LOS ANGELES — The 4’11” French Jewish woman was walking through a field of snow when the ground underneath her began to crack. She was a spy for the Allies, sent to infiltrate the German front, but her military guide had neglected to mention the frozen body of water along the way. When the ice broke and Marthe Cohn fell into the canal, she wondered if this was finally the end.
“I told myself, if you don’t get out from here as fast you can, you’re going to die of hypothermia,” recalled Cohn, now 97.
But perishing wasn’t an option. Dying would mean giving up on her top-secret mission and squandering the courage those closest to her had shown in the face of terror.
Her siblings worked to save fellow Jews from the horrors of the Nazi regime. Her fiancé, Jacques, was also involved with the resistance. He was later executed by the German army for his actions.
Cohn herself had been threatened and insulted for her religion. But she was a spy now — a spy with an important task, and she had no intention of returning to her superiors empty handed.
“I was very lucky,” Cohn told The Times of Israel recently about that night. After pulling herself out of the canal, she wandered around in circles for hours. In the morning, she met up with a Moroccan army regiment. She would have to try again another day.
In the chaos and confusion of war, countless stories of bravery and heroism can slip through the cracks. For five decades, one of those tales belonged to Cohn, a young Jewish woman who snuck into Germany to spy on the Nazis at the tail end of the war. Her rise from loving sister and friend to nurse, to intelligence officer, is one of remarkable perseverance, and will soon be explored in an upcoming documentary, “An Unusual Spy,” from German director Nicola Hens.
“This woman needs to be portrayed as long as she’s still alive,” said Hens. “There are not so many witnesses to the life [of a spy in World War II], and not so many who have such a great ability to express themselves and are actually willing to talk about it.”
‘We were so naive’
From her home in Racho Palos Verdes, sitting among framed family photos and the honors and awards she received for her work in WWII, Cohn spoke about her upbringing and the events that led to her work for the Allies.
Her story begins in the city of Metz, where she was raised with her four sisters and two brothers. Her parents, both fluent German speakers (a skill they passed onto their children) were Jewish, and her grandfather was a rabbi who founded the Orthodox synagogue in town. But with the rise of Adolf Hitler, everything changed.
“We were horrified, but we never thought that it could come to France,” she said, of the Third Reich. “We were so naive.”
When the Germans pushed into France, her family was urged by the French government to leave their home and head south to Poitiers. There, they assisted Jews fleeing persecution.
“Hundreds of people would ring our bell,” said Cohn. “We never knew where they came from or who they were, but they needed help.”
Meanwhile, Cohn was training to become a nurse at the French Red Cross School of Nursing. After Paris was liberated in 1944, she joined the army, expecting to put her medical skills to use. But when she arrived, she faced immediate pushback from a superior officer, who accused her of not doing her most for her country since she never officially joined a resistance group. She explained to him that she had tried but had been rebuffed.
“Several times I was interviewed by the chief of the resistance,” said Cohn. “They looked at me — I was only four-foot-eleven, I was very thin, I was very blond with blue eyes and had light skin — and they felt I had absolutely no substance. So they never accepted me.”
Instead of becoming a military nurse, the officer relegated Cohn to social work, which she didn’t know anything about, but accepted nonetheless. A few weeks later, she met another officer, Colonel Fabien, who asked her to answer his phone during a lunch break.
“I went with him to his office, he showed me around, and said ‘I am sorry, there is nothing to read here for you. I have only German books,’” recalled Cohn. “And I said, ‘But I read German fluently.’”
Intrigued, Fabien asked if she spoke German as well. When Cohn said she did, he offered her a transfer into the army’s intelligence service. Cohn said yes immediately.
“I didn’t even think,” she said. “He left and then I sat down in a chair and wondered if I was a little crazy, and what predicament I had put myself in. But it was too late.”
Behind enemy lines
Off Cohn went to Mulhouse, and later Colmar, in eastern France to train, learning how to identify German uniforms, read maps, fire guns –– something she had never done before.
