My career in “espionage” began with my friend Marianne, who worked at the German Embassy in Tokyo. Given that the wartime situation made it difficult for the embassy to get qualified typists from Germany, she told the employment manager at the embassy that I was living with her and was a fairly good typist. Following Marianne’s intervention on my behalf, I was invited for an interview and a test. I went to the embassy and met the manager, who was a very nice man. He guessed that I must have been a bit nervous as he dictated to me very slowly; it must have worked, because I was able to read my dictation back to him perfectly.
“You’ve done very well,” he said, “and we would be very happy to employ you here at the embassy.” He told me what my salary would be, which was for me agreeable. To my surprise, he never asked me if I was a member of the Nazi Party, which I was not.
I was told I would start in the press department where I would relieve a young lady who was going on vacation for two weeks. My first assignment would be taking dictation from Richard Sorge. I was familiar with Sorge, whom I had met many times at friends’ dinner parties, embassy functions and the German club. I remember that during those gatherings he was always the center of attention, entertaining us all with his storytelling and his wit. I liked him very much and was looking forward to working with him.
My day was to begin at 6 o’clock every morning. I was told that my initial task was to write a news bulletin, translating reports sent out from headquarters in Berlin regarding troop movements and general information from the home front. Once I gathered all of the information, I would type out two or three single-spaced pages, which would then go to the printer. The finished product was sent by mail to Germans living outside Tokyo or given out free at Tokyo’s German club.
The news we relied upon came in by teletype and had to be translated quickly from English to German. Sorge-san, as we used to call him, would assist us in our efforts. Although he was not on the diplomatic staff, my new boss was a journalist representing the German paper Frankfurter Zeitung, and his fluency in English and friendship with the ambassador, Maj. Gen. Eugen Ott, gave him a great deal of access to the embassy, its staff and grounds.
On my first day of work I went, as instructed, to a door with the sign: “Eintritt verboten” (Entrance prohibited). I had been told to disregard this notice and to go into the room without knocking. Upon entering I found myself in a gloomy office that was thick with tobacco smoke. My first instinct was to open a window, but I did not dare. Immediately to the left of the door was a Japanese man furiously typing away. The desk next to him was occupied by a young German (whom I knew as an excellent tennis player), also busy at his typewriter. In the right corner of the room, next to the window, was Sorge, sitting in front of a larger desk, bent over some papers, a cigarette hanging from the left corner of his mouth. His desk was terribly untidy, with books and newspapers piled high in complete disorder and papers spilling over from the wastebasket next to him. His crumpled gray suit and tired, lined face gave me the impression of a man who had gone all night without sleep.
No one took the slightest notice of me as I looked around and adjusted my vision to the murky lighting. Only after I had gathered enough courage to greet the occupants with a cheerful “Good morning, gentlemen” did Sorge look up and give me a long, cold look. Once I explained my presence, he stood up, shook my hand and introduced me to the others. He assigned me to a desk and a typewriter and asked if I could type. When I told him that was what I was supposed to be there for, he murmured, “Well, I think you might do.”
I had been told that rather than the usual practice of taking dictation in shorthand and typing it up later, to save time Sorge would dictate directly to me. But when I was seated at my desk, he handed me some papers typed in English and asked if I could translate them into German. I offered to try, and rather slowly typed out information about troop movements on the Western Front.
As I typed, Sorge leaned back in his chair and started to tell the young German what a rough night he had experienced. The previous evening he had hit a policeman with his car and then run it into a ditch, completely smashing his left front fender. In a very amusing way, he then told the young man how he had avoided trouble with the authorities by inviting the bruised policeman for a drink, which eventually led to several others. He must have had one of his famous nights; he was certainly not in the mood to translate detailed troop movements. He then offered his battered vehicle to the young tennis player. Perhaps more used to Sorge’s boastings than I was, the young man declared that he could find somebody else to buy Sorge’s “old box,” which was dismissed with a hearty laugh. With his offer rebuffed, Sorge said that perhaps he would try to sell the car to his new friend the policeman instead.
This introduction to my new working environment was a bit startling and I had difficulty concentrating on my translations. After a few minutes of silence, Sorge looked over my shoulder and said that I was not working very fast. The bulletin was supposed to be ready for the printers at 8 a.m. at the very latest, and in the first half hour of my new job I had not even completed half a page. Rather than get angry, however, Sorge offered to dictate to me. To my surprise, what followed proved to be very agreeable. He was great fun to work with. He had a brilliant mind and translated fluently without stopping.
