I was unaware that women were sent behind enemy lines by the Allied powers as spies and “guerrilla” fighters in WWII. But they were. Thirty-nine out of the 400 agents who were sent to German occupied France by Britain in preparation for the D-Day invasion, were women. All 400 were sent there by a woman named Vera Atkins who worked under Lieut.-Col. Maurice Buckmaster. 

In 1941 Atkins was recruited by the London office of Britain’s newest secret service: The Special Operations Executive or SOE. “SOE was to develop a secret war: building up, organizing, and arming a resistance army from the peoples of the Nazi-occupied countries” (Helms Loc 171). SOE was organized into sections by country. Atkins was recruited for the French section. In A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, author Sarah Helms writes of Atkins:

“By the end of the war she had become, in the words of a senior colleague, ‘really the most powerful personality in the SOE’.

     Vera … coordinated the preparation of more than four hundred secret agents who were to be dropped into France. She had knowledge of every secret mission, shared in the handling of each agent in the field, and had sole responsibility for the personal affairs of every one of her ‘friends,’ as she called the agents. The majority of these she saw off personally on their missions. She was most intimately associated with the women agents, her ‘girls’” (Loc 194).

It has more recently been revealed that Atkins was offering intelligence about the Germans to the British as early as the 1930s while still living in Bucharest. 

Of this early recruitment, Wiki reports that:

“Atkins was recruited before the war by Canadian spymaster William Stephenson of British Security Coordination. He sent her on fact-finding missions across Europe to supply Winston Churchill (then in the ‘political wilderness’) with intelligence on the rising threat of Nazi Germany”( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vera_Atkins).

When the war ended, Vera Atkins committed her time and energy to discovering what happened to every single one of her agents who did not return. She traveled to France and Germany to interview locals, Germans who worked in the prison and concentration camps, witnesses who were in the camps, and Nazi guards and leaders of the camps (including participating in the trials at Nuremberg), until she was able to piece together the details of what happened to each one of them.

Once answers were attained, she made sure the families were notified and properly compensated. Then she began the work of honoring the missing and murdered agents with ceremonies and monuments. 

 “When, after the war, more than a hundred of those agents had not returned, Vera launched and carried out almost single-handedly a search to establish what had become of them. On the first ‘missing’ lists were sixteen women.

 Across the chaos of bombed-out Germany she followed the agents’ trails to the concentration camps and helped track down many of the Germans who had captured and killed them. She gave evidence at Nazi war crimes trials, and the French awarded her the Croix de Guerre in 1948 and the Légion d’Honneur in 1995. The British, by contrast, waited until 1997 to honor Vera Atkins, finally making her a Commander of the British Empire”(Helms Loc 194).

Vera (Atkins) Rosenberg

Atkins was a mystery to many. A strong, single-focused woman — unmarried, child free — who rose into positions that were only available to men. Smear campaigns and conspiracy theories have been lobbed against her, accusations and rumors have surrounded her. Time and time again her motivations are questioned. Atkins maintained her reputation, staying grounded and protective of her personal life. Her feelings she did not display publicly, leading some to call her “cold” and “male,” “aggressive” and “calculating.” 

A Jewish Woman

I want to highlight an important piece of information in this post that is often buried or thrown in casually in stories about Vera Atkins as: “Oh by the way, she was Jewish.”

When I reflect on this woman’s life, this woman’s job, this woman’s mission, how this woman behaved, it all seems to be motivated by that fact. Vera Atkins doesn’t seem mysterious to me at all.

She wanted to fight the Nazis. Why is it hard for people to understand this as her motivation? After the war, she wanted to find her agents but she also wanted to hunt Nazis. It’s a no brainer.

Describing her arrival at Bad Oeynhsauser to begin investigations into war crimes, biographer Helms writes:

“On January 9, 1946 when Vera arrived in Bad Oeynhausen to take up her post, she was shown to her billet, a bare and extremely cold room in a villa, and then to her office in a similar house nearby. The office had a chair and a desk, on which were an Anglepoise lamp and an upturned foil tin for an ashtray. On the wall was a large map of Germany. …Vera spent her first few days becoming acquainted with the war crimes legal staff and the all-important Haystack men. Haystack was the name of a group of highly motivated Nazi hunters, mostly volunteer German or Austrian exiles, usually Jewish, who were capable of ‘finding a needle in a haystack’ by tracking Nazi war crimes suspects hiding out in the German hills or mountains or, just as likely, amid the rubble of bombed cities” (214).

