The Chabad Jewish Center of Glendale, California, recently hosted Marthe Cohn, who joined the intelligence service of the French First Army and, posing as a nurse, risked death and slipped into Germany in 1944 to valiantly retrieve information on Nazi troop movements.
From the Valley Sun:
For a petite French Jewish woman living through World War II, she had one enormous alibi.
Stories of heroics and perseverance filled La Cañada Flintridge Country Club on Tuesday during a visit from Marthe Cohn, who joined the intelligence service of the French First Army and, posing as a nurse, risked death and slipped into Germany in 1944 to valiantly retrieve information on Nazi troop movements.
Chabad Jewish Center hosted Cohn’s visit in conjunction with her worldwide book tour for her autobiography “Behind Enemy Lines,” co-written by English journalist Wendy Holden.
Cohn, 95, who attended the book talk with her husband Major, displayed more than a dozen medals she earned for her bravery and service, including France’s highest military honor, the Médaille militaire.
Cohn was living in France, just across the German border, when Hitler rose to power. Her family sheltered Jews from the Nazis, including Jewish children sent away by their terrified parents. However, as Nazi occupation grew, Cohn’s sister was arrested and sent to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. The rest of her family fled to the south of France. Cohn joined the French army and was soon asked if she wanted to join the intelligence service.
“I was asked to make my own alibi,” Cohn said.
Cohn sneaked into Germany and used her perfect German accent and blonde hair to pose as a young nurse who was desperately trying to get word on her fictional fiancé. Cohn traveled throughout the countryside, approaching troops who would sympathize with her situation. Risking death with every conversation she started, kept her cool and learned where Nazi troops were going next. She then alerted Allied commanders through coded messages.
“I said that my parents had been killed by an Allied bombardment and that I was an only child,” she said. “It was better if you had less baggage. In German, thousands and thousands had never heard from loved ones on the Eastern front.”
To back up her story, French intelligence had a male prisoner of war write fake love letters and send her pictures, she recalled. She had to cover every base of her alibi, including removing all labels from the clothing she sneaked into Germany so it would not be apparent she was from France.
“People [in Germany] became very nice to me,” she said, since her “love” had actually made contact with her. “It helped me greatly.”
On the first nights of her mission crossing the French border into the German countryside, Cohn said a great fear gripped her when hiding in the bushes.
“I suddenly realized the immensity of what I was about to undertake,” she said. “I was going for two purposes. One was the mission. Second was to see how civilians were reacting to the war.”
Major Cohn said his wife has spoken all over the world, to all religious denominations. Before visiting La Cañada this week, they’d just returned to their Rancho Palos Verdes home from a trip to the East Coast.
During a recent visit to a school in Potsdam, Germany, Major said his wife started her speech to the students by telling them they were not responsible for what their parents and grandparents did. At the end of her talk, every student hand-wrote a letter to her. She looks forward to reading them all very soon, her husband said.
“What you see tonight is literally history,” Rabbi Simcha Backman told the nearly 75 attendees at the conclusion of the presentation. “It’s a map for future generations to understand what she went through, and apply it to today.”
Glendale resident Beth Brooks, of who has attended the Chabad Center for 15 years, said Cohn can teach the world to follow your conscience and fight intolerance.
“She’s an inspiration,” Brooks said. “You must fight back.”