A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE
By Sarah Helm, 2005
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian
Women who assume the power of life and death over others are often demonized. Failing that, they may be sentimentalized, as has happened in film and print to the thirteen female agents who were sent to their deaths in Nazi-occupied France by a branch of English intelligence, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). SOE’s goal was to subvert Nazi operations in Europe by means of sabotage and aid to the local resistance, employing men and women who could impersonate civilians and were usually sent by parachute drop. Its most famous agents were sent to France. Some of them were extremely useful to the Allies in fighting the Germans. Forest Yeo-Thomas, in particular, was potentially the equal of his friend Jean Moulin in uniting the French resistance movements, had he not been captured and sent to Buchenwald near the end of the war. Yeo-Thomas is one possible model for Bigwig in Watership Down: his code name was “White Rabbit.” He worked for the independent Gaullist (“RF) section of SOE. The main “F Section,” as it was known, was headed by Maurice Buckmaster, a naïve-seeming eccentric who came in for considerable criticism during and after the war for his decision to send women to France. The rumors of F Section incompetency and callousness toward the agents increased with their fame. Violette Szabó, a Vivien Leigh lookalike and by common consent the most romantic figure among the women agents, was portrayed in film-star terms by Virginia McKenna in the film that cemented the reputation of SOE’s women fighters, Carve Her Name with Pride.
The agents’ control is believed by many to have been the original for Miss Moneypenny in Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. She was Vera Atkins, an elegant blonde, with that sort of accent — “more British than the British” — that is guaranteed to rub true members of the ruling class the wrong way. In the beginning, SOE recruited specifically from the upper crust, and some public-school mythology has naturally accrued to the real-life heroism of the agents. This is especially so regarding the image of the women. The female agents who were sent to France were nearly all very young; many were attractive — several positively glamorous, like Violette Szabó — and, in the words of Buckmaster, they were “touchingly keen.” Vera Atkins was older, reserved, and a lifelong spinster. Thus the lost agents are remembered in conventionally feminine terms, with the allure and the measure of innocent, bloodless heroism allowed to some doomed women. Vera Atkins, on the other hand, tends to be remembered in sinister terms, in the absence of tangible evidence that her actions were suspect. The aura derives from her personality alone.
For most people this can be said quite literally: nobody knew anything about her. Upon learning that she was born Vera Rosenberg in Crasna, Romania, the most common reaction for her acquaintances was disbelief tinged with a kind of relish. The brother of one of the murdered agents was amused, in the midst of a conversation as to whether his sister had indeed been reduced to a “bloody mess” at Dachau, to learn that Atkins had this in common with Leslie Howard. Atkins’ origins were not secret but not at all publicized. Her Jewishness and foreignness satisfied a deep-seated desire among those who knew her to cut Atkins down to size. This was an impulse shared even by Charlotte Gray writer Sebastian Faulks, who has his Vera figure dye the hair on his heroine’s head while forgetting her pubic hair. It’s safe to say that the real Vera would not make this mistake.
It’s one of those touchstone moments of misapprehension that do much to tell us who the real person was: in this case, a woman so little sentimental that it was precisely her remembering such details in the face of death that many people couldn’t forgive her. She is now the subject of two biographies, one published in 2006 and one in 2005, to some acclaim, by journalist Sarah Helm. Helm’s book, A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, is a brilliant and unnerving piece of investigation, though not without flaws. It has been praised by none less than M.R.D. Foot, the doyen of SOE historians, and it is extraordinary in the amount of personal detail Helm has uncovered about this most secretive of women. Though some of the revelations about Atkins’ private life are striking, Helm is even bolder in unearthing a fetid aura of rumor that surrounded her and dictated much of what is still believed about SOE. Ian Fleming’s semi-comical character of Moneypenny bears little relationship to the real-life mythmaking: quite a number of witnesses testify that Atkins exuded menace. More than a few are frightened of her now, several years after her death and seventy years after the war. The menace exists in an abeyance that cries out for logical explanations. For some of Atkins’ contemporaries, that is the point: she did nothing as agent after agent, including most of the lost women, was fed into the black hole of the Prosper network, the largest SOE group in France, which collapsed under its own weight in 1943, and whose penetration was obvious to all except Buckmaster for almost a year. One person believes Atkins must have been a Soviet double agent, another that she really worked for the Nazis.