“Highly motivated Nazi hunters…usually Jewish.” Well, Atkins was Jewish too. She fit in with them, got along with them, worked well with them. Yes. She was one of them, motivated by the same things. 

There is a strange disconnect in the questions, conversations and confusion around Atkins’ motivations. Was it because Atkins didn’t broadcast her Jewishness, perhaps? Or maybe people don’t think women have the same motivations for retaliation and hunting war criminals as men? Is it because she did not sentimentalize or openly emote about it?

It is often said of Vera Atkins that she wanted more than anything to be British as though that is some status grubbing positioning on her part. She had fled Romania and had no country. Her security in Britain was precarious because of that. Of course she wanted citizenship. 

Vera Atkins was of the generation where being Jewish wasn’t something you went around announcing— because you could, well,  get killed. Most Jews had decided years and even generations earlier to hide that fact about themselves. Antisemitism didn’t begin and end with WWII. It began long before and continues long after. Because Atkins was so secretive (yeah, she was a spy so…) and she was not forthcoming with information and data when inquiring minds wanted to know, we cannot quote her or say for sure but we do know that she was really, really invested in fighting the Nazis.

History cannot understand, accept and give proper due to ambitious women. History and the people who tell, record and repeat history are befuddled by them. That is because of the small piece of missing information in the word His-story. Her-story is left out. Women are generally not allowed, or included, and when they are, they are looked at as aberrations, monsters or abominations. Why is this woman standing out and taking up space in His-story? She must be some kind of freak. There has to be something fundamentally wrong with her (she is not acting like a woman), or she must have had a huge secret. And now let’s go look for it. This is the way history is told about women. If Vera Atkins were judged in the same standards of a man, no one would be asking any of these questions. And I don’t believe they would overlook the vital piece of information that could explain everything about this woman’s biography. 

Vera Atkins is a  Romanian Jewish woman who fought the Nazis with everything she had. If all the stories about her led with this, there would be far less “mystery” around Vera Atkins. I argue my point:

She was Vera Rosenberg

Vera Atkins was Vera Rosenberg, born in Galatz, Romania on the Danube Delta in 1908. Here’s the report on Jews in Galatz from Jewishgen.org

Galaţi is a port on the River Danube in Moldavia in Eastern Romania where Jews first settled at the end of the sixteenth century. The Chevra Kadisha administered Jewish communal life starting in the eighteenth century. A 1796 blood libel prompted atrocities against the Galaţi Jews. In 1812, Greek revolutionaries burned several synagogues, as did local Greeks again in 1842. A 1846 pogrom saw synagogues looted and Jewish houses and shops destroyed. The 14 April 1859 Blood Libel pogrom resulted in many Jewish deaths. In 1867, among others expelled from Romania, a number of Jews drowned in the Danube near Galaţi, provoking Europe-wide protest. Finally, Jewish bakers, refusing to break the strike of their fellow workers and party members in 1893, were expelled.

The remaining Synagogue in Galatz, Romania. Photo by Arie Inbar



Before World War II, twenty-two synagogues, a kindergarten, two elementary schools for boys and one for girls, a secondary school, a trade school, a hospital, an orphanage, an old-age home, and two mikvahs served the Jewish community. (https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/galati/Galatz_history.htm).

Helms does an amazing job hunting down and recovering Vera Atkins’  genealogy. On a trip to Galatz in search of Atkins’ roots, she locates “the only remaining synagogue, surrounded by iron bars”(144).

The Synagogue in Kassel that was destroyed in 1938


Atkins’ Father’s side

Atkins’ father, Maximilian Rosenberg, was born in Kassel, Germany in 1874. The Rosenbergs, farmers and traders, had  lived near Kassel for several generations. Here’s what happened to them.

“In 1905, 2,445 Jews lived in Kassel, 2,750 (1.62% of the total) in 1925, and 2,301 (1.31%) in June 1933.

