.@haaretzcom ::: #Ursula_KUCZYNSKI, “Agent Sonya” : The #Jewish_Housewife Who Became a #Soviet_Nuclear #SUPER_SPY. @OferAderet. @BenMacintyre1.

La #ama_de_casa_judía que se convirtió en una #súper_espía_nuclear_soviética.
#Ursula_Kuczynski era #madre a #tiempo_completo hasta que una #reunión en #Shanghai la transformó en ‘#Sonya’. Su #biógrafo describe la #carrera de la #espía de la #KGB, que culminó con el #robo de #secretos_atómicos_estadounidenses.

In 1935, the spy “Sonya,” whose real name was Ursula Maria Kuczynski, found herself in an almost impossible situation. On the eve of embarking on a new mission on behalf of the Soviet Union, she discovered that she was pregnant, the result of an affair with her commander in the communist underground in China. She told her husband, who was also the father of her first child, about her pregnancy. He urged her to have an abortion, a solution seconded by the lover.When she refused, the two – husband and lover – corresponded behind her back to figure out how they could get her to terminate the pregnancy. “Sonya” did not accede to their importuning and gave birth to a daughter, a half-sister to her firstborn. Later she had another son, the fruit of an affair with a third man.

She was a full-time mother who insisted on combining her dangerous and exceptional occupation with raising children – two seemingly clashing worlds. However, she soon discovered, as did her handlers, that what looked initially to be a disadvantage was actually the opposite. The cover story of a homemaker who takes no interest in politics helped her to conceal her true occupation and to rebuff potential suspicions. “Infants provided a good legalization,” she said.

With the publication of the Hebrew translation of “Agent Sonya” (published originally in English last year), her biographer, Ben Macintyre, a historian who has written previous best sellers in the espionage field, tells Haaretz about this extraordinary figure. “There are many women spies in history, but… I know of no other woman who successfully combined the role of informant, courier and senior officer, all at the same time,” he notes.

In the book you underscore that she was “mother, wife and spy.” I imagine that we would be less impressed by this description if, for example, it was attached to the protagonist of your previous book, “The Spy and the Traitor,” which is about Oleg Gordievsky, the senior Russian spy who worked as a double agent for the British secret service. We wouldn’t talk about his being a “father, husband and spy,” would we?

Macintyre: “We have to see Sonya’s life in the context of the times she lived in, when the emphasis on motherhood was very different from today’s approach. On the other hand, those attitudes linger, and many would still criticize her for supposedly neglecting her parental duties, in a way that would never be applied had she been a man.

While researching the book, Macintyre located Kuczynski’s children. Each of them had a story that was connected to a different chapter in the tempestuous biography of the this devoted communist agent, a Jew who spied on the Axis fascists during World War II and on Britain and the United States during the Cold War. Along with the information they supplied him, he perused letters, diaries, memoirs she and other players in the drama wrote, and also probed files of the German Federal Archives, of the Stasi (the East German secret police) and of MI5 in Britain. The result is a story which, were it not supported by footnotes and photographs, might well be assumed to be fiction.

Seekers of information about Ursula Kuczynski on Google in Hebrew will have a hard time, even 21 years after her death. Besides her secret activities, this is due also to the multiple names she went by – including Ursula Hamburger, Ursula Beurton and a totally fictitious name, Ruth Werner, under which she wrote children’s books later in life. Even the survey of Israel’s Intelligence Heritage Center on Soviet espionage in Britain and Germany barely mentions her.

At the height of her activity, “Sonya,” who reached the rank of colonel in the Red Army, ran a network of communist spies in the heart of Britain’s nuclear research program and transmitted to Moscow information that helped Soviet scientists build a nuclear weapon.

She was born in 1907, in Berlin, the second of six children in an affluent, socially connected Jewish family that was identified with left-wing circles. Her father was the acclaimed economist and demographer Robert Kuczynski, a pioneer in the use of statistical data to shape social policy. Among her parents’ acquaintances were many left-wing intellectuals, such as Karl Liebknecht, among the founders of the Spartacus League, who was assassinated with his colleague, Rosa Luxemburg, in 1919; the acclaimed artist Kathe Kollwitz; painter Max Lieberman; the industrialist Walter Rathenau, who would become the only Jewish foreign minister in Germany’s history; and Albert Einstein.

