Heroes of the Holocaust: Virginia Hall (Part 1)

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In 1941, the Nazis occupying Vichy France had a big problem. An invisible foe that seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at once. One who orchestrated everything from jail breaks to train derailments and bridge explosions. One who kept Allied intelligence as up to date on German troop movements as the very Oberst who issued the orders. A hero begrudgingly regarded by the Gestapo itself as "the Allies most dangerous spy.”

The daring rogue in question? An unassuming woman in her 30’s with a seven-pound prosthetic leg. The Allies called her "Artemis” in their top-secret documents, the Gestapo called her the "limping lady,” and to her allies in the resistance she was better known as "Marie of Lyon.” Today, we know this hero by her own name, Virginia Hall.

Born in Baltimore DC, Virginia always excelled at whatever she put her mind to. Growing up she excelled in both athletic and academic arenas, approaching her interests with a boundless determination and focus that would become her signature personality trait. A woman of great intelligence and integrity, Virginia was a polyglot who studied several languages and could fluidly speak French, Italian, and German (an almost perfect skill set for a future Allied spy). She studied Economics in multiple colleges and universities across Europe as she sought life experiences in addition to scholarly acclaim. Her travels took her to schools in France, Germany, and Austria and after graduation she found work with several different consulates.

It was in Turkey where she was working as a clerk that the accident that claimed her left leg happened. A freak accidental discharge during a hunting trip ruined her foot and the resulting gangrene necessitated the amputation of the leg below the knee. Prosthetic technology at the time was rudimentary, and her doctor’s strapped a seven pound wooden contraption to her leg.

Dauntless as ever, Virginia took this turn as well as anyone could. While her days as an athlete might be over, she was still determined to travel, work, and enjoy life to its fullest. Her wry sense of humor showing through in the nickname she gave her new leg, "Cuthbert.”
Virginia returned to work as a consular clerk in Venice, but her real ambitions rested elsewhere. She applied several times over the years to the U.S. Foreign Service as a way to put her unique skills to work and see more of the world. Unfortunately, she was repeatedly shot down, eventually receiving a rejection letter that made it clear the service was simply not interested in hiring a woman no matter how talented she might be. Eventually growing tired of the Foreign Service’s stubborn refusal to know a good thing when they saw it, she returned to Paris to work as an ambulance driver. An occupation that would land her square in the middle of history.

When the Germans marched into France in 1940, Virginia was there to see it happen. She saw firsthand what was happening in the country and the vulnerability of the people there. As the French government capitulated to the Nazis and America still hedged and debated across the Atlantic, it was clear who was going to suffer. Having extensive travel experience, Virginia knew and was friends with many Jews. She knew them as good, honest, regular people and found the Nazis propaganda about them and their fraudulent racial science repulsive. She recognized injustice for what it was and refused to quietly tolerate it. 

Escaping to London, Virginia made no secret of her disdain for the Nazis. Her opposition to the Nazi regime was total, and she was not shy about letting others know exactly what she thought they had coming to them. It was during a heated discussion about just that topic at a party in London when a stranger took her by the hand and passed her a piece of paper. "If you’re really interested in stopping Hitler, come and see me” the stranger said and then walked away without a chance for Virginia to respond. 

That person was Vera Atkins, the British spymaster. Vera was actively recruiting talent for the then fledgling Special Operations Executive (SOE) and unlike the U.S Foreign Service, Vera recognized potential when she saw it. When she looked at Virginia she did not see some young helpless woman with a wooden leg. She saw a multilingual genius with firsthand experience in both the French countryside and the halls of German academia who would slip beneath suspicion from even the most vigilant Gestapo vulture. Could you ask for a better secret agent?

In 1941 Virginia stepped foot in France again, this time under an assumed identity and a fake job as a New York Post reporter. She immediately set to work building one of the most effective and efficient spy networks of WW2.

Find out how in Part 2 later this week!

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