What startles the reader is how many people believed these far-fetched theories and how many of them in turn were people who should have known better. As a feminist, one is driven to ask what it was about Atkins that led her to be remembered in such malevolent terms. There were all kinds of rumors about SOE, but they did not adhere in the same way to its men — least of all to Buckmaster, perhaps the most culpable in the Prosper disaster, who’s remembered as a dear doddering daddy. In contrast to Atkins, something was known about the male principals. Buckmaster especially was an emotional man, given to tears when pressed about SOE’s mistakes later in his life. Helm’s impressionistic portrait of Atkins suggests strongly that this was just it: Atkins did not leave evidence of how she herself felt about things, which is considered to be of such importance in analyzing a woman’s character. Atkins may have been a megalomaniac of sorts, or she may have been a shrewd and realistic woman who didn’t care much for others’ opinions of painful controversy, but in any case she knew what most people do not: how to hide her relationship with herself. It’s this that one most needs in order to analyze motive. Lacking it, Helm tries to analyze Atkins by looking at or speculating about her deeds, themselves hard enough to pin down.
As a result, this is a book in which theory is not easy to separate from implication. Helm goes over the most significant conspiracy theories regarding SOE and tests them out against the fate of the women agents. Some of this ground has been covered before. It is a flaw in Helm’s book that she does not do more to credit Elizabeth Nicholas in particular. Nicholas’ book, Death Be Not Proud, is more amateurish in tone, but quite similar to Helm’s in many respects. The chief difference between Nicholas’ book and Helm’s is that Nicholas, who was personally acquainted with one of the agents and grew close to several of their families, was convinced that there had been double dealing. Specifically, she believed that the reason the collapse of the Prosper network led to the death of ten out of the thirteen female casualties was that they were somehow deliberately sacrificed in a counter-game, to mislead the Nazis as to British awareness of the tragedy. Helm is vigorous in blaming the worst of the Prosper disaster on Buckmaster, who refused to believe in it for a year and continued sending agents to join Prosper and its tributaries even after he heard a German accent pretending to speak in the voice of one of the male agents, over a captured radio. (Prosper himself, in civilian life a half-English, half-French barrister named Francis Suttill, would be suspected of making a pact with the Germans in the belief that his agents would be saved; he and many others did not survive the war.) But she does not go further than accusing Buckmaster of extraordinary obtuseness and Atkins of slavishness before his authority. Nicholas believed that women were used deliberately as decoy sacrifices: the belief in women’s lesser capacities would make their deaths less suspicious. Nicholas went out of her way to credit Atkins, pointing out the efforts she went to in tracing the lost agents. It is thus uncertain how much she believed, as Helm does, that Atkins was supine before Buckmaster or otherwise implicated, though Helm names Nicholas as one of Atkins’ exposers. (Nicholas’ contemporary and complementary writer, Jean Overton Fuller, would speak of Nicholas as if she were as suspicious as Fuller; but this was in the 1980s, after Nicholas’ death and many complex changes of position and suspicion on Fuller’s own part. One of the great frustrations in researching this episode of history is that it can be difficult to sort out who thought what about whom among researchers, as among principals, well after the fact — never mind at the time.)
