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)