Horrors of Second World War must not be forgotten, says Marthe Cohn, 98
A 24-year-old Marthe Cohn became a spy for France in November 1944, serving the war effort with actions she would not talk about, even with family, for another 50 years.
She tells her story now, over and over, in an effort to educate and encourage vigilance against targeted hate and authoritarianism.
As a spy, Cohn made repeated attempts to cross the French-German border, without success, before managing to cross along the Swiss-German border in April 1945.
It was no simple achievement, requiring her to hide in a forest, crawl and walk in the dark of the night, before boldly approaching a German soldier along her route, declaring “Heil Hitler,” with false papers and suitcase in hand.
The young, Jewish woman, also blonde and fluent in German, was allowed on her way and she hurriedly headed to a house in Singen, Germany.
It’s where she would later be asked — for the first and only time during the war — if she was a spy.
“I fell (along the way) because there were craters. Singen had been bombarded by the Americans, and in the darkness I didn’t see it and I fell, and I tore completely my silk socks, because we were wearing silk socks, not nylon yet,” she said, telling the story once again for reporters in St. John’s Wednesday.
She re-told her experience at a public talk on Wednesday night.
Cohn said young women weren’t wearing slacks at the time. But being a young woman in civilian clothes was also less suspicious on the streets of a German town than being a young man out of uniform. It generally worked to her advantage.
But she had torn her stockings.
“I arrived at the German address,” she recalled, noting the woman there offered a bed for the night. Cohn wasn’t forced to reveal her mission.
“She was very hospitable. … The next morning, I got up and went into the kitchen and she was already there cooking, and I saw that she was in a very bad mood and she immediately told me, ‘I did not sleep all night. I was terrified, because I saw that you had torn your stockings and we are constantly warned to be extremely careful, because we are so close to the Swiss border and a lot of spies are crawling in from Switzerland into Germany and coming here.’ Then she looked at me straight in my eyes and said, ‘Fraulein,’ which means young girl in German, ‘are you a spy?’
“I started laughing. Don’t ask me how that came. I started laughing. I was standing up,” Cohn said. “And I bent a little over and I said, ‘Do I look like a spy?’
“She started laughing too … and the crisis was over.”
Cohn had a life-saving talent for saying the right thing at the right time. She also struck a rather unimposing figure — making her a valuable military asset.
She gathered information for the French, managing to relay it back, including details on where German troops had abandoned a portion of the Siegfried Line, and an area where German troops waited in a planned ambush of the Allies.
Her work has since been credited with helping to save thousands of lives.
“I knew it was important, but I didn’t know to what degree it was important,” she said, with evidence of some of the subsequent recognitions set out on in front of her: a Croix de Guerre and a German Order of Merit (for lives saved) being just two examples.
But Cohn’s story is more than her military service. Before joining French intelligence, she was a Jewish woman with experience in occupied France. She lost family to the war, including a sister who was killed in Auschwitz.
She still recalls the French resistance, the small indignities encouraged at times, and gross injustices committed by Hitler’s army.
At one point, she said, she was working an office job with three other young women at city hall in the French city of Poitier, until three German military police walked in.
“They were like football players. They were huge. And they all had rifles and bayonets,” she said.
“They screamed ‘Juden raus!’ That means Jews out! And we lost our job in two minutes. We lost our job,” she said.
What was felt in moments like this?
“That I was not considered a human being anymore. I was considered a sub-human,” she said. “But I did not accept it.”
Cohn began to share her experiences after seeing an advertisement from the USC Shoah Foundation Institute in 1996. The institute was founded in 1994 by film director Steven Spielberg, following his work on “Schindler’s List” (1993). It was dedicated to videotaping and otherwise preserving interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust.
“We were brainwashed that intelligence work is absolutely — you cannot talk about it. And I believed that. But in 1996 when I saw that ad, I felt it was enough time that I could talk,” Cohn said.
She followed with an extended interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She then went on to public talks, leading to a biography published in 2002 called “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.”
Now 98 years old, she still has a sharp mind and is able to relay events in her life with vivid detail — something she hopes will help younger generations in remembering genocide and the forces fuelling the Second World War.
“Because if you don’t remember you are not ready to fight when it arrives again,” she said, adding the best way to fight is to use your vote.
She encouraged reacting when you think a candidate would allow hate speech, or not condemn neo-Nazism.
“There are many examples. Almost daily,” she said.
She issued a warning related to U.S. President Donald Trump, saying he says things without understanding their significance.
“And he pushes the country in a certain direction which is absolutely like the ’30s in Germany. Exactly. Because in Germany it didn’t happen overnight either. It happened very slowly,” she said.
Cohn is married to Major L. Cohn, whom she met when he was a medical student and she was working as a nurse. They settled in America and currently live in Los Angeles, but the couple is now constantly travelling for speaking engagements and educational outreach. He said their schedule may be gruelling at times, but they are set on continuing.