Given the widely disseminated conviction that there must have been something fishy about Vera Atkins, Sarah Helm is perhaps under some pressure to deliver the goods. She milks Atkins’ hidden origins for drama, and argues that Atkins’ Jewishness at once provided the motivation for her fierceness in fighting the Nazis and for her timidity in opposing anything Buckmaster did or didn’t do. Thus Atkins’ Jewishness becomes a sign that she was on nobody’s side, somewhat in keeping with Kissinger-like Realpolitik — a tempting conclusion for people on various sides of the political spectrum, and a rich source of reflections on the price of survival.
The difficulty is that not all of it is necessarily warranted. Allied Jewish agents were valued, as the only nationality whose anti-Fascism could be guaranteed beyond a doubt. A number of SOE’s agents were Jewish, including Brian Stonehouse, who survived four concentration camps and drew a sketch of two women agents killed at Natzweiler, one of whom Atkins may have confused with Noor Inayat Khan. (This was Sonia Olschanezky, herself Jewish. Olschanezky bore a striking resemblance to Noor, but the sketch reproduced in Helm’s book and identified as Olschanezky is of Andrée Borrel, Prosper’s chief lieutenant. Stonehouse identified the woman in the sketch separately from a woman resembling Olschanezky.) SOE’s chief coder was a Jew, Leo Marks. Atkins’ enemy nationality would, to be sure, have posed a more serious problem; it was in defiance of the regulations. But it was not entirely unknown, and in many clandestine organizations, Jews from enemy nationalities were not considered as being German or Romanian rather than Jewish. If it does not necessarily follow that Atkins’ Romanian birth certificate would have spelled the end of her SOE career, how much less probable is it that her Jewishness represented such an insurmountable obstacle? It’s far more likely that Helm’s Atkins believed it might, in the face of all the evidence, because she wanted more than to stay in SOE: she would not have wanted to be a target for the kind of casual anti-Semitism remembered in Marks’ memoir, not after she had suffered the humiliation of losing the happy butterfly life she enjoyed as a pigtailed girl in Bukovina. Above all else, as Helm’s interviewees see Atkins, she wanted to be English.
If this is true, the mystery of Atkins’ self-image might be considerably elucidated by the affair she had with Richard Ketton-Cremer, a member of the Norfolk landed gentry, marriage to whom would have sealed her Britishness. Atkins did not marry Ketton-Cremer, but it’s possible that her acquaintance with him opened her eyes to possibilities that she could never again risk losing. And tantalizing indeed is the possibility that Atkins failed to confront Buckmaster, not for fear of being labeled an enemy alien, but for fear of losing entry to that club. Her personality was at once grand and guarded, and may have required the buttressing of social status for her to function. She somewhat resembles Alma Rosé, the Viennese musician who led an orchestra of female prisoners in Birkenau by styling herself as a combination of Toscanini and the headmistress in an English boarding school, to which one survivor compared her. This incongruity is played for all it is worth by Fania Fénelon in her eyewitness account, Playing for Time, in which she ridicules Rosé much as James Watson did a third tough Jewish lady, Rosalind Franklin, in The Double Helix. Fania Fénelon described Rosé as a megalomaniac, so insulated from the reality of the camp by her own delusions of grandeur that she was proud to play for Himmler (likely a fabrication on Fénelon’s part). A less hostile biography of Rosé presents perhaps an even more disturbing picture, of a truly brave woman whose heroism in saving lives (nearly all orchestra members survived, though Rosé did not) was inseparable from her bizarre ambitions for “her” girls: she planned, after the war, to lead the Birkenau orchestra on a world tour.
Vera Atkins was every bit as proprietary of her agents as Rosé of her musicians, as given to peacocking, as impassive before their mortality, and just as devoted. It is no wonder that so many suspected ulterior motives; in Atkins’ case, political machinations of the most Bondian kind. Atkins’ Jewishness is indeed of relevance here because it makes Nazism impossible and Stalinism unlikely, but a few of the people to whom Helm indicates as much react with seeming disappointment. She was the sort of person of whom it is said “I’m glad she’s on our side.” In Atkins’ case as in Rosé’s, the banality of good comes uncomfortably close to that of evil, and vice versa.
