Marthe Cohn with her husband, Lewis Cohn at the Jewish Learning Centre March 28/at right, Marthe in her 20s

By BERNIE BELLAN

There was a mood of heightened anticipation as more than 200 audience members filed into the auditorium of the Jewish Learning Centre Thursday evening, March 28. After all, how many times do you have the opportunity to hear a 98-year-old give a talk – and, to add even more drama to the evening: tell the story how she became a spy in Germany for the allies?

 

 

After some introductory remarks by the two Rabbis Altein – Shmuly and Avrohom, in walked Marthe Cohen, accompanied by a man who turned out to be her husband, Lewis.
The couple took their seats on the podium and Marthe immediately launched into telling her life story. Now, to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t Marthe’s age that made it somewhat difficult to understand what she was saying - it was her accent. Although the microphone she was wearing clearly amplified her words, it quickly dawned on me, as well as, I’m sure – almost everyone else there, that it wasn’t going to be easy following what Marthe had to say.


Fortunately, shortly after she began to speak, a film made in 2004 about her life was shown. For whatever reason, her thick French accent was for more understandable in the film than when she spoke live. And, to be even more candid, I found myself referring to my iPhone constantly through Marthe’s talk to research some of the many interesting, but confusing aspects of that part of her talk which I couldn’t understand.
That being said, however, between what I was able to garner from her talk, what I was able to read on my phone while she was speaking, and some further research that I did prior to sitting down and writing this, including reading parts of her autobiography: “Behind Enemy Lines”, here is what I can tell you about Marthe Cohn:
Born Marthe Hoffnung in 1920 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Metz, France, which is very close to the German border, Marthe grew up speaking German – something that would prove indispensable later when she volunteered to serve with the French Army in 1944.


The Hoffnung family moved to a town south-west of Paris prior to the outbreak of World War II. At that point in her talk though, I have to admit I became somewhat confused, as Marthe referred repeatedly to “occupied France” and “the free zone”. A reference to Wikipedia tells me that when Germany invaded France in 1940, the Germans set up a military administration in the north and west of the country, including Paris. The rest of the country remained nominally under French control, based in the town of Vichy, hence the name “Vichy France”.
In November 1942, however, Germany extended control over the entire country and, while the Vichy government under Marshal Petain remained in existence, it had really become a puppet regime of the Germans.
As Marthe told her story, almost everyone in her family ended up joining the French Resistance, which was able to remain active throughout the war by hiding in the mountains and, to a lesser extent, rural areas of France.
One of the most interesting insights that I was able to glean from Marthe’s talk though, was the extent to which non-Jewish French citizens came to the aid of French Jews.


I think that any student of history would know that the French Resistance would not have been as successful as it was had it not received such strong support from within the general French community, but according to Marthe, the fact that the vast majority of French Jews survived the war was due to the active aid so many Jews received from non-Jewish citizens.
There were between 300-330,000 Jews in France at the start of World War II. Half of them had arrived in France from Eastern Europe in the decade preceding World War II. Yet, as Marthe noted, “75% of French Jews survived because so many non-Jews saved them.”
As she also later noted during her talk, “We had a lot of mountains, a lot of rural areas. Every family had at least one Jew hidden. That’s why so many Jews survived.”
 (I suppose it’s somewhat ironic to observe, therefore, that France has now become a hotbed of anti-Semitism although, to be fair, France’s demographic composition is now totally different than what it was during the war.)


Marthe continued her talk, describing her very close relationship with her younger sister, Stephanie. Together, she said, the two of them “helped people cross from occupied France into non-occupied France.”
She explained that many members of Allied air forces (including Canadians) involved in bombing campaigns were shot down over what was occupied France. Because they would have been detected quickly by the Germans as a result of their inability to speak French, it was vital that they be smuggled into non-occupied France.
Stephanie, however, was quite different in appearance than Marthe. Where Marthe was blonde and blue-eyed, Stephanie was dark. One more thing about Marthe: She was very short – only 4’ 11”. As she wryly observed during her talk, referring to how short she must seem to the audience: “I used to be much taller.”
In any event, her appearance – and her being vertically challenged, so to speak, certainly contributed to her being able to pass herself off as anything but a spy. As a matter of fact though, on one occasion when she was behind enemy lines, Marthe was challenged by another woman who did accuse her of being a spy. To which, Marthe told the audience, she replied, “Look at me – you must be joking”. (Apparently her ruse worked, otherwise she wouldn’t have been sitting in front of us.)


