Sonia Olschanezky was born in Chemnitz in Germany in 1923 to a Jewish family at a time when anti-Semitism was becoming increasingly more violent. Her father was born in Russia and her mother was from a wealthy German family. At the age of three the family moved to Bucharest to run a silk-stocking factory, but the business eventually went bankrupt. They then settled in France but during another business venture her father became the victim of fraud and the family fell into poverty.
Shortly after Germany occupied northern France Sonia was arrested for being a Jew and was sent to a prison camp in Drancy and waited to be transported to a concentration camp for execution.
Although the precise details are unknown, her mother still had at least one influential contact in Germany, and they secured Sonia’s release after producing a document stating she had ‘economic valuable skills for the war effort.’
Undeterred by her imprisonment and being acutely aware she was known to the Germans for being a Jew and could be arrested at any time she refused to keep a low profile and decided to join the resistance. After coming to the attention of an agent working for Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) which sent agents trained in subversive warfare to France and other countries under occupation, she started the dangerous work as a courier passing messages to agents and local resisters.
Sonia Olschanezky started working with SOE during the organisation’s most disastrous period in France. This is sometimes referred to as the period of errors because many mistakes were made and these resulted in clandestine networks being infiltrated by the Germans, mass arrests and executions. Although the dangers were enormous Sonia refused to join an escape line to England and insisted on continuing her resistance work. It was Sonia who first learned an SOE radio operator had been arrested and London was receiving messages from a German operator, but her report was rejected because London had not heard of Sonia and were concerned this may be a German deception. Consequently, after London received a radio message requesting more agents several were arrested soon after arriving in France.
Twenty-year-old Sonia Olschanezky was eventually denounced and the fact none of her close contacts were also arrested suggests she did not talk under torture.
After being interrogated at Gestapo HQ Sonia was transported to Natzweiler Concentration camp and executed.
Due to the confusion and high loss of life during the period of errors Sonia Olschanezky never came to the attention of SOE in London and her resistance work was only recognised after the war when Vera Atkins, the former intelligence officer for SOE’s French section was investigating the fate of missing agents.
After learning of Sonia’s resistance work and her death at Natweiler Vera Atkins requested she receive official recognition and her name be listed on the SOE war memorial in Valency. Several weeks after her request Atkins was informed by the memorial committee Sonia Olschanezky was not eligible because she was locally recruited and was not a trained SOE agent. Although her bravery and her work for SOE was verified by Atkins and others for the same reason she was never honoured with medals or citations by either the British or French government.
Sonia Olschanezky is now listed on the Vera Atkins memorial seat at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire along with other Female SOE agents who never returned from France. The fir tree in the middle of the seat was grown from a seed found at Natzweiler concentration camp.