Editor's Blog

Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

The Spy’s Tale

March 27, 2011

On Sunday, March 27, a small, frail woman with a big story came to LMU: Marthe Cohn, spy.

Cohn, born in 1920, is a French Jew who was raised in a family that spoke German as well as they spoke French. Her fluency made her valuable in the Second World War to French intelligence officers, who in January 1945 needed information about size and movements of the retreating German armies. Her command of the German language also was her protection when as she walked across the border from Switzerland into Germany to learn all she could about the enemy locations and plans.

Marthe Cohn spoke to members of the Jewish Book and Discussion Group at the William H. Hannon Library about her book “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.” Trained as a nurse, Cohn was a social worker for the French army in early 1945 when an officer asked her to mind his phone for a time. Apologizing for the boredom of the task, he said he’d offer her a book to read but all of his were in German. When she replied that she read German, he asked if she also could speak it. Then came the most serious question of all: Would she be willing to cross into Nazi Germany under false pretenses and gather information about enemy troops? She was asked to risk her life.

Although the war was nearing its end and the Nazi army was in disarray, the French army desperately needed accurate information for their advances. Cohn was briefed on German military organization, trained in code communication and taught to fire a variety of weapons. She concocted a story to explain her presence in a war zone, and she walked across the Switzerland-Germany border and pretended to be a daughter of the Reich in search of her fiancé, Hans, a German soldier rumored to be fighting in the area.

Petite, blond and beautiful, Cohn befriended civilians and even soldiers who would have turned her in had they known she was a Jew, let alone a spy. When a member of the audience asked her feelings about interacting with people under false premises, Cohn said she knew her assignment required deception.

“My only goal was to get as much information as I could, and I used them,” she admitted. “At the same time, I was very grateful for the information they gave me. I felt if I’m risking my life, I want to do the best job I can.”

By the end of Cohn’s talk, I realized that her work in 1945, her book and her conversation at LMU were the parts of one story that she felt obligated to tell: the lie of Nazi ideology. She had witnessed the power of a belief that was based on scapegoating others. “Foreigners in every country,” she said, “are the first ones to get the shaft, to be taken, [and] segregated.” Cohn’s answer to the lie was to act.

“You cannot change the minds of people,” she said. “The only thing [to do] is be an example. Your life must be an example. And you must follow your conscience.”

(Photo by Josie Morris)

Building with Haze and Mist

March 8, 2011

On the second floor of University Hall hangs a photograph of the Loyola College groundbreaking celebration of May 20, 1928. A temporary stage hovers in the background, while benches and folding chairs, cars parked haphazardly and people fitted out in their finest populate the picture from the far-away to the foreground. From other photos of the day, we know that at least one bishop was present, many priests, and, without a doubt, much of the lay Catholic leadership of the city of Los Angeles.

Each time I pass the photograph, that day seems almost a fiction and the people frozen in time, as if they are rendered in painting. The air was filled with filmy haze, as if a veil obscured them, making them insubstantial, nothing but actors on a stage. When that day’s light was dimmed, surely all was dismantled, and the drama that must have existed in someone’s suspended belief gone, evaporating into the mist.

I thought of that photo today as I sat in the next-to-last row of Sacred Heart Chapel awaiting the start of the Inauguration Mass to celebrate the investiture of David W. Burcham as LMU’s 15th president. From my faraway vantage point, the altar seemed to take the place of that temporary stage, as bishops, priests, nuns and lay leaders gathered to celebrate. Then I realized that it was not the 1928 photo that failed to come alive but my eyes.

Eighty years ago, the people captured by a photo were the community that gathered around this university. Their bishop, Jesuits and lay leaders were present to set forth on new land the path for a private university founded on the values of a religious faith and the charism of a religious order founded by a 15th century Spaniard who was a priest and a war veteran.

They could barely describe the day that we witnessed at LMU today — we celebrated the university’s most recent milestone — even though they may have imagined something like it. The field on which they gathered, no more than low grasses, dirt roads and barely rolling hills, dwarfed them. And today, the university that stands there would dwarf them, too.

Some of them surely imagined an edifice, or several, that would gradually take shape. But they could not know what decades later would be the testimony of their vision and work. In a sense, they didn’t know what they were building.

Today, we inaugurated our 15th president. We can look back over eight decades and see and touch what has come of the work. But, in a sense, we don’t know what we’re building either. We continue to build something that, we hope, in 80 years will be handed to people we cannot name or describe and can barely imagine. Not a one among us today, probably, will be in the chapel with them then. Only a few of our names will be remembered. When they look at our photos, our cars will seem slow; our clothes, quaint; our mobile devices, toys.

It’s a paradoxical thing to witness: On a day celebrating vision and institution — things foundational — we see clearly our transience that is mystically at core of it all. We, too, are made up of haze, mist and spirit, and we build something permanent, something needed by the world.