A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Miss­ing Agents of World War II

Sarah Helm
  • Review
By – December 16, 2011

Vera Atkins’ name is large­ly unknown, but Sarah Helm’s book ensures that this will no longer be so. A biog­ra­phy autho­rized by Atkins’ niece and sis­ter-in-law, Helm’s metic­u­lous work is based upon Atkins fam­i­ly archives and six­ty-year-old doc­u­ments, recent­ly made avail­able by the British gov­ern­ment. It begins with Helm’s 1998 meet­ing with Atkins short­ly before her nineti­eth birth­day and includes inter­views con­duct­ed with indi­vid­u­als who knew her. 

A Life in Secrets reads like a thriller and is apt­ly named. It exam­ines the life of Vera Atkins and her work with the Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Exec­u­tive (SOE), a secret British orga­ni­za­tion. The SOE sent 400 resis­tance fight­ers, men and women, into France and oth­er nations occu­pied by Nazis. The tale of their work as spies is often har­row­ing and always well-documented. 

But this biog­ra­phy con­tains more than one sto­ry. First, it exam­ines its subject’s extreme need for secre­cy and uncov­ers the rea­son for it. Accord­ing to Helm, she pro­tect­ed her ear­ly life as if she were pro­tect­ing a wound.” 

Sec­ond, it traces Atkins’ (and Helm’s) quest to dis­cov­er what hap­pened to the twelve women she hired and trained to become spies. Atkins deter­mined to learn the fate of four of these women in par­tic­u­lar, a mys­tery linked to the SOE itself.

It also tracks Helm’s search for answers, a jour­ney tak­ing her through­out East­ern and West­ern Europe. Her work epit­o­mizes the ide­al biog­ra­phy, as it depicts not only Atkins’ fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry, but also the great care all biog­ra­phers would do well to emu­late. Helm’s task was com­pli­cat­ed because of fre­quent­ly con­flict­ing and/​or incom­plete infor­ma­tion, as well as Atkins’ ret­i­cence (and some­times lies) in inter­views and her per­son­al papers. 

Even­tu­al­ly, Atkins learns the ter­ri­ble truth of the four women’s (and most of the men’s) fates at Dachau and else­where. Her niece tells Helm, “[W]hen she dis­cov­ered all that awful hor­ror, it was like a series of body blows.…[S]he spent the rest of her life recov­er­ing from those blows.” 

Read­ers drawn to the untold sto­ries of World War II resis­tance fight­ers will find every word of this book com­pelling. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, end­pa­per maps, index, list of char­ac­ters, pho­tographs, sources.

Julia Wolf Mazow, retired uni­ver­si­ty Eng­lish instruc­tor, stud­ied Yid­dish in the Oxford and YIVO sum­mer pro­grams. Her trans­la­tions from Yid­dish have appeared in BRIDGES.

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