French Jew risked her life spying against the Nazis in World War II

French Jew risked her life spying against the Nazis in World War II

Marthe Cohn crouched in the bushes along the Swiss border with Nazi Germany, too terrified to move.

It was 1945, and the 24-year-old French nurse was just yards from the country road that marked German territory, watching as two armed guards marched back and forth along a huge field marking the only open stretch of border between the two countries.

Cohn, who is Jewish, wasn't trying to escape. Blond, blue-eyed and fluent in German, she had been recruited as a spy by the French army.

She and her Swiss guide had hid for hours in the nearby forest, waiting until evening when Cohn could crawl through the field to the bushes unseen while the guards' backs were turned.

Up until that point she hadn't had time to be afraid. She carried only a small suitcase with a few clothes, German money and a card with a forged identity — but no compass, map or radio.

Now, hiding in the bushes, waiting for the guards to separate again so she could cross into Germany, she was frozen with fear.

"I suddenly realized the immensity of what I was going to undertake," Cohn, 98, recalled in a recent interview.

She sat there for several hours until she summoned the courage to walk out onto the road. As one guard turned and saw her — just 4-foot-11 — she raised her right hand and said, "Heil Hitler." He asked for her identification as she held her breath.

"He gave it back to me without question. I was now in Germany," she said.

Cohn ended up providing crucial intelligence to Allied forces about German military operations and later was honored as a hero by the French government with the Croix de Guerre, for distinguished service in the fight against the Axis, and the Medaille militaire, for bravery in action against an enemy force.

Cohn, who lost a sister and 29 other relatives in the Holocaust, will give a free public talk at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, sponsored by the Chabad Jewish Center and the University of Illinois. A German documentary about her life, "Chichinette: How I Accidentally Became a Spy," is due out soon.

It's a remarkable story of tragedy and courage, war and hope.

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Marthe Cohn was born in 1920 in the French city of Metz in Alsace Lorraine, near the German border. Her parents, Regine and Fischel Huffnung, had grown up speaking German, as the area was under Germany's control until World War I. Marthe spoke both French and German.

In her 2002 book "Behind Enemy Lines," she describes a happy childhood growing up with two brothers and four sisters.

But there were disquieting signs. Her father was roughed up by police. As young as 5, she heard the taunts of "dirty Jew" from neighborhood children.

As Hitler rose to power, and Jews began fleeing Germany, her family sheltered refugees as they made their way to Palestine, America or other countries.

Among them was a young boy named Jacquie, the son of her father's cousin in Germany. He was sent to live with them at age 3 after "Kristallnacht," or the Night of Broken Glass, when his home was trashed by the Gestapo and his father narrowly escaped arrest.

In 1939, as the war heated up, the Huffnung family moved with other Jews to Poitiers, a university town about 400 miles from the German border.

But by the summer of 1940 the Germans had conquered much of France, including Poitiers, and life grew difficult for the town's Jews. First they had to register and carry papers identifying them as Jews. Their shops were marked as Jewish businesses. They were banned from most professions. Then their property and businesses were confiscated.

But the townspeople resisted in their own way.

Marthe and her sister, Stephanie, continued to help hundreds of Jews make their way to a nearby town that straddled the line between German-occupied France and the "free zone." Farmers there helped thousands of people escape by letting them cross into unoccupied France on their property.

The secret police had been watching one farmer in particular, and when they raided his house in July 1942, they found a note from Stephanie meant for one of the refugees. They arrested her, hoping to get information on the farmer. But she refused to implicate him.

Stephanie, then 20, was sent to prison for a month and then to a concentration camp on the edge of the city. She was a medical student and cared for children in the camp. The family made arrangements for her to escape with the help of two French guards. But Stephanie refused.

"When I reminded her that her mother needed her as much as the children, she answered me, 'If I escape you are all going to be arrested,'" Marthe said. "She was right."

Marthe, who was the oldest child still at home, decided the family should leave Poitiers so Stephanie could escape and they'd all be safe. But Stephanie died several years later in Auschwitz.

Marthe's co-worker had made identity cards for her family without the red stamp identifying them as Jews. She had initially declined, saying it would be too dangerous for him.

"He said, 'If I didn't help you, I could not live with myself,'" she recalled."'If I can save at least one family, I want to do it.'"

Marthe arranged for her family to go to the south of France, where her brothers were already living, with help from her nursing school classmates and her fiance, medical student Jacques Delauney. A Resistance fighter, he was caught and executed by the Germans in October 1943.

The night before the family was to leave Poitiers, one of Marthe's classmates came to the house saying the Germans were arresting French Jews and insisted they come to her house. Marthe was reluctant, but "she started crying and told me she was not going to leave until we came to her house. I knew she saved our lives."

They made their way to a nearby town, where a friend had arranged for a priest to help them get to unoccupied France. They had to walk past several French farms to the border, and Marthe worried that someone might turn them in, as the Germans offered enormous rewards for "denunciations."

"I approached the first farm. An old man got out of his chair and started praying for our safety. From farm to farm until the line where we had to cross into non-occupied France, all the people prayed for our safety. Nobody denounced us. It's the most beautiful story I know from the war," she said.

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A few months after Paris was liberated in August 1944, Marthe joined the French Army. She was initially assigned to be a social worker for a regiment headquartered in Alsace, near the German border. There she met the commander, Col. Pierre Georges Fabien, who was famous for killing the first German soldier in France in 1943. Once he discovered she spoke German, he asked if she would consider working for the army's intelligence service.

