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Spying behind enemy lines

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Marthe Cohn, an Orthodox Jew, will tell you it wasn't courage that spurred her to cross enemy lines posing as a German nurse during World War II.

With blond hair and blue eyes, she was the one who could do it.

"It was a mission that I was trained for, and I wanted to do the best job I could do," Cohn said. "I knew I was risking my life because I was told if I'm arrested, nobody could help me. And I asked for pills to kill myself because I was terrified of being tortured, but they never gave me the pills.

“They felt, probably, that I was not important enough to give me pills,” Cohn said.

She shared her story Wednesday at the Ashland Hills Hotel to more than 650 people in a talk sponsored by Chabad of Southern Oregon. At 98, she travels the world recounting her story to the next generation.

Cohn grew up 30 miles east of the Franco-German border in the French town of Metz and spoke and read German fluently. Her family escaped the occupation, but not until after Cohn’s sister was taken away by the German Security Police one evening during dinner because of her work with the resistance. She was a medical student at the time.

“She and I saved hundreds of people,” Cohn said. “We knew not where they were coming from. We knew only that they needed help.”

Her sister was carted off to a concentration camp, but she refused an escape plan Cohn had crafted because she was using her medical knowledge to help fellow prisoners.

“She refused because she felt that what she was doing for the children was too important,” Cohn said.

Cohn said the last letter she received from her sister stated that on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday of the year, she was sent to an unknown destination.

“We learned many, many years later that she had been deported to Auschwitz and never returned,” Cohn said. “So, I like to honor my sister before I tell my own story.”

Cohn’s fiancé and his brother also were executed by the Nazis as resistance fighters.

She joined the French Army originally as a social worker. Soon after, her commanding officer learned she spoke and read German fluently and asked her to join the French Intelligence branch. She trained for her spy role by interrogating prisoners of war.

Cohn said she knew she had to take the espionage job once she was recruited.

She played the role of a young German nurse frantically searching for her fiancé positioned on the front lines.

Cohn relayed the information she gleaned from the unsuspecting Germans to the French Intelligence to aid in its fight to stop the Nazis.

Cohn said while playing the role of “Martha Ulrich,” she was the most frightened when she had to cross from Switzerland into enemy territory.

“There were many times when I was extremely afraid, but that was the worst time,” Cohn said.

She said two guards, both heavily armed, were standing watch over the field she had to cross. One guard would walk the border from the West and one from the East, meet in the middle and then turn to march back to their post before meeting again. She watched as she crouched behind a bush.

“They guarded the edge of that field 24 hours, night and day,” Cohn said. “The Swiss Intelligence agent who had brought me there said ... when they separate, and both turn their back to me, I have to crawl along the field and hide behind the bushes and when they come back, and then separate again, I have to get to the road in Germany.”

She said she got behind the first hedge of bushes without a problem, but then the reality of what she was doing began to sink in. She, a Jewish woman with a fake identity and a hidden agenda, had to place herself voluntarily in the enemy’s territory. And there was no turning back.

“Once behind the bushes I was so terrified of the idea to walk into Germany,” Cohn said. “I remember thinking that I had holes in my alibi. That frightened me so terribly that I was paralyzed by fear and it took me several hours to overcome that fear.”

She said the next step was to approach the sentinel and relay her story — that she was fleeing the Allies — and just like that, she was in.

She said 75 percent of French Jews survived the Holocaust.

“If 75 percent of Jews survived, it is because of so many non-Jews who risked their lives to help us and that I will never forget,” Marthe said.

During Monday’s interview at a private gathering, her husband of 62 years, Major Cohn, displayed some of the more notable awards Marthe’s received out of a collection of 26 they’d brought with them. Within that collection was the Medaille Militaire, one of France’s highest military honors, also given to Winston Churchill and other wartime heroes.

Major said in May, Marthe will be the first woman in history to be memorialized at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

“Her maiden name is Hoffnung, which means ‘hope’ in German,” Major said.

Marthe said her job now is to share her story with the young people of the world so history may not repeat itself.

“Humans have fairly short memories,” Cohn said. “It’s very important that we remember what occurred so that it never occurs again, but it occurs all over the world anyway. You still have to remind them even if it happens because progress, you take two paces forward and three back, but if enough people act and remind people what happened perhaps one day people will make more progress.”

She kept her story a secret until 1996. Even her own children had no idea of her espionage as a young woman.

At Monday’s gathering she said she kept it hidden for so long because she was trained to do so. However, in front of the large crowd Wednesday, she said it was because she was afraid that no one would believe her because she is such a petite woman, 4 feet and 11 inches tall.

“I was a very unlikely spy,” Marthe said laughing.

Cohn’s book, “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany,” is available on Amazon.

Rabbi Avi Zwiebel of the Ashland Chabad said Cohn’s message is timeless and needed now more than ever.

He recounted a Saturday four months ago when he said he was the most frightened he’s ever been. He said while standing in synagogue Oct. 27, someone whispered in his ear that there was an active shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, in the very same neighborhood that his 17-year-old daughter was working. She was fortunately not in that synagogue, he said. The event has been called the deadliest among the Jewish population in the United States.

Marthe and Major Cohn were members of the same congregation only 20 years ago.

“Have we forgotten the lessons of the past?” Zwiebel asked. “But the fact that so many of you have gathered here tonight, it gives me hope that we can stand for there to be absolutely no tolerance in our society for any type of hate or any kind of bigotry.”

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

A packed house filled the banquet room of the Ashland Springs Hotel during the Behind Enemy Lines event on Wednesday. Ashland Tidings / Jamie Lusch
Marthe Cohn, a former Jewish spy, recounts life behind enemy lines at the Ashland Springs Hotel on Wednesday. Ashland Tidings / Jamie Lusch