Two implications thus run parallel: that with so much smoke, there had to be fire, if only of a banal sort; and yet that Atkins was playing her own game, aware of Buckmaster’s limitations, unwilling to challenge him, but prepared to push her own anti-Nazi agenda through between the cracks. Helm runs into some trouble when her parallel implications contradict each other. Her excuse for Atkins’ behavior resembles nothing so much as the excuses many Vichy loyalists made for Philippe Pétain: that he did not know what was going on, or else that he was playing the Nazis for fools while scheming to liberate France. If she was seduced by ego, Atkins may or may not have known what was going on, assuming for now that it was restricted to incompetence on the part of Buckmaster. (There are other theories, focused on the tolerance shown toward a known double agent in Prosper: SOE historian Jean Overton Fuller, many French people, and a pack of conspiracy theorists each believe he was protected by the British for their own ends, though Fuller suspects further incompetence and the French and other conspiracy theorists imagine a grand plan to deceive the Germans.) It should also be pointed out that it is very unlikely Atkins would have been able to do anything about Buckmaster’s failures had she seen them clearly. That was not her job; to behave otherwise might well have indicated that Atkins had delusions about her own power. The final impression left by the book, apart from the mill of Gothic rumor it exposes, is that Vera Atkins may have been much as she presented herself. She did her job; it was tough; she did it well. If she were a man, that might be enough to make it unnecessary to defend him against baleful musings.
Helm gives full credit to Atkins for her extraordinary odyssey into postwar Germany, single-handedly tracing the fates of the thirteen women who did not return from the camps (together with over a hundred men). Yet the family members who owed it to Atkins that they knew anything about their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers all had uniformly negative impressions of her; they speak bitterly of her detachment in general and her coldness to them in particular. It remains possible that it was Atkins’ unsentimentality that most inspired paranoia. Tania Szabó and Vilayat Inayat Khan may have expected things of Atkins that they would never have dreamed of asking the tearful Buckmaster to provide: emotional involvement, above all.
Tania and Vilayat were the daughter and the brother respectively of two of the most celebrated agents. Helm draws many implications from Atkins’ relationship to Noor Inayat Khan, who was sufficiently her opposite to represent a fine dramatic foil. The unworldly Sufi girl, who was the only woman of color to die on an SOE mission, is often cited as the best example of the agency’s savagery in sending women to work in the field: she was slight and appeared defenseless. Helm uncovers evidence that she was tortured to death, which has, sadly, been verified since by release of Noor’s SOE file. But there is abundant evidence that Noor was an outstanding agent in most ways once she was in the field. Almost alone, she survived the fall of Prosper and kept herself alive for several months in the most dangerous job, that of radio operator. When she was betrayed, it was by a woman who was jealous of a male agent’s interest in her. Her own mistakes compounded the tragedy but did not cause it. She fought so fiercely when arrested and tried so hard to escape prison that she was eventually kept in chains.
The sentimentalization of the women agents has, itself, played into a subtle politics of gender that has done as much as anything else to gloss over SOE’s blunders. If women were sacrificed, the reasoning goes, the agency might be guilty of ruthlessness in sending them but not of incompetence in setting them up to be captured, when they could not be expected to survive long. The latter charge has been raised against the handling of the male agents, with some fairness: Prosper himself was encouraged to raise a huge army of resistors and then told to remain under cover for almost a year, guaranteeing that thousands would fall with him when the network was blown, and probably contributing to his paranoia about those in charge. (In France, many still believe that the “Prosper” network was given up as an act of disinformation about the true date of the Allied invasion.) The truth is that several of the dead women were brilliant Resistance fighters long before they joined SOE. Andrée Borrel and Madeleine Damerment, both in their twenties, survived for years in occupied France (the average life of an amateur résistant was three months), helping Allied airmen into Spain. M.R.D. Foot makes the same point in observing that SOE’s women agents did not expect special treatment and went into the field as prepared for death as any male agent. Nor does the legendary status of SOE’s female sacrifices do justice to the SOE women who survived and did magnificent work: Pearl Witherington, Lise de Baissac, Nancy Wake, Yvonne Cormeau, Anne-Marie Walters, Eileen Nearne, her sister Jacqueline Nearne, Virginia Hall, Yvonne Baseden, and many others. Of the agents who survived the war, one of the best known is Countess Krystyna Skarbek (“Christine Granville”), whose fame rests largely on her having been stabbed to death after the war by a jealous lover. (Her other claim to popular fame is that she may have been a model for Fleming’s Vesper Lynd.)
