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Conversation with Marthe Cohn

“[Col. Pierre Fabien] asked me if I would accept a transfer to the intelligence service of the French 1st Army. I accepted and he left…and I sat down and wondered in what predicament I had put myself in.”

By Cindy Mindell

book coverMarthe Cohn was born into an Orthodox Jewish family on April 13, 1920 in Metz, northeastern France, one of seven children. During World War II, the bilingual Cohn would eventually be recruited into the intelligence service of the French 1st Army, commanded by Marshal of France, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Her 2002 memoir, Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany (with Wendy Holden) chronicles her extraordinary story of survival and heroism.

Now 95, the much-decorated war hero will visit Connecticut next month, making stops at Chabad of Fairfield and Chabad House of Greater Hartford, to talk about her harrowing experience as a World War II spy.

She spoke with the Ledger about the wartime experiences of a family who fought and survived the Nazis, and how she went from nursing student to spy.

Q: What happened to your family during World War II?

A: There was antisemitism in Metz, but very low-grade. In September 1939, before the war started, the French government demanded that the people who could afford to do so, move to Poitiers [400 miles to the southwest, and away from the German border]. My two brothers were in the French army; my oldest brother was on the Maginot Line and my youngest was in Tunisia, where he was doing his service, until 1940, then he was sent back because Jewish kids were not kept in the French army anymore. My oldest brother was taken prisoner on the Maginot Line. He was in a camp in Strasbourg, and he overheard the Germans say that the next day they were going to be transferred to a camp in Germany so he escaped that night and he was able to come home. He joined us in Poitiers in December 1940.

We had started a store in the beginning of 1940 in Poitiers which was closed in 1941 on orders of the Germans. My oldest brother tried to escape from occupied France – Poitiers was in occupied France. He tried to cross at Bordeaux but he was caught and spent one month in prison in Poitiers. The Germans did not realize that he was an escaped prisoner of war and that he was Jewish. He came out of prison and escaped again and this time he made it. He got married in 1941 in Sainte Etienne, in unoccupied France.

We stayed in Poitiers and my youngest brother, Arnold, escaped in the beginning of 1942 to non-occupied France because at that time, we were still very naïve and we thought that only the young men were in danger. The rest of the family stayed in Poitiers.

My sister, Stephanie, and I were helping a lot of people who wanted to escape to unoccupied France. We had the assistance of Noel Degout, a farmer in the small village of Dienne, near Poitiers, who helped thousands of people cross through his property, which was partially in both zones. He never asked for one penny and posthumously received the title of Righteous among the Nations at Yad VaShem after they read my book.

On June 17, 1942, Stephanie was arrested by the SiPo [Sicherheitspolizei, Security Police, created by Hitler in March 1942] because she had written a letter to Mr. Degout and sent him vouchers for tobacco from one of the young men we had sent to him to cross into unoccupied France. If you didn’t smoke, you could barter it for food. Stephanie was questioned and refused to give any information, so they came back to our home and arrested my father, to put pressure on her and even in his presence, she refused. My father was released because they were only arresting foreign Jews, not French Jews. The foreign Jews were in the Route de Limoges camp, south of Poitiers. My sister was in prison for one month and then transferred to the Route de Limoges camp; she was the only French person in the camp. We were able to organize her escape from the camp, but she refused to escape because she told me that if she did, we would all be arrested, but the rest of us decided to escape from occupied France. She was transferred to Drancy near Paris and later to Pithiviers internment camp, and then deported on Yom Kippur, Sept. 21, 1942, to an unknown destination. In reality, she was deported to Auschwitz and never came back.

Q: How did you get out of occupied France?

A: We were able to escape from Poitiers because, several weeks before Stephanie was arrested, I met Mr. Charpentier, with whom I had worked at the city hall. He stopped me in the main street and said he had something important to tell me. He told me that he could provide us with identity papers without the stamped “Jew.” When I asked him how much it would cost, he started crying and he said, “I do not want to be paid. I do this to save you.” He gave me all the identity cards.

I was in my first year of nursing school. The night before we left, Odile de Morin, a classmate of mine, came to the house and insisted that she could not live with herself unless we came to her house because she had heard that that night would be the first rafle – deportation – of French Jews by French police, under the orders of the Germans. Odile got the title of Righteous among the Nations posthumously. We went first to Arles, where my two brothers were, and I went to Marseille, where I finished my nursing studies, at the Red Cross school. I became licensed as a registered nurse and left for Paris. I was living with my sister, Cecile, in Paris, who had been there since 1940. I lived with her from September 1943 until the liberation of Paris.

Paris was liberated in August 1944 and I tried immediately to join the army and I was able to do it only in November 1944. I was engaged at the time to Jacques Delaunay, a medical student and a friend of my sister. His mother came to Paris to tell us that Jacques and his brother had been executed by the Germans on Oct. 6, 1943, at Fort Mont-Valérien, the worst prison in Paris. Her husband was in Buchenwald. So, she was the mother of two heroes and the wife of a third hero and she vouched for me and that’s how I was accepted into the army.

Q: How were you recruited into the intelligence service?

