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.