Interestingly, Yvonne Baseden, an agent who survived arrest and incarceration in Ravensbrück concentration camp, speaks with insight of Vera Atkins’ mistrust of her. “I think she was trying to put us at ease by looking herself at ease, as if it was something which a lot of people were doing and that it was nothing out of the ordinary… She had reason to be quite suspicious of me… I think she must have thought — you know — why had I been released? What had I done to be released and not the others?”
Baseden did not love Atkins, but she understood her. It leaves us wondering whether the other women agents might also have done. When women have the power of life and death, especially over other women, judgments of their ethics often hinge upon perceptions based on fine emotional distinctions and interpretations of correct behavior. Fania Fénelon gagged upon the thought that Alma Rosé could be proud of her orchestra while her people burned; the families of Vera’s agents noticed that she seemed “very pleased with herself.” At the Ravensbrück trial, Atkins sent postcards to her mother that might as well have been sent from some little spa on the Baltic coast. She might have been sociopathic in her calm; or else, she might have attended the trial and written the postcards on the same days in the awareness that both were her duty.
But she remains a disturbing figure. Helm’s research suggests that she could resemble a brilliant child, a prodigy, with a prodigy’s isolation and devotion to her elders’ precedent. After the work she did to uncover the agents’ fates, it is remarkable that so many of their families waited years to learn the most elementary details; the mother of one, Diana Rowden, did not know that her daughter had received the Croix de Guerre until Elizabeth Nicholas found out in the 1950s. One can speculate that Atkins was too enamored of her role as keeper of secrets to stop playing the game; another, somewhat kinder interpretation is that Atkins was inclined to solace herself by maintaining the sense that the buck stopped with her, just so long as nobody knew the details. In any event, the slipshod way in which the details crept out has provided fodder for conspiracy theories that may never end.
In classic gendered fashion, there is the same degree of unsubstantiated speculation regarding Atkins’ sexuality: some believe she was a lesbian, others that she must have been a man-trap. Neither is impossible; neither is substantiated. When asked to explain why, witnesses cannot allude to more evidence than a feeling she gave them. The imaginative Jean Overton Fuller remembers Atkins in a gauzy black top, obviously meant to seduce her. (It is possible that Atkins was in love with Violette Szabó, whom she insisted on seeing off personally.) No witnesses admit to being drawn to Atkins that way themselves, but it is intriguing to find how often it is said that she was “almost beautiful.” “Beautiful” is a designation of approval when applied to a woman, not idealizing her appearance so much as it simultaneously recognizes power and simplifies it into innocuousness. By saying that Vera Atkins was “almost beautiful,” witnesses appear to be wrestling with their incongruous perceptions — of an extraordinary woman, a noble woman in so many ways, who also scared the hell out of them.
