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” (Loc 171). SOE was organized into sections by country. Atkins was recruited for the French section.

“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 already in the 30s while still living in Bucharest. 

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). Wiki derives this information from the book Stephenson wrote about Atkins after her death: Spymistress: The True Story of the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II.

When the war ended, Vera Atkins committed her time and energy to finding out what had happened to every single one of her agents who did not return. She went to France and Germany repeatedly to interview locals, Germans who worked in the prison camps and concentration camps, witnesses who were in the camps, and the Nazi guards and leaders of the camps (including participating in the trials at Nuremberg), until she was able, to the best of her ability, to piece together the details of what happened to each one of them. After that, she committed herself to making sure the families knew and were properly compensated, and to having the missing and murdered agents remembered 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”(Loc 194).

Vera (Atkins) Rosenberg

Atkins was very mysterious to many people. A strong, single-focused woman — not married, no children — who rose into positions that were generally only available at the time, to men. There have been smear campaigns, 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.” 

I want to top load this post with something that always seems to be buried in the end or middle of stories about Vera Atkins, or thrown in casually as a BTW: “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. 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 seems to be some kind of a 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 WWI and continued 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. 

I feel strongly that her Jewishness needs to be moved to the top of her story. Vera Atkins is a  Romanian Jewish woman who fought the Nazis with everything she had. I am convinced 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. Born in Galatz, Romania on the Danube Delta. 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. Jewish artisans and merchants participated actively in Galaţi’s economic and commercial development throughout the period of their presence in the town.

Jewish Population Statistics

1894

14,500

1910

12,000

22%

1930

19,912

20%

1942

13,000

1947

13,000

1950

9,000

1969

450

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. A cultural-religious society, a Zionist society, a youth organization (Zeirei Zion) and a “culture” club also existed for Galaţi Jewry. World War II Nazi persecution did not totally obliterate Galaţi Jewry; however, emigration subsequently severely diminished any Jewish presence in Galaţi” (https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/galati/Galatz_history.htm).

Sarah Helms, author of A Life in Secrets, does an amazing job hunting down and recovering Vera Atkins genealogy. On her trip to Galatz in search of Atkins’ roots, she reports:

“In 1910  Galatz had eighteen synagogues and a yeshiva, or Talmudic college. At the back of the wasteland on the edge of the Jewish quarter, we found the only remaining synagogue, surrounded by iron bars”(144).

The Synagogue in Kassel that was destroyed in 1938

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: (This is Atkins’ family on her father’s side).

“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’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”(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, Max Rosenberg bought a beautiful, large country property when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For a short while it became part of Romania In 1940 the Soviet Union took it over. It is now a part of the Ukraine. On this large country estate, Vera Atkins spent most of her youth. 

When Helms, a British citizen, goes to this place looking for the Rosenberg’s country estate, she has to talk her way over the border. Once in the town, she asks the taxi driver to find a school, hoping to find anyone who can speak English. Asking questions at the school, she is told when the Soviets took over they had to forget the past, stop speaking their language. She is told that there were once many Jews in the town but when Helms asked where they went she is told, “It is better not to ask these things”(152).

During the deportation of survivors of a pogrom in Iasi to Calarasi or Podul Iloaei, Romanians halt a train to throw off the bodies of those who had died on the way. Romania, July 1941.

In a small booklet produced by one of the teachers, written by a poet who has since been disappeared, they find reference to the Rosenbergs and their chateau which has become a sanatorium which happens to be right next to the school. They walk Helms over to it. She recognizes it from the pictures she has seen from Atkins’ family members. Then they bump into an older villager of Crasna who has lived there all his life. He tells them that all the Jews were taken to a nearby town and executed by the Romanian fascists. 

By then the Rosenberg’s had left Crasna due to Max going bankrupt. 

Atkins’ father died in 1932 and that was “taken as the moment to bury and obliterate their German-Jewish roots for good”(167). Atkins and her mother moved to Bucharest and became Atkins’. Things became increasingly worse and in 1937 they left Bucharest  for London.

Now, 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.

There are still a lot of secrets surrounding Vera Atkins and that is the way she wanted it. She left her files carefully edited and precisely pedicured. She left her reputation carefully crafted. Helms was able to find out more but still, it’s a lesson to all of us. Clean up your paperwork if you don’t want the gossip mongers having their way with you after you die. Because no one has a right to your personal life. You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone, especially when you have been as courageous as Vera Atkins.

I am so stunned by the bravery of Vera Atkins. 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. It was interesting to read about how she asserted herself into these positions of authority in a very authoritative and 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.

That is a good lesson for those of us who are women and/or of other marginalized groups: Don’t even pay attention. Just do it. I realize that is a radical simplification but it is also something to ponder. And Vera Atkins’ story is a great model.

I cannot end this post without mentioning that SOE had its problems during the war. There was a double agent that should have been detected and rooted out and because he wasn’t, many agents lost their lives. In retrospect it is clear that Buckmaster and Atkins had received many red flags about that situation that were overlooked. This truth is part of what people have used to attempt to sully the reputation of Atkins and the SOE, going as far as to accuse them of nefarious intent and even raising the unsubstantiated and rather ludicrous accusation that Atkins was a German or Russian spy. 

Yes, mistakes were made by the SEO for sure, but remember, Atkins was not in charge. Buckmaster was. Could they have done a better job? Absolutely. Were they regretful? Probably. But when we compare that to deliberately murdering millions of people, I don’t know why we are dwelling on honest mistakes made by the people who were trying to find some way to stop them.

Other men get held up as heroes who have done far less than Vera Atkins ever did. I completely admire the woman. I feel sad for the pain she had to live with the rest of her life. She seems to have done it all with poise and grace.

Vera (Atkins) Rosenberg is a #NastyWomanActivist.

©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