SPY BATTLED THE NAZIS
No French man could have served as a spy in Second World War Germany: Any male 12 years or older was enlisted in the army.But no one would suspect Marthe Cohn, née Hoffnung.The blond 24-year-old Jewish woman enlisted in the French army in the autumn of 1944.“I felt that it was a duty of everybody to do the maximum to get the Germans out of France,” Cohn, now 98, said Monday afternoon in her suite at Hotel Saskatchewan.She will share her story with Saskatchewan audiences this week — in Regina on Tuesday and Saskatoon on Thursday.About three weeks into her army stint as a “social worker,” the petite sergeant was asked to join the intelligence service, when the colonel learned she could speak and read German.Assigned to the Commandos d’afrique for training in Cernay, her task was to pose as a nurse in Germany collecting intelligence for the French army.When Cohn joined that unit in January 1945, it had lost 192 soldiers in a single day to Germans “fighting desperately to prevent the allied armies to enter Germany.”Information could be vital to the Allied cause.It wasn’t an easy job.Cohn got scared “very often,” she said with a little laugh. “You cannot do that work without having scary moments.”She got lucky at least once. “Martha Ulrich” was supposed to be a nurse, but there was a hole in her character’s story: She had never been assigned the name of a clinic. At tea with her host in Freiburg, the host’s friend asked the name of the hospital, and Cohn made one up.“She said, ‘That sounds more like a hotel than a clinic.’ I said, ‘You are right, madame. It was a hotel before the war, but during the war it became a clinic.’ “Another time, Cohn was trying to get to the Swiss border, so she could communicate reconnaissance to her unit.She ended up at the side of a road, after an overnight trip on the back of a truck, along with some German civilian travellers.She fell asleep, and awoke to one of them shaking her and warning her to take cover. She asked, “Why, what’s going on?” — in French.That set off the Germans’ alarm bells. She managed to escape their company with a lighthearted, “Air raid or no, I have to relieve myself. My bladder is fit to burst!” She ran up a hill, spotted a horse-drawn milk wagon, and caught a ride to the next city.Serving as a spy was not the first risk Cohn took during the war.Living in Poitiers, she started a resistance group with her younger sister, Stephanie.Cohn said they helped hundreds of Jewish people find their way to a farm safe haven, located half on unoccupied territory.Stephanie was found out, though. She was arrested on June 17, 1942, three weeks before her 21st birthday.On Sept. 21, Yom Kippur — “the highest Jewish holiday of the year, like Christmas for the Christians” — Stephanie was transported to Auschwitz.Cohn also lost her fiancé, Jacques Delaunay, to a firing squad execution. He was in the resistance.In 1958, she married the American Maj. Lloyd Cohn; they live in Los Angeles County.Now 98, after a career as a nurse and numerous medals to her name — including the Croix de Guerre (1945) and Medaille militaire (1999) — Cohn shares her story because “it’s extremely important.”She did so in detail in her 2002 memoir, Behind Enemy Lines.“People have very short memories and poor understanding of what’s going on. So you have to remind them, and it’s important for the young people to understand that you have to be engaged,” said Cohn.“You cannot just let the other people do the work. You too have to be engaged. And one person can make a difference.”“In France, people believe ... that the resistance was very little and it’s absolutely not true,” added Cohn.“People who helped other people, that was resistance too, who saved people. In France, 75 per cent of Jews survived, and they survived because so many nonjews risked their lives to save ours.”Hosted by the Chabad Jewish Centre of Regina, Marthe Cohn presents Behind Enemy Lines on Tuesday, 7 p.m., at the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina. Tickets start at $38.60 (including taxes and fees), and are available at conexusticket.com or by calling 306-525-9999.She will speak in Saskatoon on Thursday, 7 p.m., at TCU Place. Tickets start at $37 (including taxes and fees), and are available at tcutickets.ca or by calling 306975-7799.
Marthe Cohn, 98, was 24 when she travelled to Germany with an assumed identity in 1944 to collect information for the French army.
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