The Arty Semite

World War II 'Secret Listeners' Revealed

By Anne Joseph

Secret listener Fritz Lustig was told by his commanding officer that his job was “more important for the war effort than firing a machine gun or driving a tank.” Recruited by British intelligence during the Second World War, listeners — who were Austrian or German refugees — monitored, recorded and made detailed transcripts of private conversations between Nazi prisoners of war in the U.K. The listeners’ primary motive was to elicit military, naval and air force information. Lustig, a former cellist and an ex-German Jewish refugee, now 93, was talking about his experience at a recent event held at London’s Jewish Museum.

The event was the second phase of “The Secret Listeners,” a British Heritage Lottery-funded learning project. Initiated by playwright and theater director Julia Pascal, the first phase took place last summer at Trent Park, a former mansion in north London, where Charlie Chaplin and T.E. Lawrence had once been houseguests. Volunteers, who had been mentored by theater and arts professionals, explored the secret work in a site-specific performance using material from recorded conversations.

Between 1942 and 1945, Trent Park had been used to imprison high-ranking Nazi officers, who were purposefully allowed to lead a comfortable existence, which included use of the house’s outdoor swimming pool. The British plan had been to make the POWs feel relaxed enough to discuss sensitive matters between themselves, unaware that their quarters were bugged. Microphones were located in flowerpots, a snooker table, and even in trees within the extensive grounds where the inmates were permitted to walk. Unbeknownst to them, listeners were stationed in the mansion’s basement.

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