PORTLAND, Maine — Her story sounds like something out of a movie: a Jewish woman who grew up in France joins the French Army and spies on the Nazis in Germany for a month, gathering important intelligence that will help defeat them. But that is the actual life of Marthe Cohn.
At 99 years old, the petite 4'11" Cohn is as friendly as she is unassuming with a thick French accent and a smile on her face even when she conjures up, with remarkable clarity and detail, the memories of not only surviving the Holocaust but helping to defeat the Nazis as a spy.
Cohn was born in 1920 and lived with her family of five sisters and two brothers in the French city of Metz. Her family sheltered Jews who were fleeing the Nazis including her two young cousins. Her older brother and sister went to Germany to get the two- and three-year-old after Kristallnacht in 1938, which was the first time the Nazis, on the order of the government, arrest and killed Jews.
Cohn's fiance was a medical student who fought in the French resistance. He was arrested for resistance acts, tortured and killed by Nazis on the same day as his brother. Cohn's sister was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she was killed.
With blond hair and blue eyes, and speaking fluent German, Cohn was the perfect candidate to be a spy, but it took her a long time to get the chance to do the work. In 1944, Cohn finally joined the French Army and three months later when a General learned that she was fluent in German she was recruited by the Intelligence Service.
Cohn was to pose as a German nurse who was trying to obtain information about a fictional fiance when she got to Germany. She tried to cross the border several times and finally after a dozen failed attempts she was able to. She went crossed into Germany from Switzerland where a field led her into the country. The field was guarded by two soldiers. Marthe hid behind a bush and waited for the soldiers to walk away. As she waited, the immensity of what she was doing struck her and she was paralyzed by fear for several hours not being able to move.
The words of her Captain who had accused her of having cold-feet echoed in her mind and she said to herself, "I prefer to be killed than called a coward."She got up from the bushes, grabbed her little suitcase crossing the field to the road where she met a German soldier and greeted him with a 'heil Hitler.'
Cohn says she was worried the soldier would know her papers were forged but he did not and she entered Germany. While in Germany Cohn obtained three pieces of valuable military information including plans of a German retreat.
Cohn kept her heroic story mainly to herself until writing her book "Behind Enemy Lines." Since then she has received several medals and accolades, much to the surprise of her two grown sons who knew little of their mother's heroic tale. She now travels with her husband, Major Cohn, who she has been married to for 62 years, sharing her story around the world and drawing parallels with what is happening today.
"Nobody accepted us so I remembered that. And that's why it's important to tell people how difficult it was for us so that they realize that they have to be much more open to other migrants," Cohn says of the immigrants coming across the southern border.
Her most important message is that people never forget. "People have very short memories, very short. And if you don't know the past you can not prepare for the future."
Cohn lives in Palo Verdes, California and visited Maine to speak at USM on Wednesday, Aug. 21. She heads to Massachusetts next on her lecture tour.
Watch the entire interview with Marthe Cohn below: