Elena Witte (Helen Silvermaster) was born in Russia on 19th July, 1899. She was related to Count Sergei Witte, a government minister under Tsar Nicholas II. After Bloody Sunday, he was appointed as Chief Minister. Witte advised Nicholas to make concessions. He eventually agreed and published the October Manifesto. This granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association. He also promised that in future people would not be imprisoned without trial. Finally he announced that no law would become operative without the approval of the State Duma. (1)
Her father, Baron Peter Witte, was also an advisor to the Tsar. He was arrested after the Russian Revolution but was released and the family moved to China. After her marriage she became known as Elena Volkov. The couple emigrated to San Francisco, California in 1924. Soon afterwards they separated and divorced.
In 1930 she married Nathan Silvermaster. He was a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUS) and a close friend of its leader, Earl Browder. It is believed that Browder recruited Silvermaster as a Soviet spy. According to a memorandum sent by Vsevolod Merkulov to Joseph Stalin: "Starting in 1933 and into 1945, Browder rendered the NKGB... and the GRU... help, recommending to our representatives in the U.S. Communist Party for agent work. At Browder's recommendation, eighteen people were drawn to agent work for the NKGB and... people for GRU. In addition, through the Central Committee's functionaries controlling illegal groups." (2)
Silvermaster worked under Jacob Golos. It was argued by Allen Weinstein, the author of The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999): "It was through Browder that Silvermaster was introduced to Golos and the Soviets' East Coast intelligence network. Silvermaster's wife, Helen, a distant relative of the famous czarist Prime Minister Count Witte, shared her husband's enthusiasm for assisting the NKVD." (3) A friend remarked that she had "an indefinable air of quality in her tone of voice and in the way she held her head" that betrayed her aristocratic origins. (4)
In 1935 Silvermaster went to Washington to work for the Federal Resettlement Administration, a division of the Agriculture Department charged with helping migrant farmworkers. He now became one of the leading advocates of the New Deal. (5) He also began working closely with the NKVD and was given the codename (Pel). Helen also helped her husband and was given the codename, "Dora". (6) Nathan and Helen shared their home with William Ludwig Ullmann, who worked at the Treasury Department. He was also a Soviet spy who worked closely with other figures in the Department, including Harry Dexter White and Harold Glasser.
At first, Jacob Golos was the main contact of the Silvermaster group but his failing health meant that he used Elizabeth Bentley to collect information from the house. Helen was highly suspicious of Bentley and she told Golos that she was convinced that she was an undercover agent for the FBI. Golos told her that she was being ridiculous and that she had no choice but to work with her. The Silvermasters reluctantly accepted Bentley as their new contact.
Kathryn S. Olmsted, the author of Red Spy Queen (2002), points out: "Every two weeks, Elizabeth would travel to Washington to pick up documents from the Silvermasters, collect their Party dues, and deliver Communist literature. Soon the flow of documents grew so large that Ullmann, an amateur photographer, set up a darkroom in their basement. Elizabeth usually collected at least two or three rolls of microfilmed secret documents, and one time received as many as forty. She would stuff all the film and documents into a knitting bag or other innocent feminine accessory, then take it back to New York on the train." (7) Moscow complained that around half of the photographed documents received in the summer of 1944 were unreadable and suggested that Ullmann received more training. However, Pavel Fitin, who was responsible for analyzing the material, described it as very important data.
Elizabeth Bentley became aware that William Ludwig Ullmann was having an affair with his host's wife." (8) When Iskhak Akhmerov also discovered what was happening he cabled Moscow: "Surely these unhealthy relations between them cannot help but influence their behavior and work with us negatively." (9) Akhmerov also reported that other members of the group had become aware of this ménage à trois and that it was undermining his relationship with the rest of the group. However, Ullmann continued to provide important information.
Silvermaster became a key figure in Soviet espionage. He became even more important after Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa). Silvermaster was able to provide documents from the United States military attaché's office in London concerning recent data on the German armed forces. He also turned over information on U.S. military-industrial plans and on the views held by leading American policymakers concerning developments on the Soviet-German front.
