Agent Sonya: Eshet Chayil

agent sonya intro

Nathan Abrams on Agent Sonya, a book about a remarkable Jewish spy.

Not many non-fiction books open a paragraph with the sentence, ‘Ursula lay awake wondering whether to murder her nanny’. But then the subject of this book is unusual: a Jewish woman, housewife and spy, who spied for the Soviet Union and successfully escaped the clutches of Stalin, MI5 and numerous other intelligence services, while hiding in plain sight. 

Ursula Kuczynski is a rarity in the lore of Jewish spies. From the Bible to Mossad, female Jewish spies have been few and far between although we may include Ethel Rosenberg, Vera Atkins, Krystyna Skarbek and Hannah Szenes. Ursula is the subject of Ben Macintyre’s new book, Agent Sonya.  

Born to a well-to-do Jewish family in Berlin, Ursula described herself as, ‘Grumpy and growling, I am a hot-head, a crossbreed with a black mane of hair, a Jew’s nose, and clumsy limbs, bitching and brooding…’ She was also a committed communist, a true believer in the cause. As she became more involved, her life became entwined in danger and domesticity. 

Ursula’s conversion began during the collapse of the Weimer Republic as the communists fought running battles against the fascists. Her involvement deepened as she moved from Berlin to Shanghai with her first husband, an architect named Rudi Hamburger. He was Jewish but not yet a communist although he, too, would later join the cause (becoming, by all accounts, a somewhat hapless agent). 

In the first of many aliases she became Ursula Hamburger. Pregnant with their first child, she joined a Soviet spy ring led by the legendary Richard Sorge (with whom she fell in love) and with perhaps the perfect cover. Who could possibly suspect that a first-time mother and housewife with a new-born baby might also be a spy? Her codename was Sonya, which is Russian for dormouse, but also pointed to her ability to hide in plain sight, as a deep cover sleeper agent. Ben Macintyre describes as ‘a married woman (albeit unhappily) and a mother, a Jewish, bookish, tender middle-class intellectual who enjoyed the ordinary pleasures of shopping, cooking and bringing up a child’.  

Leaving Shanghai, she abandoned her husband and child, Michael, to train as a spy in the Soviet Union. Despite the agony of missing her son, she subordinated her maternal feelings in the service of the state. Once her training was completed, she departed Moscow to return to the Far East with her family, this time to Japanese-occupied Manchuria with a fellow agent with whom she had fallen in love. In Manchuria, Ursula resumed the surface life as a ‘middle-class German-Jewish woman of letters’. 

From Manchuria, Ursula travelled to Peking where she had had a second child by another spy who was not her husband. By this point, the headstrong Ursula was an adventurous, mature undercover agent and trained intelligence officer with a heavy burden of responsibility. In addition to her two children, she now ran an anti-Nazi spy network in Switzerland.  

Ursula subsequently moved to Britain having acquired a UK passport by marrying Len Beurton. Nevertheless, she was compelled to sign an agreement that she would leave by certain date. Despite her newly adopted British nationality, Britain did not open its arms to all German Jews especially if they were communists. MI5, which was keeping tabs on her and her family in Britain, was suspicious of her marriage to Beurton, as (rightly) a marriage of convenience, because ‘she clearly comes from an entirely different social strata’. Len, for his part, was already in love with Ursula and she soon returned his affections.  

In Kidlington, Oxfordshire, Ursula settled into her new life as a British housewife. Macintyre describes how 

The two sides of Ursula’s life, domesticity and espionage, the open and the secret, merging away that had never happened before. As Mrs Burton from number 124 she had a settled home, contented children, friendly neighbours and the supportive family; as agent Sonya she had a camera for producing microdots a network of sub agents are helpful and appreciate if Soviet handler and an illegal radio transmitter in her bedroom cupboard she also got back her husband and fellow spy.

She even used her children’s toys to smuggle radio parts. 

