At age 24, Marthe Cohn risked life and limb to spy against the Nazis. Now at 95, the retired nurse has been interviewed by Steven Spielberg and the Holocaust Museum of Washington D.C. and received prestigious awards such as the Cross of War, the Military medal and the Medal of the Nation’s Gratitude. Cohn visited Philadelphia at the end of last year, speaking at the Chabad serving Drexel University Nov. 3.
“Cohn has been travelling all over the world to give talks on her life as a French spy during the holocaust for over 10 years now. Moussia Goldstein, the Rabbi’s wife at the Chabad student board at Drexel, had the privilege to get in touch with her and asked if she could come and speak,” Julia Bugayev, an International Area Studies major and a member of the Chabad student board, wrote in an email.
Goldstein had heard of Cohn through her friend Runya Wagner and her uncle Boruch Greenberg. “When I heard the story, I knew we had to have her come, so I emailed her. She was booked for the whole year, so I reached out again in the summer and we set the date,” Goldstein wrote.
Although Cohn wished to serve as a nurse with the French Army, she initially worked as a social worker. After several weeks of bringing supplies to the front in Alsace, she met Colonel Fabien. He asked her to answer his phone while he ate lunch, and apologized, as he had only German books for her to read. She told him that she could read and speak German fluently, and she was soon transferred to the intelligence service of the First French Army.
The captain of her intelligence group wanted her to cross into Germany from Switzerland. She was first taken to Basel, Switzerland to meet Colonel Reinhart, the chief of the intelligence service of the Swiss customs. Although Switzerland was technically neutral in the conflict, the country was supporting the Allies due to their recent success in the war effort. She was taken to Schaffhausen, Switzerland by LeMer, a fellow agent. “We stopped the car; we crossed a little forest, and on the other side of the forest was a huge field, and the other edge of the field was a road, and the road was Germany. The field and the forest was Switzerland.”
Cohn was to crawl along the field that evening towards Germany. Mr. LeMer explained that two sentries would meet at the center of the road, separate and turn their backs to her. Out of their line of sight, she would walk east towards the city of Senden. She only brought with her a small suitcase with a change of clothes.
“I crawled along the field with my little suitcase and hid behind the bushes near the road. And the two soldiers were doing their constantly coming from the eastern edge to the center of the width of the field; the other one was coming west; meeting, they would talk two, three seconds, turn, then back and walk to the edge of the field,” Cohn said. “So I hid behind those bushes, and at that moment I became extremely terrified at the sight of these two sentinels walking along the road, and realizing the immensity of what I was going to do. And I became so fearful that I was completely paralyzed by fear.”
After a while, she grabbed her suitcase, got up, and went to the sentinel coming back from the eastern side of the field. She had taken on the identity of Martha Ulrich, a German nurse. He checked her identification, and she entered Germany.
Cohn stayed in Germany for several weeks. At one point, she traveled with an out-of-commission Schutzstaffel officer toward the Siegfried line. She needed to visit a nearby location, and the officer, who had been wounded on the Russian front, had been assigned to the line. While they traveled, he told her about the atrocities the Schutzstaffel had committed on the Eastern front. He fell unconscious due to his wounds and she took care of him as part of her disguise. “When he regained consciousness, he was so grateful that he invited me to visit him on the Siegfried Line and gave me his phone number,” Cohn said.
She later heard on the German radio that the Allied armies were ready to invade Freiberg, the town in which she was staying. She traveled to the Siegfried Line, and found it evacuated save for a few men, who were about to leave. “I went back to Freiberg and I waited for the Allies to arrive. I did not know which Allied army was going to invade. I was alone in the city of Freiberg because the people were so terrified of the idea that the foreign army was going to invade them that they were locked in their home,” Cohn said. “And I went to the main artery [of the city] and I waited. And the first tank arrived.”
