By Sarah Moosazadeh / firstname.lastname@example.org
Marthe Cohn was born less than two years after the end of World War I and grew up only 36 miles from Germany in the city of Metz, France.
She was 19 when World War II broke out with Germany’s invasion of France in September 1939. By the time the Nazi troops rolled into France in May 1940, Cohn had marked her 20th birthday and fled with her family to Poitiers.
That young woman not only survived the war, but struck her own blow against the Nazi military machine as a spy for the resurgent French army.
Now 96, she will recount her story of courage, faith, survival and espionage Thursday, Jan. 26, at the Buckhead Theatre during an event organized by Chabad Intown and the Intown Jewish Academy. She also will sign copies of her memoir, “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.”
Cohn provided a preview by discussing her life during the Nazi years in a phone interview with the AJT.
Cohn’s family, the Hoffnungs, recognized the danger before the war. The day after Kristallnacht in November 1938, her older brother, Fred, who was part of the underground resistance during the war, and her older sister, Cecile, traveled to Dusseldorf, Germany, to rescue two younger cousins, Jackie and Gosie, who both survived the war.
Jackie is an engineering professor in Israel; Gosie was killed in the Six-Day War.
The family’s safety didn’t last long after the German invasion of France in May 1940. Cohn worked as a translator in the Poitiers City Hall until she was thrown out by the invaders.
“Three German military police came with rifles and bayonets and said, ‘Jews out!’ We only had an hour to leave,” she said.
Cohn then attended a Red Cross nursing school, though it was forbidden to Jews. She faced continual danger, however, as German officers often visited her hospital to see patients. To elude the Nazis, the nuns would hide Cohn in a small office until the soldiers left.
Later, when French Jews were obligated to wear a Jewish star, the director of the hospital acted on his opposition to the Germans by asking her not to do so.
“You have no idea what was going on in Poitiers and how many people helped us,” Cohn said.
During the war, her family rescued hundreds of others by transporting them to safety with the help of Noel Degout, a farmer in Dienne, France.
“We didn’t know who they were. We didn’t know who gave them our address. But they rang our bell and asked us to help them,” Cohn said. Degout and her sister Stephanie were later arrested by Nazi Security Police.
Cohn’s father was taken into custody for a time to apply further pressure to Stephanie, but he was released because the Germans were not yet rounding up French Jews. Stephanie remained in custody.
She was sent to Lemoge, a camp for foreign Jews, where she provided medical care to children. “I visited her one day and told her we had two French guardians who would help her escape, but she refused,” Cohn said. “ ‘Who will take care of the children if I leave?’ was Stephanie’s response. I reminded her to think of her mother, who also needed her back home, but Stephanie replied that they would all be arrested if she left, and staying with the children was important to her.”
Stephanie was later deported to Drancy, then to Pithivier. On Sept. 21, 1942, Yom Kippur, she wrote to a friend in Poitiers to say she was leaving for Metz to work.
“That was the last letter she ever wrote, because years later we found out she was deported to Auschwitz, and she never came back,” Cohn said.
Cohn and her family escaped Poitiers in 1942 to unoccupied, Vichy-ruled France, where Jews still were forbidden to work. But through the help of a friend, she finished her nursing studies with the French Red Cross in Marseilles, then took a train to Paris.
Several weeks before Stephanie was arrested, Cohn had met a man who worked with her at City Hall. He provided identity papers that didn’t label her a Jew. “I told him, ‘You can’t do that. You will risk your life and that of your wife and little boy,’ but he responded by stating, ‘If I didn’t help you, I could not live with myself.’ I asked him how much it was to make these identity cards, and he started crying.
“We wouldn’t have been able to escape without those cards.”
Once Paris was liberated in 1944, Cohn wanted to join the French army, but she had to prove that she had not collaborated with the Germans. She was joined in Paris and vouched for in November by the mother of her fiancé, who was tried and executed two years prior.
Cohn worked as a social worker in an infantry regiment until she met Col. Tierre Fabien, who discovered that she could speak German as well as French fluently.
Fabien said all the men in Germany were wearing uniforms, and any man caught wearing civilian clothes would be immediately arrested. So he needed a woman to gather intelligence for the French army. Cohn accepted before realizing what she had gotten herself into.
“I thought to myself, ‘What trouble did I get myself involved in?’ but it was already too late,” she said.
Three weeks later she underwent intensive training with two intelligence officers before launching her career as a spy.
During her service, Cohn received important information from prisoners of war she helped interrogate. She also reported on the German army’s plan of retreat from the Siegfried Line. “That was my first achievement in the army,” she said.
“There were times I was scared, and times I was not,” Cohn said. “You know, I was trying to do a job, and that was very important to me.”
Who: Marthe Cohn
What: “Behind Enemy Lines,” a project of Chabad Intown and the Intown Jewish Preschool
Where: Buckhead Theatre, 3110 Roswell Road, Buckhead
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26
Tickets: $20 general admission, $180 VIP seating, $360 private dinner and book signing; www.jewishspy.org or 404-898-0434