Behind the Soviet Union’s back, Britain and America were collaborating on developing the atomic bomb. But Stalin knew anyway in part through Ursula’s efforts as she ran her greatest spy, the atomic physicist, Klaus Fuchs, in the unremarkable and sleepy village of Banbury in Oxfordshire. This was done with the unwitting assistance of a pillar of Anglo-Jewry, the fiercely patriotic Judge Neville Laski, who had recently retired as President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, as he leased out a cottage on his Oxford property to Ursula and her family. By the end of the war, they moved to the picturesque rural Hamlet of Great Rollright in the North Oxfordshire Cotswolds, population 243. Even though she was Jewish and a staunch Marxist atheist, she seldom missed church and baked a very tasty homemade scone. 

As ‘Mrs Burton’ (Beurton was considered too foreign sounding by the locals), Ursula was just another polite, modest and ordinary housewife, pregnant with her third child, sipping tea and grumbling about wartime rationing and shortages. Meanwhile, as ‘Colonel Kuczynski of the Red Army, she was running the largest network of spies in Britain: her sex, motherhood, pregnancy and apparently humdrum domestic life together formed the perfect camouflage… [as]… Ursula ruthlessly exploited the natural advantage of her gender.’ And it was her gender that saved her. Despite the stunningly obvious clues to her espionage activity, including a newspaper report on the arrest of Fuchs that described how he had met with a foreign woman with black hair in Banbury, MI5 ignored them because, as Macintyre explains, it ‘could not see Ursula for what she really was, because she was a woman’. But, realising that the net was closing in on her, in February 1950, she flew to East Germany not returning for another four decades. Ursula had successfully evaded the Chinese and Japanese secret police, the Swiss security services, the Gestapo, and MI5. Macintyre describes MI5’s failure to make the obvious connection to Ursula as a counter-intelligence blunder of historic proportions. 

Even though she now worked for the state, and despite her heroic deeds, Ursula was under suspicion for having resided in a capitalist country and for being bourgeois and Jewish. With antisemitism rising in East Germany, MI6 considered making an approach to her. Whether this happened, or not, Ursula resigned from working with the state and channelled her experiences into a series of bestselling semi-autobiographical novels for children and young adults now under the pseudonym of Ruth Werner. 

Ursula was a complex woman of many contradictions. She was extremely maternal but able to sacrifice her role as a mother when expedient. She hated being apart from her children but was willing to do so when ordered by Moscow. She was adept at cooking up explosives as well as doing the cooking. She supported Stalin even as he was murdering her closest friends and colleagues. Even the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which meant that she had to suspend her activities against the hated enemy, could not break her unwavering support. She turned a blind eye as her friends and colleagues were murdered at an alarming rate by Stalin, claiming ignorance of the purges and the scale of the bloodletting, buying into the myth that capitalist spies had sewn an atmosphere of distrust within the Soviet Union making it almost impossible to distinguish between comrades and enemies.  

As a foreign-born spy, Ursula herself was in mortal danger and, in some ways, extremely lucky to have survived. But her survival was not down to pure luck. She had a remarkable capacity to inspire loyalty and hence was never betrayed. Even when the scale of Stalin’s crimes was revealed, she still maintained faith in socialism. It was only by the 1970s, that she saw its flaws. Ursula may have been an ideological communist, but she was also fun, romantic, warm, loving and inspired great loyalty.  

While Macintyre does not probe deeply into her Jewishness, probably because Ursula believed in none of it and practiced even less, we are left wondering (because Macintrye doesn’t ask such questions): how far can Ursula’s Jewishness be said to contribute to a distinctly Jewish form of femininity as well as a distinctly Jewish form of espionage? Can we consider Ursula an ‘eshet chayil’ in that meaning of the term as brave, valorous and soldierly?

Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy is published by Viking (£25)

Thanks to Gus Condeixa for creating the arresting images used in this article. Credits: Wikipedia, Peter Beurton, Thomas Windisch and Twitter.


I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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