Haifa hosts the Jewish nurse who spied on the Nazis

“As soon as they knew I could speak German, they wanted me to work for military intelligence,” she said.

Marthe Cohn (photo credit: ZIV AMAR)
Marthe Cohn
(photo credit: ZIV AMAR)
“I always keep my promises,” said Marthe Cohn, the 99-year-old nurse and author who spied for the French against the Nazis during World War II, and who is the subject of the documentary, Chichinette - How I Accidentally Became a Spy, which was screened at the Haifa International Film Festival.
Cohn, who now lives in Los Angeles, was referring to an injury she suffered recently – “I fell at home and fractured my elbow in two places” – which did not stop her from keeping promises she made to give speeches around the world.
She could just as easily have been speaking about the commitment she made to a French army officer in the last year of World War II. Cohn promised that she, a young Jewish nurse who had managed to keep herself and most of her family safe throughout the Nazi occupation, would cross into Germany (via Switzerland) to obtain key intelligence information.
“I tried 13 times to cross over. For various reasons, I had to turn back every time. But this officer said I had done it purposefully, that I had cold feet,” said Cohn, who is so tiny she makes Dr. Ruth look like a linebacker, and is full of energy and unfailingly polite.
So on her last try, she managed to cross the border and complete the mission that would end up guaranteeing her a place in French military history.
Cohn, who was born to a large, religious French Jewish family, grew up in a region near the border and was fluent in German. Early on during the Nazi occupation, her sister Stephanie was arrested. Cohn knew her sister wouldn’t try to escape because she feared reprisals against their family, so Cohn managed to acquire identity papers for everyone else in her family that showed that they were not Jewish. They were able to live safely in France until the Germans were defeated. But she was unable to save her sister, who was eventually murdered, or her fiancé, a non-Jewish Resistance fighter who was converting in order to marry her, but was executed.
Devastated by their losses, she volunteered to be a nurse in the French army in 1944 and eventually became a social worker, working with the army. When she was asked to answer phones for an hour in a French military office, an officer learned that she was fluent in German.
“As soon as they knew I could speak German, they wanted me to work for military intelligence,” she said.
Cohn explained that at the time, every German male over the age of 12 was in the army, and so the French military wanted to send a woman to obtain key information on troop movements. And now, they had found the woman they needed.
She ended up spending nearly a month among the Nazis. When asked whether she managed to sleep during that month, she said, “Yes, I slept very well. I was exhausted, because I walked all day.”
During the day, trains did not run – and even if they had, “They were always asking for your papers on the train,” so she felt it was safer to walk. Cohn’s walks took her to spots where she was able to hear and observe a great deal of information that was valuable to the Allies.
The story of Cohn’s life before and during this month is told in spellbinding detail in the film – and in her memoir, Behind Enemy Lines – and it wouldn’t be believable if it weren’t true. This young Jewish woman was able to learn that the Siegfried Line, northwest of Freiburg, had already been evacuated, and the location of a planned ambush by the Germans against the French in the Black Forest.
These two pieces of information saved an untold number of lives on both sides. For her bravery and the quality of her work, she has received many decorations, including the Croix de Guerre with two citations from the French government in 1945 and the title of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 2002. Germany, recognizing that her spying prevented the deaths of many German soldiers, awarded her the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest honor, in 2014.
When asked how she approaches young audiences who want to hear her story, she said, “First, I speak to them about the Holocaust. I explain it to them before I talk about what I did.”
Another point she emphasizes when she speaks is that, “75% of French Jews survived the Holocaust and that is because people helped them, people who were not Jewish.”
After the war, she traveled to Indochina as a nurse for the army, as she had planned to do with her late fiancé. Eventually, she met Major Cohn, a New York doctor and neuroscientist, and worked as his nurse. They have been married for 61 years and have two children.
“She used to work for me, now I work for her,” he joked, sitting next to her in Haifa. In the film, he is shown schlepping her suitcases and making travel arrangements.
When she is asked whether she ever thought of continuing to spy after the war, she said, “No, it’s very dangerous to do it for too long. You have too much power. So I didn’t want to spy any more.”
“Only on me,” said her husband, and they both laughed.
The Haifa International Film Festival runs through October 21. The documentary will also be screened on November 21 at Beit Hatfuzot in Tel Aviv and on November 11 in London at the UK Jewish Film Festival.