BETWEEN SILK AND CYANIDE – One Of The Best Books I Have Read

Over the past year, a number of books have been written by British and European writers who place at the core of the mystery the increasing interest by the young in the neo-Nazi movement.  World War II still has a hold on the imaginations of those too young to have lived with the Third Reich and the war.

Last year, at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding a poem was read during the ceremony.  The poem is called The Life That I Have –

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours
And yours

Leo Marks is the author of the poem which he wrote in 1943 in honor of a girlfriend who had been killed in a plane crash.  Marks was a cryptographer during World War II, basing his codes on his original poetry because the Germans did not have access to them.  BETWEEN SILK AND CYANIDE remains one of the best books I have read.

There is an excellent non-fiction book called BETWEEN SILK AND CYANIDE written by Leo Marks. Marks was one of “the clever children”, the young people who put together the codes used by the British during WWII. Marks’ father owned an antiquarian bookstore in London and when he was 8, Marks found a copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s THE GOLD- BUG. Cryptography became an obsession. Leo’s skills would be put to use for the war effort but instead of going to Bletchley Park with people like Alan Turing, he was assigned to a new office, the Special Operations Executive. Instead of breaking codes, Marks had to create them. What was needed were codes that could be used by secret agents in occupied Europe that would be difficult for the Germans to break.  Marks began writing poems for one time use as keys.  Since the poems were original, there was no chance that the Germans could use them if a courier was captured.

One of the most difficult problems involved trying to find safe ways for agents to carry the code sheets they needed in order to transmit information. Marks realized that the best method was the use of small squares of silk. They could be easily hid on the body and were unlikely to be found if an agent was searched. They also burned quickly and without a trace when the transmission was completed. But as the war progressed, silk became increasingly difficult to obtain. What was available was being used for parachutes because the material could be folded small and easily hidden. (I love the fact that the parachutes became wedding dresses for women in Europe after the war).

The title of the book comes from a response Marks gave to someone who suggested there was little difference between paper and silk. Marks said the difference wasn’t between paper and silk but between silk and cyanide;  if paper was used there was a greater chance that the courier would be discovered and then suicide would be a necessary alternative.

Most of Marks’ agents were women and most survived the war. The attitude in the US before the WWII was that gentlemen didn’t read each other’s mail. A secret group that spied on people was considered un-American. However, before Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt asked “Wild Bill” Donovan to begin an office that would allow information to be tracked by one office. General Donovan and his group worked closely with the Strategic Services Executive, Leo Marks’ group, until the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, was created by Roosevelt in 1942. The OSS became the CIA under the direction of Donovan after the war.

BETWEEN SILK AND CYANIDE details one of the most fascinating aspects of World War II.  For anyone interested in the period, this is a must read.

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