A: I joined the army as a nurse, but when I arrived in November 1944 the front was in Alsace. I went by bus from Paris to the front. I was the only girl on the bus. I arrived in a small village very late at night and I was debriefed by a captain of intelligence. Every regiment in the war had at least one intelligence officer from the Second Bureau of the General Staff. He asked me what I had done in the Resistance and I told him about the work I was doing with Stephanie and he said that it didn’t impress him at all. I had never been able to join the Resistance because I had been interviewed by several groups in Paris and they never took me seriously: I was very short and slim, very blond with blue eyes and light skin, and they took me for a bimbo and never trusted or accepted me.

The captain said, “You should have gone out into the street and killed a German. “As much as I hated the Germans at that time, I was unable to do that. I told him, “I’m a nurse, I take care of patients, I don’t kill people” and he said, “You see, you’re not fit to be in the army.” I said, “The headquarters in Paris assigned me to your regiment; I’m going to stay.” He said, “I don’t need nurses, I have enough nurses. You are going to be a social worker.” I had no background as a social worker, but in the army, if they tell you you’re a social worker, that’s what you are. The next morning I decided I was going to see our troops at the front. I crossed a little forest and at the other side, there was a narrow canal. Our troops were on the western side of the canal. I entered the foxholes of our troops, who were very surprised because they had never seen a social worker in their foxholes. They were asking for underwear, socks, food, writing and reading materials, and the villagers gave me whatever they could give me. I went every day for several weeks to the front to bring whatever I could.

One day, crossing the village square, I met Col. Pierre Fabien, who had been a huge hero of the Resistance. He killed the first German in 1942 during the occupation, in the Barbès Metro station. He had put together a huge group of Resistance in Paris and they had fought so well against the Germans during the last two weeks of the German occupation before the French and American troops came in that Genl. Degaulle and Genl. de Lattre de Tassigny, who commanded the French 1st Army, decided to incorporate the whole group as a regular regiment in the army. That was the regiment that I had been assigned to. Col. Fabien asked me to answer his phone during his lunch break.

That’s how your life changes. I went with him and he showed me around and he said, “I’m sorry: I have nothing for you to read here; there are only German books,” and I said, “I read German fluently,” and he asked if I speak German and I said yes. He told me that men could not go into Germany on missions because all males from the age of 12 to old age were all in the army in uniform and any men in civilian clothes in the streets of Germany would immediately be arrested. And that’s why they desperately needed women who spoke German to go on missions to Germany. He asked me if I would accept a transfer to the intelligence service of the French 1st Army. I accepted and he left and I sat down and wondered in what predicament I had put myself in. But it was too late.

Q: How did you first cross into Germany as a spy?

A: Two or three days later, I was picked up and taken to Mulhouse [northeastern France] and underwent extremely intensive training for what I was going to do. I was assigned in January 1945 to the French army commanders in northern Africa, who were overseen by Col. Bouvet. From December 1944, the Germans were desperately fighting in Alsace to prevent the Allied Powers to enter Germany. That was the last resort, and we were unable to dislodge them and we had huge losses. On the morning of the day I met the commanders in northern Africa they had lost 182 dead and had a lot of wounded. Col. Bouvet immediately asked me to interrogate prisoners of war because he needed to get information for the French 1st Army on the plan of retreat of the German army from Alsace to Germany. I interrogated German colonels and generals and obtained important information. I can boast about it because it’s written in one of the citations of my Croix de Guerre, which is a medal I received on the front in 1945 from Col. Bouvet.

After that, the captain in charge of our “antenna” – the intelligence name for our group – decided that I would go into Germany directly from Switzerland. Switzerland was neutral but they had helped the Germans as long as the Germans were successful; now that we were successful, they were helping us. I was taken by an agent, “Mr. LeMer,” to Schaffhausen, very close to Germany near the Rhone River. We came to a small forest and walked through it. On the other side was a huge field and then a road. The forest and the field were Switzerland and the road was Germany, controlled by two armed German sentinels. One came from the eastern edge of the field and walked toward the middle; the other sentinel came from the west, met him in the middle, they talked for a few seconds, turned around, and walked back to the edges. Mr. LeMer told me that, toward evening, I would crawl along the edge of the field when both sentinels had their backs turned, and then walk along the road.

I had no arms, maps, radio, nothing written, not even a flashlight. Everything I needed to know was in my memory. I took my little suitcase, which contained only a change of clothes, and started crawling along the field and hid behind the bushes. Until then, everything was fine. But once behind the bushes, I suddenly realized the immensity of what I was going to undertake and I became so terrified that I was completely paralyzed by fear and it took me a very long time to overcome the fear. Finally, I got up when the two soldiers had met, separated, and turned their backs to me, and I walked on the road. There were no barriers to separate the field from the road. I walked toward the east until one of the soldiers came back toward me, I raised my right arm and said, “Heil Hitler,” and he asked for my identity papers. I was now called Marthe Ulrich. He looked at my papers, gave them back, and I was now in Germany.

“An Evening with Marthe Cohn” Monday, July 13, Chabad of Fairfield, Wednesday, July 15, 7:30 p.m., Chabad House of Greater Hartford, 2352 Albany Ave., West Hartford. For information: (860) 232-1116.

CAP: Marthe Cohn looks over the many medals she was awarded for her heroic acts during World War II.

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