Marthe Cohn told the remarkable story Sunday of how a slight Jewish girl from France crossed into enemy lines and became a spy who helped end World War II.
About 100 people at the Cordova High Performing Arts Center heard Cohn, 97, recount how she and her sister joined the resistance and initially saved hundreds of Jews living not far from the German border by bringing them to a remote farm in unoccupied France.
“We didn’t know who they were, but they needed help,” she said of that effort that began in 1942. “They couldn’t stay in occupied France.”
Her sister later was captured and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she was killed.
In a speech sponsored by the Sierra Jewish Academy and Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum of the Chabad Jewish Community Center of Folsom, Cohn, author of the memoir “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany,” told her story as if it were yesterday.
Following the liberation of Paris in June 1944, Cohn, who had a nursing degree, volunteered for the French Army. “I’m 4-foot-11, blond, blue-eyed with very light skin; they took me for a bimbo,” she declared with a smile. “They thought I had absolutely no substance.”
But when the French commander learned she could read, write and speak German fluently, she was assigned to a North African unit and put to work interrogating German prisoners to learn their plan of retreat into Germany.
Cohn was later dispatched across a freezing field in the winter of 1944 to try to penetrate German lines. She said she fell into a canal hidden under the snow and nearly froze to death. She tried 13 times to get behind enemy lines and failed before finally finding her way into German-controlled territory, where she convinced soldiers she was a German nurse desperately looking for her missing fiancé.
She traveled the countryside and approached troops sympathetic to her “plight” and collected key information about German troop movements that she was able to pass on to Allied commanders. At age 80, Cohn of Rancho Palos Verdes was awarded France’s greatest military honor, the Médaille Militaire.