Perhaps that is also why Helm’s biography goes soft in certain places, seeking emotional connections Atkins would have disdained; and perhaps that is why Helm returns instinctively to the spy story’s lowest common denominator of intrigue, the best self-justification we all have for meddling and snooping — next to the belief that the subject would have wanted it that way, which also comes up. Helm’s sleuthing on the likelihood that Atkins passed money to Nazi officials to save her Dutch relatives (one plausible reason for Atkins’ deference to Buckmaster) is dramatic, but spread a little too thin. Inevitably, these fillips of suspense also remind us of the journalist’s obligation to pry into other people’s soft spots, and the results can be uncomfortable. Helm interviews Yvonne Baseden and spots a purple balloon on the ceiling, reading “Happy Eightieth Birthday,” while Baseden’s eyes fill with tears as she recalls Ravensbrück. At the annual memorial to the SOE members lost in France, Helm observes a disturbed woman, “still mourning her fiancé, who was killed while serving with SOE in France, but she had never been told quite how he was killed or why. I wondered whether the woman in black had grabbed Vera’s arm and how Vera had responded.”
Up to a point these glimpses of SOE life behind the scenes are important even as they can make us cringe. It’s needed in the wake of the fictional representations of SOE, beginning with the sanitized biographies and films and continuing with Sebastian Faulks’ meretricious bestseller, Charlotte Gray. In writing on Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf, Cynthia Ozick observed that what an insider can convey most valuably is “the smell of a house,” and this Helm does even as an outsider. It is instructive to observe how much of this SOE “smell” will be familiar to ordinary women. As indicated, the strength of Helm’s biography over an official version will probably lie in its attempt to do justice to the complexity of emotions surrounding Atkins and its revelations about the quality of these emotions. Male heroes are idealized after their death, but they also tend to disappear without clear emotional traces; their survivors resent their absence above all, the lacuna in a family left behind by means valorized in society. Prosper’s children remember growing up without their father in more ways than one: his wife erased all traces of him from their lives. This may have been the way Atkins wished to vanish from public sight. Helm begins to restore an outline, not of Atkins’ inner life, but of the effect she had on others. As she does so, she begins to recreate Atkins as a gendered figure. The resentment attaching to the memories of women heroes are likelier to concern lies, evasions, and compromises: in fine, the awareness we’re left with of the disconnect between real and official narratives of power and survival. They resemble the mixed emotions we have had about our mothers, the life-and-death choices they made when and as our fathers, their consciences protected by the demands of the masculine role, could not or did not.
Feminist commentators have tended to view all forms of militarism as a grafting of masculine values onto women’s lives. By contrast, other feminists such as Vera Laska, Margaret Collins Weitz, and Claudia Koontz have observed women adapting traditionally female modes of behavior to warfare on opposing sides of conflicts in such a manner as to make it less of a given that militarism and women’s lives are natural enemies. The significance of Atkins’ gender in her work was not that she was less female for engaging in militaristic activity but that she did not have the professional training associated with males in positions of equivalent responsibility. Atkins was an amateur, if a very gifted one, and she was capable of making mistakes. This may actually place her closer to the traditional role of the mother. Feminists who draw ethical prescriptions from the experience of mother stress that maternalism is by definition an improvisational ethic. The ethics of secret-keeping have also been traditionally female and improvisational. Atkins’ life drives us to ask whether a female “ethic of care” is not also, when necessary, an ethic of deception, secrecy, militarism, and downright ruthlessness, not to mention vanity and self-delusion. This may go a long way toward rescuing the figure of the mother from sentimentalization, but it raises further thorny questions for feminists. A mother is, first and foremost, a woman with power. Atkins may have been little maternal in appearance, yet she did function as a mother toward the agents in the simplest sense: of wielding the power of life and death and assuming it as her natural right. She thus removed the mental escape route most of us cherish, of imagining civilian life as the world of mothers and not fathers, demarcated from war and its horrors by the gender line. Her ambiguity as one of the “good guys” reminds us that women’s power has been trivialized in part because power of any kind has potential for destructiveness. Thus our desire to view maternalism and militarism as opposites can only be frustrated if we admit maternalism its full power. It may be significant that the harshest judgments of Atkins, including Helm’s, have come from women; several of the men she encountered remembered her as notably kind, even maternal.
