After the liberation of France in 1944, 24-year-old Marthe Cohn, was risking her life in defying the Nazi regime by joining intelligence services in the First French Army and supplying Allies with crucial information in efforts of bringing WWII to an early end.
In association with Chabad Jewish Center at USF, Cohn’s lecture focused on her early life fronting as a German nurse under the alias, Marthe Ulrich. With forged German documents serving as a French spy, her carefully concocted alibi involved her searching for her long lost German fiancé. With pictures and love letters to prove his existence, her fake fiancé was in solitary confinement in an Allied prison.
She had minimal contact with her family during her time in the war. Her main source of contact was having Service of Intelligence send weekly letters to her family to assure them to not be concerned on her whereabouts. So her identity would not be revealed, she lied and said she was working as a nurse in a German hospital.
Cohn kept her WWII accomplishments a secret for over half a century.
“It was something I never spoke about — not even to my husband,” said Cohn.
Cohn answered to an add placed by the LA Times for those involved with WWII to step forward. Sharing her story in a two-hour interview with the Shoah Foundation, she stated why she never came forward.
“I wanted to keep my family safe and unaware of my work with the secret service,” said Cohn. “I noticed after the war, no one was interested in speaking about it.”
Her achievements granted her the rare honor in receiving the Medaille Militaire for her military service. Also given to Winston Churchill, the award classifies Cohn as a WWII war hero.
Her long silence inspired her to publicly share her story in her autobiography, Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.
Now 96, Cohn recounts her most dangerous experiences and shares her journey with USF students. On Tuesday evening, the MSC Conference room was filled with quiet occupants, tentative for Cohn’s retelling of her memoir.
Born Marthe Hoffnung, in Metz, France, Cohn grew up in a devout Orthodox Jewish household of seven children.
As the war was slowly tearing her family a part, her sister, Stephanie, and her father were arrested by the Sicherheitspolizei, or SiPO, and taken for questioning. Cohn’s father complied with officer’s orders, which allowed him to be released. Unfortunately, Stephanie’s conviction to withhold damaging information resulted in her internment in a concentration camp.
Cohn was later reunited with her sister and explained a tactical escape method.
"As a medical student, Stephanie was providing medical services to children in the camp," said Cohn. "She refused to leave because she felt her services were too important."
Cohn dedicated her lecture to her sister’s memory.
While Cohn entered nursing school, her family became involved with resistance operations. Her brothers and fiancé joined the French resistance. Unfortunately, in 1943 her fiancé was killed by the Germans in Paris. After hearing the news, Cohn persisted, finished her nursing degree and joined the French army.
After demonstrating her ability to speak and read German to her colonel officer, Cohn was assigned the position of crossing enemy lines to retrieve attack plans from the Germans.
While undercover, Cohn was able to deceptively sway German officials. Cohn remembers some of her most daring accounts.
“Once I made it to Germany I was very lucky, I always met the right people at the right time,” said Cohn.
While in German territory, Cohn came across a group of German soldiers. A SS non-commissioned officer had been wounded and then fainted while returning to Siegfield Line.
Posing as a nurse, Cohn was able to rehabilitate the man and in turn gained the respect of the division.
Cohn was able to obtain information on enemy strategies and successfully transmitted the information to the Swiss border.
In her next big attempt she almost wasn't as lucky.
“The time when I was most frightened was when I was crossing the border from Switzerland to Germany,” said Cohn. “I had already attempted to cross the border 13 times before, then my 14th time I was successful.”
Traveling with only a small suitcase in hand, Cohn traveled distances up to 10 kilometers by foot in a single one-way trip. One of her trips required her to lie behind bushes in neutral Switzerland beside a road dividing a field. With the German country road providing no barrier, the area was controlled by two heavily armed sentinels. While the soldiers constantly marched east to west through the field, Cohn had to wait until the soldiers separated in order to sneak across.
“It was horrible — I was completely paralyzed by fear,” said Cohn. “I suddenly realized the immensity of what I was going to undertake.”
Cohn emerged and greeted the men with a Nazi Salute.
Wherever Cohn obtained important information like plans of attack and retreats or interrogated prisoners of war, she reported directly to Colonel Bouvt, the Commanding Officer of Africa.
From the border of Switzerland to the border of Belgium and all along the eastern side of the Rhine, the underground German fortress, Siegfried Line, had been evacuated.
To report the groundbreaking news, Cohn reported back to Freiburg the fastest and safest way she knew how — walking.
With no papers and in civilian clothes she went into the middle of the street, raised her right arm and made a “v sign”— made infamous by Winston Churchill to signify victory.
“By making this gesture they did not kill me,” said Cohn.
Luckily it was a French army that invaded Freiburg, if it had not been, Cohn would have not been able to communicate — she had not yet learned English.
Reporting to Colonel Petit of another regiment, he did not believe the evacuation of the Siegfried Line and thought it to be an enemy trap.
With confirmation that her information was correct, Cohn was given a bicycle in appreciation to continue her missions.
Cohn’s undying efforts pushed her to be internationally recognized as a WWII hero. Since the release of her book in 2002, Cohn shares these experiences for herself — they are her stories to tell.
“I am not a moralist. I tell my story — I hope it can be interpreted to mean something for everyone,” said Cohn.