sedov had postponed the trip due to illness, and thus had escaped the GPU trap. But not for long. On February 16, 1938, he was dead – finished off in a private Paris hospital.

In a series of letters to the French authorities, Trotsky established the amazing “laxity” of the French police in their perfunctory investigation of Sedov’s death, showed that the very minor illness for which Sedov was being treated could not explain his sudden death, that Sedov’s entry into the hospital under a pseudonym had been discovered by a Stalinist Doctor, that the hospital had links with, the GPU, etc. etc. All in vain. The French authorities refused to investigate further. It was still the honeymoon of the Franco-Soviet pact,

A few months later, the same thing happened when Rudolph Klement, secretary of the Fourth International, kidnapped on July 13, 1938, was found, dismembered, in the Seine. There were many clues. French “democracy” would not pursue them – precisely because as in the Reiss case, the Swiss investigation had led to the doors of Soviet institutions abroad, like the Representation Commerciale Sovietique in Paris, and to Soviet agents of the GPU.


Last updated on: 3 October 2015