Former French Jewish spy to discuss work 'Behind Enemy Lines'
By Lou Fancher
Storytelling earned French Jewish spy and Holocaust survivor Marthe Cohn France's highest military honor, the Médaille Militaire.
It also, indirectly, saved the lives of countless countrymen, women and children during World War II.
The 94-year-old resident of Palo Verdes was awarded the title Chevalier de l'Ordre de la Legion d'Honneur in 2005. Three years earlier, writing with assistance from author Wendy Holden, Cohn had published "Behind Enemy Lines," her story of crossing enemy lines by posing as a German nurse desperately seeking her fictional fiancé. As a member of the intelligence service of the French First Army, Cohn's actions were instrumental in allowing the Allies to break through the Siegfried line and enter German territory in 1945, leading to the end of the war.
Cohn comes to the Bay Area at the invitation of Chabad of Contra Costa and will share her story in Orinda, Brentwood, Livermore and Berkeley.
"I'll emphasize what happened during the occupation by the German army in France," Cohn says, about her East Bay tour. "And then, what I did to fight them."
The "fight" included a failed attempt to rescue her sister Stephanie, who eventually died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Shortly thereafter, Cohn joined the French military and made 13 attempts to cross the Alsace border before a successful attempt through Switzerland led her into Germany. Cohn said she and others were ready to give their lives to fight the Germans.
Cohn never told her husband and two sons about her actions during the war until a request to the French government for her military records led to public recognition, a series of awards, and ultimately, her memoir.
"When you're in intelligence, they brainwash you that everything is secret," Cohn says. "Nobody ever asked me how I survived. It's only in the 1980s that people started talking about the war. Before that, they wanted to forget about it."
But Cohn had not forgotten; indeed, she thought about it constantly, with a nearly photographic memory for names, dates, and languages. She said her abilities to speak German fluently and to "read" other people were key to being a successful spy.
Besides, she said, "I had two sons -- you don't raise children, tell them what you did, then expect them to listen to you when you tell them to be careful crossing the street."
Cohn said it has taken her years to forgive. She refused to return to Germany until 2011, when "The people who did what they did to my sister were mostly gone and the generations there now are not responsible."
Cohn insists she will tell her story wherever and whenever asked. "It's stimulating to be able to tell my story, to show that as a woman and a Jew I was able to fight a very
powerful army," she said.
Dr. Yedida Kanfer, coordinator of education services at JFCS Holocaust Center in San Francisco says the Tauber Holocaust Library's 2,000 audio and video testimonies are increasingly important as a historical record in the post-survivor era. Estimating that there are 4,000 Holocaust survivors in the Bay Area, Kanfer says the collection engages young people and emphasizes "remembering with responsibility."
"Hearing the stories of Holocaust survivors conveys the immediacy of Nazi terror, cruelty, and mass murder. Yet the testimonies of Holocaust survivors also enable us to look at our own world with a critical eye," Kanfer says.
Cohn's memoir is part of the Tauber Library's over 12,000 books.
Opening carry-on luggage to reveal the 20-some medals Cohn uses to illustrate her speaking engagements, she says, "What is important is my remembrance of what happened, not these medals. The medal I like best is the one I got on the field in front of soldiers, the Croix de Guerre. It signals acceptance of what I achieved. I was a feminist before feminism. I was a woman and a Jew and I fought."