"I did not hesitate at all," she said. "I felt that if such an opportunity were given to me, I had no right to refuse it. So many French people had risked their lives to save ours during the five years of occupation, I felt that it was absolutely my duty to do as much as I could to help our country."

She had many close calls but was never captured. Initially, she worked with the French army, interrogating German prisoners of war, and was able to provide valuable information about the Nazis' plan of retreat from Alsace to Germany.

Her crossing at the Swiss border in 1945 was her first trip alone into Germany. She had two missions: to get information on the German military and find out how civilians were reacting to the war.

She posed as a German nurse named Marthe Ulrich seeking word of her fiance, Hans, a German soldier being held as a prisoner of war in France. The real Hans had been coerced into writing love letters and signing a picture to "My Beloved Marthe," which she carried. He was kept in isolation while she was in Germany to ensure he could not escape or warn others about her mission.

She made her way to Freiburg and developed relationships with civilians and soldiers, learning about infantry numbers and the regiment's next moves. She regularly walked to a farm near the Swiss border to report to her handlers.

Because of the Allied bombardment, there was no public transportation in the daytime, so Germans walked everywhere in groups. One day she joined a group that included an SS soldier who had just come back from the eastern front. He said he'd been wounded and was now being assigned to the Siegfried line, an underground fortress along the German border between Switzerland and Belgium.

"He told us that he would smell a Jew a mile away. But that morning his smell was pretty bad," she said.

He also talked about all the atrocities the soldiers had committed. To keep her cover, she pretended to be impressed, like the other Germans.

At one point the man fainted and Cohn tended to him. He was so thankful he gave her his phone number and invited her to visit him at the Siegfried line.

Three weeks later, she heard on German radio that the Allied armies were closing in on Freiburg. She decided to go to the Siegfried line to find out what was happening there.

It was a 10-kilometer walk, and when she arrived the area was empty. She saw a few remaining German soldiers, who told her that section had been evacuated. She hurried back to Freiburg to alert the Allies.

The townspeople, terrified of the coming invasion, were locked in their houses. Cohn went to the empty main avenue and waited for the Allied tanks to roll in, wondering how to signal that she was a friend, not an enemy.

"I had no documents to prove who I was. So I went in the middle of the street and raised my right arm as high as I could and made the V sign, the victory sign of Winston Churchill," she said, "hoping that they would understand."

As usual, she was lucky. The tank stopped. She asked for the officer in charge. He was French.

"I told him that I had very important information and to take me to headquarters immediately," she said. "Had it been an English-speaking Army, I don't know how I would have communicated with them."

At headquarters, she gave the suspicious commander the phone number of the intelligence service and "they assured him he could trust me," she said.

After a patrol verified her report, she was treated to a VIP dinner at French headquarters. The commander asked if she wanted to return to France but she declined, saying, "My mission terminates the day of the armistice."

She asked for a bicycle and the next day pedaled into southern Germany, a mountainous area the Allied armies had not yet reached. Riding down a hill, she saw a group of German military ambulances on the side of the road.

She stopped to talk to them, and the colonel in charge, a doctor, said they were headed into Switzerland and then Austria to avoid becoming POWs. She told him she had left Freiburg that morning to escape the French army and complained that the German army wasn't defending its citizens as it should. He reassured her that the war wasn't over.

"He told me exactly where the remnant of the German army was hidden in ambush in the Black Forest, waiting for the Allied armies," she said. "That was major, major information."

She rode straight to the Swiss border, where she crawled under barbed wire and handed a note with the information to a customs agent. The intelligence was relayed to the French army.

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After the war, Cohn worked as a nurse with the French army in Vietnam, moved back to Paris, then in 1953 went to Geneva to live with her sister, Cecile, who had married a Swiss violinist.

She planned to go to England to join the World Health Organization, so she started taking English lessons. Her tutor's roommate was an American medical student named Major L. Cohn. They soon began dating, and in 1956, he brought her back to America. They were married in 1958 in St. Louis, where he was a resident at Washington University and she was in anesthesiology school.

They eventually landed in Pittsburgh, where he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and they worked together for many years on anesthesia research at the University of Pittsburgh hospital. She retired at 70, and the couple now lives in the Los Angeles area.

They have two sons: Remy Benjamin, who lives in San Pedro, Calif., and anesthesiologist Stephan Jacques Cohn of Chicago, who is named for her sister, Stephanie, and her former fiance.

Marthe Cohn kept her spy missions a secret for many years, trained not to reveal anything about her work. But in 1996, she decided to tell her story to the Shoah Foundation and The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

She didn't have any documents proving her story, so in 1998, she went to the archives of the French Army and gathered what records she could find. That's when she decided to write a book. Her oldest brother, Fred, who had helped support the family throughout the war, had urged her to do it for years.

Cohn now travels constantly, giving talks around the world.

"People have a very short memory, and it's extremely important to remind them of what happened," she said. "If you don't know the past, you cannot prepare for the future. And the future right now doesn't look so great in America."

Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel of Chabad said Cohn's life is a lesson for those frustrated by the hate and division they see in society.

"Here's a story of a woman who not only lived through struggle, but she actually took a stand. She took a stand by risking her life," he said. "Don't just be upset about things. You can make change."


About Wednesday’s event
— Marthe Cohn, 98, a French Jewish spy during World War II, will share her story.
— The free event begins at 6 p.m. in the Great Hall of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave.
— Afterward, Cohn will sign copies of her 2002 book, “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany,” which will be available for purchase.
— Co-sponsored by the Chabad Jewish Center and the University of Illinois.