But, others were not so fortunate.
On “June 17, 1942, Stephanie was arrested by SiPo”, which was a division of the Gestapo charged with dealing with security (as opposed to the Kripo, which was a division of the Gestapo charged with dealing with criminal matters.) Marthe says that her sister was tortured in an attempt to pry information about other Resistance members, but refused to divulge anything. Eventually she was sent to Auschwitz, where she perished. It was obvious from the emotion in her voice that Marthe still feels the pain of her sister’s loss as if it just happened.
It was not only her sister who was arrested by the Germans; her fiancé, Jacques, also a member of the Resistance, was arrested and executed as well.

In 1943 Marthe, who had trained as a nurse, found work in a hospital using false papers. In November 1944, after the liberation of Paris, Marthe volunteered her services to the French Army.
As she explained, the major interviewing her had many German books on the shelves of his office. When Marthe began looking through one of the books, the major asked her whether she spoke German. When she said she did, he asked her whether she would be willing to serve with French Intelligence. Thus began her career as a spy.
Marthe’s mission was to enter Germany from Switzerland and attempt to garner information about German troop movements and numbers. Since she was already a trained nurse, it was natural for her to say that she was a nurse and her back story was that she was looking for her missing German fiancé. (The reason it was so important to have women serve as spies is that any young man dressed in civilian clothes in Germany at that time would have been immediately arrested.)
After 14 unsuccessful attempts to cross the front in Alsace, which is in France and which neighbours Germany, she crossed the border into Germany from Switzerland. Once she had obtained information about German troops, she would then crawl back across the Swiss border to relay the information back to the French intelligence.

Over the course of time Marthe was able to relay two different crucial pieces of information: that the Germany army had evacuated a portion of the Siegfried Line (a defensive line made up of trenches and tank traps that was extremely difficult for the Allied armies to penetrate) and later, where the remnant of the German Army laid in ambush in the Black Forest.
Marthe has received many honours from the French government as a result of her wartime service, but Rabbi Shmuly Altein noted that she has also been honoured by the German government. Why, you might wonder?
Because, as Rabbi Altein noted, not only did her heroism lead to saving the lives of countless Allied soldiers, as a result of her actions, it shortened the entire war, thus saving the lives of many Germans as well.

This part is taken directly from Wikipedia: “After the war Marthe returned to France to pursue a career as a nurse, but in 1956, while studying in Geneva, she met an American medical student, Major L. Cohn, who was the roommate of a friend. Within three years, they were married and living in the United States. Now both retired, they had worked together for years, he as an anesthesiologist and she as a nurse.”
For 50 years, Marthe said, “she didn’t talk about her experience” during the war. “I didn’t tell my story because no one would have believed me. I was a very unlikely spy.”
But, in 2002, she co-authored a book about her experiences entitled, “Behind Enemy Lines: the True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany”. Copies of the book were available at the Jewish Learning Centre and Marthe said she was willing to sit and autograph copies for anyone interested in purchasing the book.


But – and this is the part that you might find most astounding about the evening: Marthe had been speaking for an hour and a half, with barely a pause. Many in the audience had begun to filter out as the hour was getting late (it was past 10 pm). Yet here was this 98-year-old woman who seemed eager to go on. As well, she had just come from Calgary the day before where she had given a similar talk, also at the Chabad centre there. And, a check of her itinerary shows that she continues to deliver the same talk on a regular basis to audiences throughout the U.S. and Canada.
How does she do it? No doubt, whatever drives Marthe Cohn to continue telling her story to so many different audiences is the same determination she showed in crossing repeatedly into Germany from Switzerland, each time knowing that she was just a hair’s breadth from being found out and executed. Absolutely incredible.