     On November 7, 1938, two days before the start of Kristallnacht, the main synagogue was set on fire, but the local firemen extinguished the blaze, something that they were explicitly instructed not to do on Kristallnacht. Two days later, the Liberal synagogue was burned down and the Orthodox synagogue destroyed, and a completed manuscript of the second volume of the history of the Jews in Kassel, prepared under community auspices, was destroyed, as later were all records on emigration and deportation. Three hundred Jews including the rabbi were sent to Buchenwald and 560 Jews emigrated over the next year. As to the remaining Jews, 470 were deported to Riga in 1941, 99 to Majdanek in 1942, and 323 to Theresienstadt that year. In 1945–46, 200 Jews (mainly Displaced Persons) lived in Kassel, 102 in 1955, 73 in 1959, and 106 in 1970” (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/kassel).

Max left Kassel in his twenties and moved to South Africa where he worked for a man named Henry Atkins. There he met the woman who would become Vera’s mother, Hilda, Henry’s daughter.

Members of the Jewish self-defence organization in Gomel, 1920
Photo Collection of Ghetto Fighters’ House

Vera Atkins’ mother’s side

“Vera’s maternal great-grandfather was born in 1766 in Gomel, Belorussia as Jehudah Etkins (or perhaps Etkin or Etkind). Jehudah’s children, including Vera’s grandfather, Henry (formerly Heinrich and before that Hirsh Zvi) Etkins, were also born in Gomel. This isolated town near Chernobyl, north of Kiev and southeast of Minsk, was, by the nineteenth century in the heart of the Pale of Settlement, where the majority of Russian’s Jews were forced to live by the tsars, trapped in towns and shtetls. As many as twenty thousand Jews lived in Gomel in the nineteenth century, which was half its total population, and when, in the late nineteenth century, pograms became a common occurrence, the Etkins family began to flee. Henry left from Odessa in the late 1870s, just before a spate of anti-Jewish riots”(Helms 138). 

Henrich Etkins ended up in Cape Town, via England, and there he became Henry Atkins and began to hide his Jewish and Russian roots.

Business fell apart in South Africa for Max and he joined his brothers in a timber business in Bukovina, Romania. That is when family moved to Galatz. In nearby Crasna, he bought a beautiful, large country property. On this large country estate, Vera Atkins spent most of her youth. 

When Max Rosenberg died in 1932, Vera and her mother decided it was time to bury their German-Jewish roots. They settled in Bucharest and became Atkins’. In spite of the name change, things became increasingly untenable and in 1937 they left Bucharest for London.

Are we still wondering what could have possibly motivated Vera Atkins to become a spy for England in the 30s, run a spy agency for the allies in WWII and a become an effective and efficient Nazi hunter after the war?

My primary reading material for this post was the book, A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, by Sarah Helms.

       I expected a long dry read but it was exactly the opposite. I could not put this book down. It grabbed me and pulled me in. I became consumed and obsessed with it. It read like a thriller while covering so much ground: England in WWII, the SOE and the many spies they recruited, male and female, WWII in general, the Jews from Romania, and their history, the history of Atkins’ family, the aftermath of the war. And extremely compelling details of Atkins traveling to post-war Germany and the death camps to find or understand what had happened to her spies. Sarah Helms is a massively gifted writer.

A spy of valor

The bravery of Vera Atkins is mind-blowing. She simply didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. She didn’t see the glass ceilings. She didn’t see the doors saying “do not enter.” Even if she did, she just went on by them and did the jobs that she wanted to do, the work she was compelled to do. Eventually people accepted her.

She asserted herself into these positions of authority in a competent way. She was very capable and did the job well but still, she wasn’t stopped when she might have been. She didn’t listen when people said a woman and especially a “Jewess” could not do certain jobs. She just went and did them. Naysayers be dammed.

Vera (Atkins) Rosenberg is a #NastyWomanActivist and woman of valor.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2021

Works Cited

Helms, Sarah. A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII.  Anchor, 2008.

Jewish history of Galatz. JewishGen KahilaLinks, https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/galati/Galatz_history.htm

Kassel, Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/kassel

Vera Atkins, Wikipedia entry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vera_Atkins