Did her Jewish origin exert any influence in her life?

Her sex, motherhood, pregnancy and humdrum domestic life together formed the perfect camouflage. Men simply did not believe that a housewife could be a genuine spy.

“She was not a particularly observant Jew, but the destruction of the German-Jewish community, the Holocaust, the murder of many members of her family, all played a key role in her hatred of Nazism and her determination to spy for the Soviet Union.”

At the age of 16, during the fraught period of the Weimar Republic, she took part for the first time in a Communist Party demonstration. “The bruising from the policeman’s truncheon eventually faded; her outrage never did,” Macintyre writes. In 1926, when she was 19, she officially joined the German Communist Party. Four years later, someone pressed the gas pedal on the route of her life – which from then on moved incessantly between continents, countries and a host of cities, under assumed identities and alongside different men – and all in the service of ideology.

The first stop was China, in 1930, when she accompanied her husband, Rudolf Hamburger, a Jewish architect who was hired to design municipal-government buildings in Shanghai. While her husband was occupied at the drafting table, Kuczynski was caught up in the maelstrom involving, on one side, the nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and on the other the communists under Mao Zedong. The communists were aided by the Soviet Union, which viewed China as an important goal of the world revolution. Ursula joined the communists out of certainty in the justice of the path of the oppressed Chinese proletariat, who under the leadership of the communists, she believed, would topple the capitalist and imperialist order.

The woman who introduced her into the world of espionage was a well-known American writer living in Shanghai, Agnes Smedley, who had been recruited as a spy in the service of communism under the guise of being a German journalist. Macintyre describes her as a “bundle of contradictions,” noting, among other paradoxes, that “she was bisexual, but believed homosexuality a curable perversion” and that she ostensibly disdained men and believed that women had been “enslaved by the institution of marriage – but “loved many men and was married twice.”

When the two women met, introduced by a mutual acquaintance, “Smedley was already an important cog in the machinery of Soviet espionage,” assisting the Chinese communists, Macintyre notes. Kuczynski found her charming, and it’s possible that “their relationship may have gone beyond friendship” to become romantic and passionate.

Smedley introduced Kuczynski to her lover, Richard Sorge, the senior Soviet spy in Shanghai at the time. According to Macintyre, he was James Bond-like not only in his looks, his taste in alcoholic beverages and his skirt chasing, but also in his skills and courage. The encounter between the lover of the American writer and the enthusiastic Jewish communist paved the way for her to become a spy herself. Within a short time the women were sharing not only the lover – she too was captivated by Sorge – but also the art of espionage. In messages he sent to Moscow, he referred to her by the code name he chose for her: “Sonya.”

She took part in espionage operations in China, Poland and Switzerland, and finally, the crowning glory, in Britain. She lived a double life. By day she was a young homemaker, raising her son and disinterested in politics. “None of our acquaintances would in their wildest dreams have imagined that I, as the mother of a small child, would jeopardize my family and everything we had created in China by contact with communists,” she said.

Her sex, motherhood, pregnancy and apparently humdrum domestic life together formed the perfect camouflage,” Macintyre writes. “Men simply did not believe that a housewife making breakfast from powdered egg, packing her children off to school and then cycling into the countryside” could be a genuine spy.

She wasn’t a particularly observant Jew, but the Holocaust, the murder of many members of her family, played a key role in her hatred of Nazism and her determination to spy for the Soviet Union.

She thrived wherever she went, blind to the crimes that were being committed in her name and under the auspices of the ideology she believed in, from which her relatives and friends suffered. One of the victims was her first husband and father of her firstborn child, Hamburger, who was arrested for no reason in Moscow in 1943, and spent a decade in the gulag.

In 1937 she was secretly awarded the Order of the Red Banner, the highest Soviet military medal of that period. “The Red Army applauded long and loud, maybe because I was the only woman,” she noted long afterward. She was later awarded the medal a second time.

