Why Marthe Cohn Agreed To Spy On The Nazis - 'It Was Our Duty, Absolutely'

Aug 22, 2019

Marthe Cohn speaks to Maine Public's Irwin Gratz.
Credit Irwin Gratz / Maine Public

Marthe Cohn, now 99, is female and Jewish.  Her gender, and her religion, make her role as a World War II spy that much more incredible.

Cohn and her Orthodox Jewish family lived in France, near the German border.  As a result, she spoke fluent German, a skill that would come in handy near the end of the war.  That's when Cohn, in newly liberated France, agreed to become a spy for the Allies. 

Cohn will talk about that tonight [Wednesday] at Hannaford Hall on the University of Southern Maine Campus.  She joined me yesterday [Tuesday] for a brief interview.

By 1944 she had lost a fiancé and a sister to the Nazis. Cohn told me that surely influenced her desire to join the war effort and to accept an assignment to go into Nazi Germany to spy. 

 

"There were other reasons, too," she says. "Seventy-five percent of Jews survived in France. And so many non-Jews risked their lives to save ours. Wasn't that our duty to defend our country too? It was our duty, absolutely."

 

Several attempts to get behind the enemy lines failed. I ask her how she finally succeeded in crossing back into Germany.

 

"The captain of my little intelligence group decided that we would do it by crossing from Switzerland into Germany," she recalls. "We drove, and Mr. LaMer stopped the car. We crossed a little forest, and, on the other side, he showed me a huge field, and bordered on the northern edge by a small, country road. So, the forest and the field were Switzerland, but the road was Germany."

 

The plan was for her to wait until evening, then, when two patrolling German sentinels turned from the center of the field to march to the end, she would climb out of the bushes and start down the road.

"Once I crawled and arrived behind the bushes, until then, everything was perfect. But then, I 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, very long time to overcome that fear. But, suddenly, something clicked in my brain and I remembered something which made me get up, take my little suitcase, walk on the road, walk toward a military sentinel who was coming back from the eastern edge of the field, raised my hand, "Heil Hitler," and he asked to see my identity card. When I gave him my card, I wondered if he would recognize that the card was forged, but he gave it back to me. Without question, I was now in Germany."

 

Cohn went on to gather valuable intelligence about retreating Germans. After the war, she stayed silent for decades about her spying.

 

"When you are in intelligence service," she says, "you are brainwashed that everything is highly secret. And, though I'm a woman, I know how to keep a secret."

 

But her exploits became known in the 1990s, and since, she has traveled widely to tell her story, hoping to save us from a future like her past. 

And while Cohn told me she's an optimist, she is worried about the recent resurgence of nationalism. "I am terrified by it. And I hope we can stop it in the United States with the votes very soon."
 

Marthe Cohn, former World War II spy, speaks tonight [Wednesday] at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

Originally published Aug. 21, 2019 at 6:28 a.m. ET.