Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Vera Atkins: WWII Spy Boss

The Conflicting Identities of the Rosenbergs

Published 12/12/2011

Vera Atkins <em>(Photo: Public Domain)</em>
Vera Atkins (Photo: Public Domain)
Vera Maria Rosenberg was born on June 15, 1908, in Galatz, Romania into a Jewish family torn by conflicting identities.

Her parents were Max and Hilda (nee Atkins) Rosenberg. Max was born in Kassel, Germany, the son of an affluent merchant. When young, Max worked in the family lumber business. Then he traveled to Hamburg where he studied architecture. He was an architect in Hamburg when the city was devastated by a cholera epidemic in 1892.

Fleeing the epidemic, Max traveled to South Africa, then a British colony. He made friends with businessman Henry Atkins, a Jew whose ancestors had fled pogroms in Russia and who had changed his name from "Etkins."

Henry Atkins ran successful businesses, including one that exported ostrich feathers.

Max courted Henry's daughter Hilda who accepted his eventual marriage proposal. They traveled to England for their wedding in 1902. Then they returned to South Africa where Hilda gave birth to Ralph in 1905.

During the Second Boer War (1899-1902), Max suffered business reversals. Two of his brothers, Arthur and Siegfried, invited Max to join them in their shipping agency in Romania.

Max, a pregnant Hilda and Ralph traveled to Galatz where Hilda delivered Vera. While Vera was born in Romania and spent much of her childhood in that country, neither her loyalties nor those of her parents were to Romania. Max was a German citizen and Hilda a British citizen.

Romania forbade Jews from owning large parcels of land but many became affluent through business. Max prospered through investments in furs, timber and Danube riverboats.

Hilda wanted her children to have English manners and ensured that English was the first language they learned.

However, this did not necessarily set the Rosenbergs apart. As Sarah Helm notes in A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, "Englishness was the height of fashion in cosmopolitan [Romanian] circles before the First World War, especially after the arrival of the much-loved Queen Marie, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who married King Ferdinand of Romania in 1893 and imposed her own very English style on the country's royal court."

The Rosenbergs were not deeply religious but observed the Sabbath and major Jewish holidays. While Hilda tried to inculcate a sense of Englishness into the children, Max emphasized his German origins because, Helm observes, "To be German in Romania in those days was to be highly respected."

However, Max also inculcated a strong sense of Jewish identity into his children. He often spoke to them of the achievements of Jews -- and of the sufferings Jews had endured. At the dinner table, Max sometimes read from the Book of Lamentations. Tears trickled down his face as he recited, "The Lord is like an enemy. . . . Look O Lord and consider: whom have you ever treated like this?" In Spymistress: The Life of Vera Atkins, The Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II, William Stevenson writes that Max had a "love for the Zionist cause."

Even as Max impressed his children with Jewish pride, he expressed admiration for the founder of Christianity -- who was, after all, a fellow Jew. "Follow the Jesus strategy," Max often said. "Jesus built his power by showing love for the poor among us."

In 1911, Hilda gave birth to Wilfred.

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