By Cindy Mindell
Marthe 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.
The 95-year-old recently spoke with the Ledger about how she went from nursing student to spy.
Q: What happened to your family during World War II?
A: In September 1939, 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. He was sent back because Jews 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. He tried to escape from occupied France…but he was caught. He escaped again and this time he made it. My youngest brother, Arnold, escaped in the beginning of 1942 to non-occupied France.
My sister, Stephanie, and I helped a lot of people escape to unoccupied France. We had the assistance of Noel Degout, a farmer in the village of Dienne, who helped thousands of people cross through his property, which was partially in both zones. On June 17, 1942, Stephanie was arrested by the SiPo [Sicherheitspolizei, Security Police] because she had sent tobacco vouchers to Mr. Degout from a young man we had sent 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 arrested my father, to put pressure on her and even in his presence, she refused. My father was released…My sister was in prison for one month and then transferred to the Route de Limoges camp, then to Drancy near Paris and later to Pithiviers internment camp. She was then deported to an unknown destination. In reality, she was deported to Auschwitz and never came back.
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 debriefed by a captain of intelligence. 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 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 went to see our troops at the front. 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. 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. 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 in the army and any men in civilian clothes in the streets of Germany would immediately be arrested. 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 taken to northeastern France and underwent intensive training. I was assigned in January 1945 to the French army commanders in northern Africa. I interrogated German colonels and generals and obtained important information.
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. 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.