Like the rest of us, Helm loves and hates her mother figure, and fills in the gaps of her story imaginatively with the intention at once of undermining and forgiving her; like the rest of us, she has some telling insights and others in which Atkins is unrecognizable, sometimes both at once. It is typically hard for her to accept that Atkins, as a consummate secret agent, had agency: that she made her decisions as an independent being, not as a victim of history. By intervals she assigns too little responsibility to Atkins, and then again too much. Copying Tania Szabó, Vilayat Inayat Khan, and many others, she wants approval and does introspective calisthenics on realizing she will not get it. She falls prey to the ultimate daughterly illusion by suggesting that Atkins wanted her personal story told. The story begins when Helm seeks out Atkins’ niece and sister-in-law in Cornwall, searching through the bland press clippings that constitute Vera’s personal files, and discovering uncensored oddments that she interprets as signposts which Atkins left to point the way for a future biographer. Most of them have to do with the guilt that Helm assumes Atkins felt over the deaths of Noor Inayat Khan and the others.
There is evidence that Atkins was not invulnerable. After her return from Germany, she went for a long time into seclusion. (She had just learned that Ketton-Cremer was also dead, killed in action on Crete.) Helm is believable on Atkins’ compulsive self-control, and the anguish it may have guarded. “Close friends felt only sympathy for Vera. Behind that controlled façade they sensed that she was all the time suppressing her own emotion and her own guilt.” But if she proposes a Vera racked by guilt over the agents’ deaths, and thus leaving clues scattered about on purpose, Helm is quite likely kidding herself.
In fact an official biography was commissioned by Atkins and has come out early this year, and perhaps that awareness of the rival biography caused some of the flaws in Helm’s. Though nowhere near as good in most ways, William Stevenson’s Spymistress is the superior work in terms of its presentation of the nitty-gritty details of Atkins’ work for SOE. Stevenson’s book goes even further than Helm’s in describing the miasma of anti-Semitism in which Atkins had to work and her awareness of her Jewish identity. It does not confirm Helm’s belief that Atkins had to lie low with Buckmaster as the price for her power; if anything, it indicates that Atkins was much braver as a Jew than Helm was aware, a judgment based not on what she may have done in the Netherlands but on many attempts she made to wake the British high command up to what was happening to Europe’s Jews. The unforgiving Leo Marks shared his high opinion of Atkins with Stevenson, a regard based in part on their common fate as Jews. But where Leo Marks filled a tome with his anger at SOE, Atkins kept loyally silent, and suffered the opprobrium of her peers. Stevenson’s book also turns up a few personal details that are easily as juicy as anything Helm has found. (Rather than Ketton-Cremer or Violette Szabó, the great Yeo-Thomas may have been the true love of Atkins’ life.) And if Helm as a woman relates to Atkins as a good/bad mother, Stevenson as a man seems much more concerned to “place” her as a romantic figure. He stresses Vera’s beauty and sex appeal, describing her black hair (most eyewitnesses remember it as blonde) and “smoky eyes.” Alma Rosé, as Fania Fénelon saw her, is perhaps conveniently replaced with the biblical Esther or Judith, or indeed the beautiful and heroic Alma remembered by some of the Birkenau orchestra survivors.
Yet of the two, Helm’s biography of Vera Atkins comes closer to an essential truth about power figures in a dark time. Helm’s book is in every way distinguished as a literary production — it is beautifully written — and impressive for the amount of clutter it has cleared away from a story that once seemed tangled beyond hope, even if in some places it adds its own. But the truest distinction of Helm’s book, imperfect though it is, may lie in the honor it pays to the emotional ambiguities that remain for the survivors of war, especially regarding the memories of its outstanding players. If Helm at times succumbs to the need all survivors have to force intractable details into a pattern that makes sense, like Atkins’ beloved England we can still be grateful to have such an ally on our side; and as with Vera Atkins, we can probably forgive her.
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