“It was amazing, I was 100 percent. I had very, very good eyesight,” she said.
Most importantly, she developed her alibi: that of a young German woman named Martha Ulrich, whose parents had been killed in a bombardment and Nazi fiancé had been captured by the Allies.
She was then assigned to the commanders of Africa, a regiment of the first French army. Cohn was asked to interrogate prisoners of war, and eventually sent to cross the German front, a mission that failed more than a dozen times (including that ill-fated night when she fell into the canal) due to faulty intelligence and the rapidly changing conditions of war.
But her biggest challenge was yet to come: going into Germany itself.
“I was sent to Germany for two purposes,” she said. “To get military information but also information about how the German civilians were reacting to the war, because we didn’t know. We had very little information.”
After crossing through Switzerland into Germany, she stayed in the country for a month, gathering intel and sending it back to her handlers.
As a Jew in Nazi territory, the work was extraordinarily dangerous. But Cohn survived thanks to her strong alibi and the relationships she developed with Germans.
“I helped them any time I found the possibility to do it, and in exchange they offered me to stay at their homes and fed me,” she said. “That did not prevent me of getting in deep trouble several times, but I always found the right thing to tell them to get out of it.”
The information Cohn would gather there about a military encampment in the Black Forest — along with infantry units, numbers, and strengths she had memorized thanks to her near-photographic memory — helped Allied commanders prepare for German troop movements. For her efforts, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration given during WWI and WWII.
To be thanked for my efforts so publicly was something I hadn’t expected
“I hadn’t become a spy for the glory,” wrote Cohn in her 2002 memoir, “Behind Enemy Lines.” “To be thanked for my efforts so publicly was something I hadn’t expected.”
When the war ended, she wasn’t able to grasp why she was alive and so many others had perished. It would be seven years before Cohn even learned of her sister Stéphanie’s fate, which was ultimately deportation to Auschwitz.
“I always thought I may find her,” said Cohn. “But I didn’t. We didn’t know what was going on in the concentration camps. The American and English governments kept us in the dark…
“But when we drove north with the regiment, I met survivors. I thought they were coming from a psychiatric hospital. I couldn’t believe what they were saying. It was inconceivable that it happened. That’s where I understood that she probably didn’t live.”
The secret is unveiled
Years later, Cohn would marry an American medical student named Major L. Cohn, move to the States and give birth to two children. But she would keep her past a secret.
“I felt as long as I didn’t talk about it, it was a very pure story,” she said. “And once I talked about it, it was not as pure anymore.”
“I never even asked how she got into the army. All I knew was that she was a nurse and she ended up in Germany,” added her husband, Major.
But in 1996, the truth finally came out when she reached out to the Shoah Foundation after spotting an advertisement that asked for those who fought the German army to be interviewed about their experience. Later that year, she was interviewed again, this time by an employee of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.
Then, in 1998, on a trip back to France, Cohn decided to approach the French military for copies of her records, which led to her being awarded the Medaille Militaire, one of the highest military honors in France. She was later given the title of Chevalier of the Order of the Legion d’ Honneur, in 2005, and the VerdienstKreuz, the Order of Merit of Germany, in 2014.
Along with her memoir, the additional honors gave Cohn’s story a boost. The new documentary aims to do the same.
Back at home, in between sips of tea, Cohn joked that the filmmaking process, which included Hens documenting her speeches and trips back to France, has been “a pain in the neck,” but she appreciated that her story will continue to get told.
Even at 97, Cohn’s mind is still sharp and she is able to recall dates, names, and other events with remarkable clarity.
“I think it’s just important to keep the memory alive,” said Hens. “I think WWII for many people is far away. But if you look at [Cohn] still alive, it’s not so far away, and if you look at world politics, there is danger that things might repeat themselves. It’s important to not forget what happened.”
“An Unusual Spy” is set to open in 2018. Cohn’s book, “Behind Enemy Lines,” is available now.