Silvermaster reported on a discussion that took place between Navy Secretary Frank Knox and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. in July, 1941. This information convinced the NKVD that Morgenthau sympathized with the invaded country. Silvermaster was also able to get a copy of a confidential report written by Harry Hopkins about the invasion. It is believed that this came from another Roosevelt adviser, Lauchlin Currie, who was also a member of Silvermaster's network. (10)
Nathan Silvermaster informed Jacob Golos at a meeting on 26th March, 1942, that the House of Un-American Activities Committee had listed him among a hundred government officials suspected of being secret members of the Communist Party of the United States. An investigation by the Civil Service Commission could not confirm Silvermaster's Communist associations nor could an Office of Naval Intelligence inquiry. Lauchlin Currie used his position as special adviser on economic affairs to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to help quash the inquiry. (11)
Vassily Zarubin reported in October 1943: "Recently (Silvermaster) told us that (Currie) made every effort to liquidate his case: when (Silvermaster's) case was given for examination to the committee (White House security personnel) attached to Captain (the President), (Currie) managed to persuade the majority of members of the committee to favor repealing this investigation... He believes that the investigation will be stopped." (12)
On 7th November, 1945, the Soviet agent, Elizabeth Bentley, met with Don Jardine, FBI agent based in New York City. On that first day she talked for eight hours and gave a thirty-one-page statement. She gave a long list of Soviet spies that included Nathan Silvermaster, Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Silvermaster, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, William Remington, Harold Glasser, Charles Kramer, Duncan Chaplin Lee, Joseph Katz, William Ludwig Ullmann, Henry Hill Collins, Frank Coe, Mary Price, Cedric Belfrage and Lauchlin Currie. The following day J. Edgar Hoover, sent a message to Harry S. Truman confirming that an espionage ring was operating in the United States government. (13) Some of these people, including White, Currie, Bachrach, Witt and Wadleigh, were named by Whittaker Chambers in 1939. (14)
There is no doubt that the FBI was taking her information very seriously. As G. Edward White, has pointed out: "Among her networks were two in the Washington area: one centered in the War Production Board, the other in the Treasury Department. The networks included two of the most highly placed Soviet agents in the government, Harry Dexter White in Treasury and Laughlin Currie, an administrative assistant in the White House." (15) Amy W. Knight, the author of How the Cold War Began: The Ignor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies (2005) has suggested that it had added significance because it followed the defection of Ignor Gouzenko. (16)
On 30th July 1948, Elizabeth Bentley appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Over the next two days she gave the names of several Soviet spies including Nathan Silvermaster, William Ludwig Ullmann, Donald Niven Wheeler, William Remington, Mary Price, Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Duncan Chaplin Lee, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, Harold Glasser, Henry Hill Collins, Frank Coe, Charles Kramer and Lauchlin Currie. Silvermaster, Ullmann, Perlo, Kramer and Silverman took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer most of the HUAC's questions. (17)
Silvermaster was never prosecuted and according to Allen Weinstein, the author of The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) that Silvermaster and "his faithful housemate, William Ludwig Ullmann, had become by 1951 prosperous home builders on the New Jersey shore." (18) Later, he lived in Loveladies, Long Beach Island, where he was an executive in a construction, land developing and dredging company. (19)
Helen Silvermaster died aged 92 on 22nd December, 1991.
Nathan Silvermaster's wife, Helen, helped him spy. Unlike many of the Russian emigres who spied for Elizabeth, she was neither Jewish nor poor. Her father had actually been a baron in the old country, but he was called the "Red Baron" for his support of the Bolsheviks....
To complicate the Silvermaster menage, a sallow man in his mid-thirties, "Lud" Ullmann, lived with the couple. When Elizabeth met him, Lud worked at the Treasury Department. Later, with the help of a fellow spy, he would win a coveted job at the Pentagon. At first, Elizabeth was not clear about the relationship among the three members of the Silvermaster household. It soon became evident, however, that Ullmann was having an affair with his host's wife.
Elizabeth's job as Golos's assistant was to win the emigre couple's trust, but that was not as easy as it seemed. At their first meeting, Helen Silvermaster ushered her into their tasteful, spacious living room and chatted pleasantly for an hour. Yet Elizabeth sensed that the Russian woman was suspicious of her. Later, Helen protested to Golos that Elizabeth must be an undercover agent for the FBI. Angry with Elizabeth for "creating such an impression of distrust" and with Helen for her "idiocy," Golos told the Silvermasters that they had no choice. Helen and her husband reluctantly accepted Elizabeth as their new contact.
Every two weeks, Elizabeth would travel to Washington to pick up documents from the Silvermasters, collect their Party dues, and deliver Communist literature. Soon the flow of documents grew so large that Ullmann, an amateur photographer, set up a darkroom in their basement. Elizabeth usually collected at least two or three rolls of microfilmed secret documents, and one time received as many as forty. She would stuff all the film and documents into a knitting bag or other innocent feminine accessory, then take it back to New York on the train.
The knitting bag soon bulged with critical documents from the U.S. government. Shortly after the Nazi invasion of Russia, Silvermaster stole secret estimates of German military strength. Later, when the United States extended its policy of Lend-Lease to the USSR, he gave Elizabeth secret memos about the program.
Silvermaster also passed along White House gossip, such as the rumors of frosty relations between the president and his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, and the arguments within the cabinet over financial aid to the Soviets.