WWII spy, survivor shares story at Rancho Santa Fe event

Marthe Cohn was an unlikely World War II spy.

At just 4 feet, 11 inches, Cohn was petite with blonde hair and blue eyes. She was also Jewish.

With her fair features and flawless German language skills, however, she was able to convince Nazi officers she posed no threat.

In fact, she successfully crossed into Germany with a mission to gather important information on April 11, 1945, two days before her 25th birthday.

“Seeing the soldiers come and go, I became so terrified,” remembered Cohn. She was crouched in a forest with Georges Lemaire, the Swiss intelligence officer who accompanied her to the German-Swiss border.

“I was absolutely paralyzed by fear and it took me a very long time to overcome that fear. But suddenly, something clicked in my brain.”

Cohn thought about her previous 14 missions to infiltrate enemy territory. They were all unsuccessful.

Those memories motivated Cohn. She stood up and walked to the road.

“Heil Hitler,” she said, raising her right hand and greeting the soldier coming toward her. She presented him with her papers and he gave her permission to proceed.

“I was now in Germany,” she said.

Cohn had no compass, map, radio or weapons, only clothes without labels and German money and vouchers.

“Everything I needed to know was in my memory,” she said with a smile. “I have a pretty good memory.”

Now 96 years old, Cohn said she feels compelled to travel around the country to share her story with others.

As part of the Benedek Lecture Series of Chabad Jewish Center of Rancho Santa Fe, the Rancho Palos Verdes resident recently shared her story at the Benedek residence in Rancho Santa Fe. Although her experience took place decades ago, Cohn vividly recalled every detail during an interview with this newspaper just prior to the June 30 event.

“It’s important that people know that Jews fought,” she said. “We were not just waiting to be arrested.”

Cohn grew up miles from the German border when Hitler rose to power during World War II.

She was born Marthe Hoffnung on April 13, 1920, in the French Lorraine city of Metz, just 36 miles from the German border. Cohn was the fifth of Fischel and Regine Hoffnung’s eight children — one of her siblings had died before she was born. Although her parents, both orthodox Jews, spoke only German, Cohn grew up bilingual. She spoke fluent French and German.

During the war Cohn’s brothers joined the resistance. She and the rest of her family helped guide French Jews and other war refugees to safety.

Although Cohn tried to join the resistance, too, she was repeatedly rebuffed.

“They didn’t take me seriously,” she recalled. “They felt that I was a bimbo, so they never accepted me.”

It was also difficult to join the military. When Paris was liberated in August 1944, Cohn immediately tried to join the French army.

“It was extremely difficult because there were thousands of people who wanted to join,” she said.

Without a birth certificate, Cohn could not prove her identity. She was finally helped by the woman who would have become her mother-in-law. Madame Delaunay was respected by the resistance fighters as she had lost both her sons — including Cohn’s fiancé — and her husband during the war.

“She vouched to the army that I was a decent person,” said Cohn, who joined the army as a nurse in November 1944. “So I was finally accepted.”

Cohn later agreed to help with intelligence work during a chance meeting with a commanding officer who had been seeking German-speaking personnel.

She said she felt a duty to serve her country because so many people sacrificed their lives during the war.

“Many, many French non-Jews helped us tremendously at the risk of their lives and every member of their family,” said Cohn, pointing out that 75 percent of Jews in France survived.

On June 17, 1942, Cohn’s younger sister, 20-year-old Stephanie, was arrested and later died in the Auschwitz concentration camp for protecting the identity of a farmer helping Jews and other refugees. Her fiancé, a medical student who worked for the French resistance, was captured and executed by the Germans in 1943.

“So many French people had risked their lives to save us that it was absolutely normal to do our part,” Cohn said.

Cohn posed as Marthe Ulrich, a German nurse who was traveling along the battle lines looking for her lost fiancé. Even though her alibi was questioned several times, she was always quick to come up with an answer.

“Every time I had the right answer,” Cohn said. “I just found the right answer very fast.”

During one undercover mission across the border, for instance, a woman who Cohn stayed with asked her if she was an imposter.

“She looked at me straight in my eyes and she said, ‘Are you a spy?’

“I bent forward with my arms stretched out and said, ‘Do I look like a spy?’ I started laughing and she started laughing, too, and said no.

“I don’t know why I answered that way,” Cohn said. “That was my reaction.”

With a chuckle, she added that she “drives her husband crazy.” Cohn has been married to retired Dr. Major L. Cohn for 58 years.

“Because he’s a scientist, he has to ponder things and discuss things,” she said. “I make decisions right away, and that’s how I did it. That’s my nature.”

Cohn detailed her story in her 2002 memoir “Behind Enemy Line: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.”

She has received numerous awards for obtaining vital information for the Allied advance, including France’s highest military honor, the Medaille Militaire, a relatively rare medal awarded for outstanding military service.

“Be engaged and do not accept any order that does not agree with your conscience,” Cohn often advises high school and college students. “These are the two things I tell kids.”