As I typed away furiously, I smelled something burning. I did not dare to stop typing, and nobody else seemed to notice anything unusual. After another sentence I looked up and saw—to my horror— Sorge’s wastebasket in flames! He must have thrown his burning cigarette into the bin. I jumped up and shouted “Fire!” Sorge got up quickly, saying, “Wonderful—let this place burn down, so we do not have to translate this rot.” I do remember those words distinctly, even though I was already half out of the room to get some water. The other two men had jumped up in a panic, screaming for water. Sorge just opened a window and left the room. The two came running back, each carrying a bucket of water. They threw it on the fire and managed to put it out, leaving a shocking mess and an awful smell. Nobody seemed to care; I wondered what would happen next.
After a while Sorge reentered the room, hands in pockets, complimenting the others for their splendid work. He called them “lifesavers,” and said to me, “Well, my dear child, it looks as if we have to continue after all.”
I was getting very concerned about the time we had lost. Because half the floor was soaked, my shoes had gotten wet and I was very uncomfortable. After a few more minutes of typing, Sorge stopped dictating and asked if I could make some coffee. I responded that it was one of my duties, and would take care of it. I left the room and returned with some strong, hot coffee that was appreciated by everyone— especially Sorge, who after his previous evening must have needed it most of all. He thanked me, grabbed a cup, took a sip and pronounced it a “drink for the gods.” He then complimented me by saying that if I could brew such a great cup of coffee I was ready for marriage.
The day wore on and by now the telephone in the office rang continuously; the printers wanted to know if they could have the first page of the newsletter and various Japanese and German news agencies wanted information. Sorge was on the phone every five minutes, and how we ever managed to get three pages filled by 9 a.m. is still a mystery to me.
That was my first day at the embassy with Richard Sorge, and it is still as vivid in my memory as though it happened yesterday. After the bulletin was completed, Sorge told us he would go over to the ambassador’s home for breakfast. Later I learned that this was his daily routine. After this visit he would call on the various attachés in their offices, also located on embassy grounds. After leaving the embassy, he could be reached downtown in his office. None of us knew, of course, that it was during this time in his office that he sorted all of the information he had gathered during his various social calls and sent it along to his Soviet bosses in Moscow.
Those of us who worked with Sorge had no idea of his covert activities. He was liked by almost everybody and was pleasant to work with when he was sober. Quick with a joke, he was always ready with a hearty laugh. A brilliant conversationalist, he was well-informed on every subject imaginable. I liked him very much, even though I sometimes found his personality intimidating.
It came as a great surprise to all of us, therefore, when he was arrested on October 18, 1941, and carted off to jail. Even then, we had no idea of the valuable intelligence that he had passed along to the Russians, including information about Japan’s alliance with Germany and Italy, the triumph of the faction of Japanese military leaders who favored a war in the Pacific rather than further attacks into Manchuria, and the unheeded warning that Adolf Hitler was planning an invasion of the Soviet Union. Months later, when it became known that Sorge had been the head of a Soviet spy ring, everyone was shocked beyond words. The whole affair was very hush-hush, and I think that the authorities’ desire to keep the entire thing a secret prevented me from being questioned or worse. I do not remember ever reading or hearing anything regarding his trial—only his hanging by the Japanese in November 1944.
Many years later, friends who knew my connection with Sorge sent me a long article from the German magazine Der Spiegel about his life and affairs. The story mentioned that the grateful Russians had erected a huge granite statue of him in a park in Moscow.
I was on a trip in Russia in 1990, and when in Moscow I asked my tour guide if she had ever heard of Sorge. “Oh, yes, my dear,” she answered. “He’s one of our heroes.” She then told me about the statue of my former boss that was in the Soviet capital.
I asked if it would be possible for me to see the statue. She said it might, and she would try to get a taxi, but that might be a problem as they were very scarce. Then she asked me if I had any cigarettes. Fortunately, I had been advised by friends to bring along cartons of cigarettes with me to Russia, as they were a good exchange for items and services not readily available. The guide went out to the street and, a pack of cigarettes aloft, soon flagged down a taxi for me.
After a time, the taxi reached the statue. I was overwhelmed. The likeness was huge—four times taller than me—and magnificent. I must say Sorge looked much more handsome in granite than I ever saw him in real life. Flowers at the statue’s base gave some indication of the reverence the Russians had for the man I had worked for so many years before. For my part, my own feelings were mixed. I could not help wondering if any of the information I had prepared had been sent along to the Russians, and I was very angry with him for so cleverly fooling us all. And yet, without his subterfuges on behalf of the Russians, would the war have had a different outcome?
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.