Marthe Cohn tells her story of spying on Nazis at the Chabad House at Drexel.
Fear was never an option, certainly not if Marthe Cohn wanted to survive. Cohn was 19 years old when the Nazis invaded France in 1940.
The 94-year-old Cohn, born in 1920 to an Orthodox family in Metz, France, joined the French resistance after graduating from nursing school in Vichy-controlled France in 1944. Because of her flawless German and her prototypical Aryan appearance, she was recruited to be a spy by the newly recreated French Army. Her intelligence gathering proved instrumental in allowing the Allies to break through the Siegfried line and enter German territory in 1945, which helped lead to the end of the war.
She spoke about her heroism at the Chabad serving Drexel University on Nov. 3 and at the Rohr Center for Jewish Life – Chabad House, at Haverford College on Nov. 4.
“I was extremely lucky,” Cohn told the Jewish Exponent. “At times, I was very afraid. When I got into trouble, I always said the right thing.”
As a woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, no one suspected she was a spy, she told the students.
“They took me for a bimbo,” she said.
However, the French Army needed a social worker. She reluctantly accepted her role and brought soldiers food and supplies.
“In the Army, if they tell you are a social worker, that’s what you are,” Cohn said.
To keep her cover, she mingled with Nazis and, on many occasions, helped injured ones. She gathered invaluable information on troop positions, which she secretly relayed to Allied commanders.
She told the audience about her numerous attempts to get into Germany — she failed to cross the border the first 14 times she tried. There was even a night where she fell in ice and thought she would die.
“Everything was so frozen that I couldn’t grasp anything,” she said.
Carrying fake identification papers, she infiltrated Germany as a German nurse searching for a fictional fiancé.
“Once behind the bushes [in Germany], I suddenly realized the immensity of what was asked of me,” she recalled. “I became so fearful that I became paralyzed.”
She even befriended an injured SS officer who fainted on the road. After listening to her story of how she was searching for her fiancé, he invited her to come to the German front lines to look for him.A few weeks later, after Allied forces had entered southern Germany, Cohn met German soldiers in the road. She maintained her cover, and burst into a hysterical fit and said she was scared of Americans, and needed to know about her fiancé.
After the war, Cohn returned to France to pursue a career as a nurse, but in 1956, while studying in Geneva, she met an American medical student, Major Cohn. Within three years, they were married and living in the United States.
She has received several medals, including being honored by France in 2006 with the Medaille de Reconnaissance de la Nation (“Medal of the Nation’s Gratitude”). In 2002, she co-authored a book about her experiences, Behind Enemy Lines: the True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.
“When you are young, you think you will never die,” Cohn said. “I always believed in my luck and I’m very lucky all my life.”
Moussia Goldstein, wife of Rabbi Chaim Goldstein, the Chabad’s director, said after her uncle Baruch Greenberg told her about Cohn, she needed to have her speak at Drexel.
“I thought it was an amazing story,” the rebbetzin said. “It’s something really that everyone can learn from.”
Drexel students Julia Bugayev, 19, and Natalia Nikolina, 20, were blown away by Cohn’s heroism.
“For her to risk her life without a second thought, she was so brave,” Bugayev said. “I’m shocked and in awe.”
“I think she’s one of the most influential people I’ve ever met,” Nikolina added.
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