Former Jewish spy in WWII to speak in Petaluma

Marthe Cohn is the author of gripping wartime memoir|

For more than 50 years, Marthe Cohn carried a secret.

Born Marthe Hoffnung, in Metz, France, in 1920, Cohn was one of eight children in a large Orthodox Jewish family. Over the years, she was always frank about having lost loved ones during the Nazi occupation of France. Those include her sister, who died at Auschwitz, and her fiancée, executed by a German firing squad. When the war ended, Cohn served as a nurse in Vietnam with the French Army. Then, in the 1950s, she met her husband, an American doctor, and relocated to the US, where she continued working in medicine until 1999.

This much Cohn freely spoke about to friends and family.

But she was always careful to leave out one important detail.

When she was 24, following the liberation of Paris, Cohn became a spy. She joined the French 1st Army, received training as part of the French Intelligence department, and for several months worked undercover inside Nazi Germany.

“I never told anyone, not even my family,” she allows today, speaking on the phone from her home in Palos Verdes, Southern California.

Cohn, who will turn 99 in April, will appear in Petaluma on Tuesday, Feb. 5, at the Ellis Auditorium on the Petaluma campus of the Santa Rosa Junior College. The Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma and the SRJC are co-sponsoring the event. Cohn admits that even her grown children and grandchildren were unaware of her wartime exploits until 2002, when she wrote her memoir, “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.”

In the book, Cohn describes her memories of living as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France, her rigorous intelligence training in the Army, and many details of her dangerous primary spy assignment: posing as a German nurse, pretending to seek information about her missing soldier boyfriend. Using that cover story, aided by some quick thinking skills and remarkable, spur-of-the moment resourcefulness, Cohn was able to pick up valuable information about German troop movements, and relay it to French Intelligence.

For her efforts, she received a number of citations and commendations immediately following the war.

“There was not much about my upbringing that prepared me to become a spy,” Cohn now says. “One thing, though, was my brother Fred, who was the oldest of the family. He always felt very responsible for us. I remember that even as a small child, he told us, ‘It is better to die fighting than to be a slave.’ I never forgot that. But outside of that, nothing in my childhood prepared me the things I would do.”

Asked why she never spoke of those activities, Cohn says there were many reasons.

“For one thing, when you are in the intelligence service, they brainwash you to be extremely secret,” she explains. “You simply do not speak of it. Then, after the war, in Europe and in the United States, nobody was interested in talking about the war. Everybody wanted to talk about the future, and not the past. So I never mentioned it.”

A third reason for her silence was that she had no documentation to support her story.

“I had documents that I was in Vietnam, later, when I was a nurse with the French Army,” she says. “But I had absolutely nothing from WWII, because when you are in the intelligence service, you have no documentation. But in 1998, I went to Pau, a city in the South of France where the French military archives are kept, and they gave me my documents. So, now I had proof of what I had done. I had my record, my military citations. I had a lot of things.”

One thing Cohn suddenly had was a certain amount of unexpected fame and warm public appreciation. In 1999, shortly after her records were unearthed, Cohn was presented with the Medaille Millitaire, France’s highest military honor.

“After that,” she says, acknowledging the many family members were encouraging her to fully tell her story, “I decided to write my book.”

Following the publication of “Behind Enemy Lines,” written with Wendy Holden, and published by Harmony Books when Cohn was 82, she began speaking publically, visiting schools, synagogues and community centers. She’s often been asked if writing about her experiences, and particularly the loss of so many loved ones, proved to be difficult.

“It was not hard, not really,” she says. “I had never stopped thinking about those days. Though I never talked about it, I did dream a lot. And in my dreams, I always went back to that time, to those people. Those I lost were in my memory constantly. So, it was not difficult to write about them. It was comforting.”

As for her rigorous touring schedule, which last month took her to Canada, and will include a speaking event in Miami before she comes to Petaluma next week, Cohn admits it’s tiring, but believes that telling her story is more vital now than ever.

“People have a very short memory,” she says. “These things happened only 70 years ago, but many have forgotten, or don’t know about it at all. It’s very important to remind them of what occurred, and what could occur again. It becomes real, to hear a living person, right in front of them, talking about the things they experienced.

“Right now,” she says, “all over the world, in America and in Europe, even in South America, things have become extremely dangerous. Populism is on the rise, and like all extremes, it always brings Nazism and fascism. Things have become very dangerous. It’s important for all people who love democracy, and believe in it, to recognize how easy it would be to lose it.”

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