Five years later, in 1942, at the height of World War II, Sonya entered the hall of fame of communist espionage. The event in question took place in a café opposite a railway station in Birmingham, England, her new place of residence. Kuczynski received a thick bag containing 85 pages of classified documents related to the British nuclear project. The person who gave her the bag was Klaus Fuchs, a German physicist who had fled from the Nazis to Britain. Like her, he was an avowed communist, and like her he too spied for the Soviet Union for ideological reasons. “The USSR should also have its own bomb,” he explained.

The first meeting between the two made Fuchs one of the most important sources supplying information to Ursula. “Fuchs’ transfer of scientific secrets to the Soviet Union… was one of the most concentrated spy hauls in history,” Macintyre writes, noting that the haul consisted of 570 pages of reports, calculations, drawings, formulae and diagrams relating to the development of nuclear weapons.

Some of the material was too technically complex to be codable and transmittable by radio. In those cases Kuczynski passed it on using a method of quick contact – a swift transmission of documents from person to person, which even a trained observer would not notice.

According to a report of Soviet military intelligence, Macintyre writes, Fuchs succeeded in making “plasticine impressions” of keys in the Birmingham nuclear research center, which enabled him to acquire many secret documents from his colleagues’ safes.

Fuchs’ code name in Soviet military intelligence attested to the importance that was attached to him: “Enormo[u]s.” Fuchs’ request that the information he was passing on should go straight to Stalin was carried out. In June 1943, for example, Stalin forwarded to Foreign Minister Molotov 12 questions about the atomic bomb project and demanded immediate replies. The Foreign Ministry passed on the list to the head of military intelligence, who transmitted it directly to Sonya. Fuchs delivered the goods again, writing a richly detailed report.

Subsequently Fuchs joined the Manhattan Project – the American effort to manufacture the world’s first atomic bomb. There, across the ocean, he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear device, on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert. Four years later, the Soviets detonated an almost identical bomb, ending Washington’s monopoly on nuclear weapons. Fuchs was one of those who brought this about and was accordingly termed “the greatest spy of the nuclear era.”

Macintyre quotes the East German spymaster Markus Wolf as noting that Fuchs had “made the greatest single contribution to Moscow’s ability to build an atom bomb [and] changed the world’s balance of power by breaking America’s nuclear monopoly.” A number of spies worked with him, all of whom have by now been named; the last of them, Oscar Seborer, an electrical engineer who worked at Los Alamos (and a Jew), was revealed only two years ago.

Another success attributed to Ursula was the infiltration of Soviet spies into an American espionage operation in Nazi Germany. According to a plan devised by the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) in 1944, a group of anti-Nazi Germans were to be recruited in Britain, trained in and equipped with advanced communications media, and parachuted into Germany in order to send to the United States information about developments within the Reich.

Kuczynski was able to recruit some of the candidates, who harbored communist views, to whom it was explained that although they would be working for the Americans, their true masters were in Moscow, and all their activity was being done with the approval of the Soviet Union. The idea was for the parachutists to transmit to the Soviet Union information about the American technology they were using.

Macintyre relates that the technological highlight of the operation was the first use of a mobile manual radio device, which enabled ground-to-air communication. The “gizmo,” which would later be known as a “walkie-talkie,” was, the author writes, “a predecessor of the mobile telephone.

Sonya’s career in espionage might have continued until the lifting of the Iron Curtain, had it not been aborted in 1950, when Fuchs’ espionage activities were discovered by the Americans and the British. After his arrest, Sonya fled to East Germany, where she resettled in Berlin, her birthplace.

She abandoned spying and made a living as the author of children’s books. She died in Berlin in 2000, aged 93. A few weeks after her death, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared her “a super-agent of military intelligence.” According to Macintyre, the communist influence over her grew more temperate with time, but never completely faded.

Why did she not go on serving the Soviet Union afterward, from her safe haven in East Germany?

“She was exhausted, and I think she yearned for a different sort of life, one that was not suffused with secrecy.”

The Jewish Housewife Who Became a Soviet Nuclear Super-spy
Ofer Aderet
Sep. 3, 2021


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