She went into the middle of the avenue and made the “V-for-victory” sign with her hand. “That was the only way to tell the tank approaching that I was a friend. I didn’t know how the people in the tank would react. I was extremely lucky that the tank stopped,” she explained. “And I asked for the officer to come down. And I told him I had very important information and to take me immediately to the headquarters in Freiberg. And then when the officer came down, I discovered that it was the French army which had invaded Freiberg.” She found this fortunate, as she could not yet speak English.
“So he took me to the headquarters and I told Commander Petit that the regiment could occupy the south of Germany much quicker.” She left the headquarters the next morning, but she asked Commander Petit for a bicycle. On her return journey through the mountains of southern Germany, she saw a group of German military ambulances. She talked to the colonel commanding them, who was also a doctor. He explained that they were travelling to Austria to avoid the Allied armies. She told them that she had escaped from Freiberg. She claimed to be terrified by the French Army because it had Moroccan, Tunisian, and black soldiers. The colonel told her where the remainder of the German army was in hidden in wait for ambush in the Black Forest.
Following this discovery, Cohn gave a letter to the customs officer in Switzerland. She was in a hurry, so she did not have time to code the message. Per Colonel Reinhart’s instructions, she told the customs officer that she was a Swiss agent. He sent the letter to the colonel that same day. She continued to the south of Germany toward the Swiss border, and later reconnected with Commander Petit.
“For a woman who is in her 90’s, she was full of energy and jubilance. She would describe her story as if it happened yesterday, with such precision that it almost seemed shocking. She remembered the exact time of each event. She made sure to give every ounce of her story so that we would remember not only her brave decisions but the circumstances of Europe during that time period,” Bugayev wrote. She added that the audience, comprised of seventy students, was so captivated by Cohn’s story that they were silenced.
Her children were very close to the French culture; the family went to the country every other year during the summer. Despite this, they did not know of their mother’s involvement in the war effort. On July 14, 2000, she was awarded the Military medal by the Consulate General of French in Los Angeles. Her two sons, her daughter-in-law and her grandchild traveled from Chicago for the event. “They had not known at all what I had done until that day. But they were never resentful about it. They understood why I never talked about it,” Cohn said. “They were very proud that their mother had done that.”
Cohn’s training primarily concerned code; she had to be comfortable both reading it and writing with it. She also learned how to read maps. “I was told how to use every arm we had, and I was told everything which concerned the German army,” she said. “And I had to recognize all of the buttons, all of the signs, every little thing on the uniform which told me to what unit they belong and what type of soldier they are.” While on missions, she could not carry any written information, nor could she bring tools such as compasses, radios or maps.
Cohn tried 13 or 14 times to travel from Allied lines to German lines. “Our intelligence was not as accurate as it should have been. And when I arrived at a certain spot from where I should proceed, I did not find what I was supposed to find, so I couldn’t do it,” she explained. The spies were aided by military guides who knew the area well; they told her what she would find on the ground when she traveled from Point A to Point B, and how to proceed to get to Point B. “But they make mistakes. They are human,” Cohn said.
She talked about a night in February 1945 when she had to cross a huge field. “It was very, very cold; it was an unusually cold winter,” she recalled. “It was very late at night, and the military guide told me to cross the field and to go to a town northwest of the field. It was a very dark night, and I had no compass, I had not even a flashlight. So I walked on that snow, and suddenly I heard a huge crack, and I felt myself submerge in the ice-cold canal. The guide had forgotten to tell me that there was a canal on the field.”
“Marthe Cohen is one of the few survivors during the Nazi Germany occupation. As the years go by, we must remember to hold on and embrace our history. We must never forget what has happened during the time of the Nazi occupation and invasion due to the fact that these events help humanity better ourselves and to not repeat the same mistakes,” Bugayev wrote. “I advocate for many students when I express this though; this generation realize how lucky we are to be living in a world we take for granted. We complain about the minuscule things and forget to appreciate our surroundings. Martha Cohen, from my perspective, touched each and every one of us by making us realize that we must take every breathing moment with preciousness and with value.”
Cohn co-authored a memoir entitled Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany. She married Major L. Cohn, now a retired anaesthetist, in 1959. The couple had two sons and are now living in California.