Marthe Cohn, Holocaust survivor who spied on the Nazis, publishes her memoir
After keeping her story secret for years, thinking nobody would believe her, French Holocaust survivor Marthe (Hoffnung) Cohn published her memoir Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany, on March 28, 2006.
Cohn was born on April 30, 1920, in Metz in Alsace-Lorraine, a French region on the border with Germany. The area had been annexed by Germany for nearly 50 years before World War I, so Cohn grew up speaking both German and French. In 1942, after her sister was arrested and murdered in Auschwitz, Cohn fled to Vichy France. There, she obtained fake identity papers and was able to pass as a non-Jew because of her blonde hair and blue eyes. Her fiancé, fighting for the French army, was killed by the Germans in 1943.
In 1944, after the liberation of France, Cohn joined the French Army as a nurse then was sent to a base as a social worker. When an officer asked her to answer his phones during his lunch break but apologized that she would be bored because all of his books were in German, she mentioned that she was fluent in German and was quickly recruited by Intelligence.
The French army specifically recruited female spies because male spies would arouse suspicion in a country where all men over age twelve were conscripted. Cohn attempted to enter Nazi Germany via the Swiss border fourteen times before finally succeeding on her fifteenth try. She remained in Germany for three weeks and sent back crucial intelligence: she discovered that the Germans had evacuated the Siegfried Line and determined the location of a planned ambush on French troops in the Black Forest.
After the war, Cohn worked as a nurse with the French Army. She met her husband, American Major L. Cohn, in 1956. She returned with him to the United States and was forced to revoke her French citizenship. The couple settled in Palos Verdes, California, where Cohn worked with her husband, an anesthesiologist, as a nurse anesthetist and raised their two children.
Cohn kept her story secret, including from family, until she went to France in the 1990s to retrieve her army papers in order to apply for French citizenship (immigration laws had changed, making dual citizenship legal). The office workers encouraged her to share her story, and so she began to speak to audiences about being a spy. In 2006 published her memoir, which she co-authored with Wendy Holden. She is also the subject of the 2019 documentary film Chichinette–The Accidental Spy. Chichinette was her nickname in the army: in French it means “little pain in the neck.”
Brown, Hannah. “Haifa hosts the Jewish nurse who spied on the Nazis.” Jerusalem Post, October 17, 2019. https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Culture/Haifa-hosts-the-Jewish-nurse-who-spied-on-the-Nazis-604948.
Burack, Emily. “This Extraordinary Holocaust Survivor Just Celebrated Her 100th Birthday.” Hey Alma, April 20, 2020. https://www.heyalma.com/this-extraordinary-holocaust-survivor-just-celebrated-her-100th-birthday/.
Cohn, Marthe and Wendy Holden. Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2006.
Garrison, Jessica. “Past Catches Up to Palos Verdes Woman--Carrying a Medal.” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2000. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-jul-14-me-52943-story.html.
Mindell, Cindy. “Conversation with Marthe Cohn.” Jewish Ledger, June 24, 2015. http://www.jewishledger.com/2015/06/conversation-with-marthe-cohn/.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Marthe Cohn, Holocaust survivor who spied on the Nazis, publishes her memoir ." (Viewed on December 3, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/mar/28/2006/marthe-cohn-holocaust-survivor-who-spied-nazis-publishes-her-memoir>.