Sonya Olschanezky

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Sonya Olschanezky
Nickname(s) Tania
Born (1923-12-25)25 December 1923
Chemnitz, Saxony, Germany
Died 6 July 1944(1944-07-06)
KZ Natzweiler-Struthof, France
Allegiance United Kingdom, France
Service/branch Special Operations Executive
Years of service 1940-1944
Unit Juggler

Sonya Olschanezky or Sonia Olschanesky (25 December 1923, Chemnitz, Saxony, Germany – 6 July 1944, Natzweiler-Struthof, Germany) was a member of the French Resistance and SOE during World War II.

Early life[edit]

The daughter of a Russian Jew, Eli Olschanezky, a chemical engineer who worked as a sales representative for a manufacturer of ladies' stockings, she was seven years old when the family moved to Paris, France and her father opened a lingerie shop there. Olschanezky was a good student but her main ambition was to become a dancer, and after leaving school she worked as an au pair.

French Resistance[edit]

In May 1940, France was invaded by the German Army. It was not long before Sonya had joined the French Resistance and stationed in Châlons-sur-Marne, spent her time carrying messages between Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents in the area.

After the French surrender, the new leader, Henri-Philippe Petain, cooperated in the persecution of the Jews in the country. In May 1942, orders were given for all Jewish men, women and children to wear a six-pointed yellow star on their clothing over the region of the heart. The following month, Olschanezky was arrested and sent to a camp at Drancy, where she awaited being sent to an extermination camp in Nazi Germany.

When her mother heard the news, she contacted friends in Germany who managed to produce false papers that stated that she had "economically valuable skills" needed for the war effort. On the production of the false papers and the payment of a sum of money to the appropriate German official, Olschanezky was freed.

SOE F Section[edit]

After her release, Olschanezky returned to her resistance work and in 1943 was locally recruited by her fiance, Jacques Well, to the Juggler sub-circuit of the Physician Network that included Andrée Borrel, Francis Suttill and Gilbert Norman. In October 1943 Sonya learnt of the capture of Noor Inayat Khan, a radio operator with Suttill's network, and, through Weil and via Bern, informed London of the arrest, and that Noor's radio was probably in German hands. Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE F Section, ignored the message as unreliable because it came from a source he did not know. As a result, agents continued to be sent to, and captured in, France, and Sonya herself was later arrested in Paris.[1]

The network was betrayed and most of its leading members were arrested. However, Olschanezky remained free until being captured in January 1944 and after being interrogated by the Gestapo, she was imprisoned at Fresnes.

On 13 May 1944, the Germans transported Sonya and seven other SOE agents, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Madeleine Damerment, Odette Sansom, Diana Rowden, Andrée Borrel and Vera Leigh, to Nazi Germany.

Death[edit]

On 6 July 1944, Sonya along with Diana Rowden, Andrée Borrel and Vera Leigh, were taken to the concentration camp at Natzweiler-Struthof. Later that day, they were injected with phenol and put in the crematorium furnace. One of the women attempted to resist her murder, and one, possibly the same woman, may have revived when placed in the oven, and was able to scratch the face of her executioner, Peter Straub.[2] Sonya was twenty years old when killed in action.

When Vera Atkins, SOE's intelligence officer, began her search for missing agents after the war, she originally confused Sonya, who was unknown to her, with Noor Inayat Khan, believing it was Noor who was executed at Natzweiler with the other three women. However, once Atkins confirmed that Noor had been killed at Dachau concentration camp, it was established that Sonia, who, with her dark colouring, resembled Noor, had died at Natzweiler.[3]

In spite of the efforts of Vera Atkins, Sonya Olschanezky is not commemorated on the Valencay SOE Memorial in the Loire Valley, unveiled in 1991, which is dedicated to the 91 men and 13 women of F Section who were killed in action, because she was a locally recruited agent and was not a British officer. Neither was she honoured by the British government, despite her heroic exploits on its behalf.

Sonya is now commemorated with a plaque, along with the names of Noor Inayat Khan and Lilian Rolfe, on the Vera Atkins Memorial Seat in the Allied Special Forces Memorial Grove at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

References[edit]