Any recounting of the life of Marthe Cohn – a French, Jewish spy in Germany during the Holocaust – revolves around numbers: At age 24, she said yes to an assignment spying for French Intelligence. In 2002, she co-authored a book with Wendy Holden on her wartime experiences titled “Behind Enemy Lines,” which is available on Amazon. This living legend – 4’9” tall – will turn 97 in April.
But the most important number in Marthe Cohn’s life is the number one – the power of one courageous woman who helped put an end to war in a world gone mad.
Cohn gave talks in both Tucson and Phoenix last month. At the Tucson event, co-sponsored by Chabad of Oro Valley and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Northwest Division, well over 100 were in attendance. Nearly 100 attended the event hosted by Chabad of Fountain Hills.
This unlikely war hero was born Marthe Hoffnung into an Orthodox Jewish family in Metz, France, only 35 miles from the German border. The good life she enjoyed with her parents and six brothers and sisters came to an abrupt end in 1939 when France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun. All inhabitants of Metz were advised by the government to move to a safer area if at all possible.
The family relocated to Poitiers, southwest of Paris. Despite various restrictions imposed by the Germans, who had taken control of the city, life went on somewhat normally for a time. Cohn began her nursing studies and became engaged to Jacques, a medical student. She and her sisters were also involved in the Underground, helping French Jews without official papers hide and then move from occupied France south to the unoccupied area or “Zone Libre.”
In I942, her sister Stephanie was arrested by the Gestapo in Poitiers for Resistance activities and eventually sent to Auschwitz, where she perished.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall and using forged papers that did not identify her as a Jew, Cohn fled alone to Marseille in the Zone Libre. Here she continued her nursing studies.
Another tragedy in her life occurred in 1943. During a month-long nursing assignment in Paris, Cohn secretly met with fiancé Jacques, sought by the S.S. for activities related to the Resistance. Cohn urged him to remain in hiding but he returned to Poitiers and was executed.
Even while grieving the devastating losses of both her sister and fiancé, Cohn went back to Marseille and obtained her R.N.
Using false papers, she later traveled to Paris and worked as a nurse until the capital was liberated by the Allies in August 1944.
The next challenge Cohn set for herself – volunteering for the French army – put her at the greatest personal risk. She was first sent to Alsace, not to do nursing but social work. Within three weeks of her arrival, the commanding officer discovered that the young “social worker” was a fluent speaker of German and recruited her for espionage in Germany. She immediately accepted.
“Usually a spy is a very tall, good-looking woman,” Cohn quipped…“I was a very unlikely spy.” Her command of German, blue eyes and blond hair – plus the convincing alibi that she was a German nurse looking for her Nazi fiancé – made her the perfect candidate for espionage.
Information she transmitted to French military officials on two separate forays into Germany was critical to achieving an allied victory on the European front, which saved countless lives.
Cohn later married an American medical student and started a family. During the next 50 years, she did not discuss her wartime activities. “It was not modesty,” the nonagenarian explained, “but I just never thought people would believe me.”
In the mid-1990s on a trip to France, Cohn requested copies of her military records. When officials learned of her acts of bravery, she became a national hero.
After hearing her talk, I still had a few questions for Cohn:
With the exception of the tragic loss of your sister Stephanie, did all family members survive?
Yes, my brothers and sisters were very active in the Resistance.
Anne Frank wrote in her diary,”In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Do you agree?
So many French people risked their lives to save us; I am quite optimistic on that subject.
At age 96 l/2 do you have any goals to accomplish?
Yes, to educate adults but primarily children on the dangers of intolerance and following those who preach discrimination against other groups. I will be engaged as long as I can.
Madame Marthe Cohn is a hero of our time – a hero for all time.