Marthe Cohn was crossing a field covered with ankle-deep snow. She was alone. There was no moon and she had no compass, no flashlight, nothing written down. As a French Jew, she had enlisted in the army to help defeat the Nazis. Her mission was to cross the border that night, Feb. 4, 1945, enter the village of Gundolsheim, mix with the German soldiers, assess their strength, and follow them as they retreated.
She couldn’t see anything but the light of tracer fire, with German bullets whizzing above her head. She could hear voices and barking dogs. As she stumbled through the darkness, the voices became fainter, and suddenly she plunged into a canal. She struggled to get out of the icy water, but calling for help would alert her enemies. Finally, tufts of grass gave her leverage to climb out. Drenched and freezing, she tried to squeeze water from her clothes. She wanted to give up, lie down and sleep, but she knew that meant death. She forced herself to keep walking.
As dawn approached she could see her footprints in the snow. She had been walking in circles all night. By then the Germans were gone, retreating to the east. She was bitterly disappointed to realize this mission was just another of many failed attempts.
It would be on her 15th attempt that Cohn would infiltrate Nazi Germany as a spy and obtain priceless information.
Cohn, 96, has been awarded honors for her bravery, including the Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre from France and Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. But she had been so reluctant to speak of her exploits that her two sons, Stephan Jacques and Remi Benjamin, didn’t know about her military achievements until they read her book, “Behind Enemy Lines,” co-authored with Wendy Holden and published in 2002.
“They were surprised,” Cohn recalls, “but they just say that I am a good mother. This is more important to me than anything else they could say.”
Cohn presented her story to about 170 people on Dec. 7 at the Country Club of La Cholla. The sold-out event was a joint effort of Chabad Oro Valley and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Northwest Division.
“We need to hear these stories of courage and bravery,” says Rabbi Ephraim Zimmerman of Chabad Oro Valley. “When listening to these stories you get transported in time, and if you understand the past it can educate you for the future.”
Cohn and her husband, Major L. Cohn, M.D., who live in California, have traveled across the United States and to France so she could speak to more than 100 Chabad groups, as well as at synagogues and book clubs. “We both feel that it is very important for Jews and non-Jews to hear Marthe’s talks,” says Major. “We feel that it is important to speak out against racism.”
Born on April 13, 1920, Cohn grew up in Metz, France, near the German border. One of eight children in an Orthodox Jewish family, she learned to speak and read both French and German. When Cohn was 18, Hitler’s Third Reich launched its reign of terror against Jews, and her family helped many people fleeing Germany. But Cohn says she never thought that the Germans would invade France. After France and Britain entered the war in 1939, Cohn and her family relocated to Poitiers, southwest of Paris, 400 miles from the German border. By June 1940, Germany had conquered France. The Germans arrived in Poitiers in July 1940.
Cohn’s fiancé, Jacques Delaunay, a medical student who encouraged Cohn to become a nurse, was executed in 1943 for his involvement in the French resistance. Her sister, Stephanie, also a medical student, was arrested by the Germans in 1942, and sent to an internment camp for political prisoners, where she gave medical aid to other prisoners. There was a plan for her to escape, but Stephanie refused because she feared that the Germans might arrest her whole family. Cohn’s sister was deported on Yom Kippur in 1942 to Auschwitz. She never returned.
In November 1944, after the liberation of Paris, Cohn tried to join the French army. It took several tries. “I had to prove that I was not collaborating with the German army,” she says. “And I wasn’t accepted until Jacques’ mother, who had lost two sons in the war, vouched for me.”
She was assigned to the 151st Infantry Regiment in Alsace, where an officer asked Cohn what she had done during the war. She told him that she helped people cross from the occupied to unoccupied area. “The officer looked at this 4-foot, 11-inch woman with blond hair and blue eyes, and initially thought I was just a bimbo,” she says. “When he asked me if I had killed any Germans, I said, ‘No, I am a nurse.’” The officer said she could serve as a social worker. In this role, she was able to get French troops much needed supplies, including food, socks and gloves.
When her commanding officer discovered that Cohn spoke German, she was transferred to intelligence work.
“I wondered what predicament I had gotten myself into, but it was too late,” she says. “I was a very unlikely spy.” She was effective at interrogating German POWs, obtaining information about troop locations and plans for attacks and retreats. Later, undercover as Martha Ulrich, a German nurse searching for her fiancé, she began her attempts to cross the front in Alsace. Working alone, she faced the prospect of capture and death with each mission. At times she had to listen impassively as German soldiers talked about the atrocities they had committed against Jews and Russians.
On April 11, 1945, she successfully crossed the border into Germany near Schaffhausen in Switzerland, later relaying two major pieces of information to French intelligence: that northwest of Freiberg, the Siegfried Line had been evacuated and that the remnant of the German army lay in ambush in the Black Forest.
After the war, Cohn served as a nurse in the French army in Vietnam until December 1948. In 1953 she went to Geneva to get a nursing degree. There she met her husband, an American who was studying medicine. She came with Major to the United States in 1956. They were married in February 1958, and worked together doing research from 1970 to 1999.
“It used to be difficult for me to talk about my military service. I just did the job when it was needed. I was extremely lucky. I always met the right people at the right time,” says Cohn. Asked how she feels now that the world knows her story, she replies, “I don’t feel any different, it’s just my own little story.”
Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.