Marthe Cohn, 99, will talk Aug. 21 in Portland about her experiences as a Jewish French spy during World War II. Contributed

PORTLAND — She was a French Jew, but she was also blond, with blue eyes and fair skin, who could speak and read German fluently.

That’s how Marthe Cohn, now 99, became a spy for the French Free Forces in the latter days of World War II.

Cohn will tell her story in Portland on Wednesday, Aug. 21., at 6 p.m. at Hannaford Hall on the campus of the University of Southern Maine.

Her visit is the result of a collaboration between Chabad of Maine, USM, the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, The Maine Jewish Museum and Chabad of Brunswick, said Rabbi Levi Wilansky, co-director of adult education and youth programming at Chabad of Maine.

In an interview with The Forecaster from her home in California, Cohn said she continues to tell her story because “human beings have very short memories and it’s extremely important to remind them of what happened,” particularly the extermination of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

One of those victims was Cohn’s sister, Stephanie, who was arrested in June 1942 and deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland that September.

Cohn said she’d always hoped to see her sister again, but learned after the war that Stephanie was one of the estimated 3 million Jews killed at Auschwitz between the time it opened in 1940 and when it was liberated by Soviet forces in 1945.

Cohn also lost a fiance during the war. He was not Jewish, but was a member of the French resistance. Cohn said he was arrested and shot by the German Army in the fall of 1943.

Marthe Cohn, with blond hair and blue eyes, was able to pass as German during World War II. Contributed

Cohn said her message of combating hate is particularly important today, because of the rise of white nationalist and populist sentiment over the past few years, not just in the U.S., but in Europe, too.

“These movements remind me very much of the (rhetoric) in the 1930s,” she said. “I am absolutely concerned,” Cohn added about the increase in anti-Semitism around the world.

Her comments followed the arrest Friday of a 20-year-old man who threatened to carry out a mass shooting at a Jewish community center in Youngstown, Ohio, about 65 miles from Pittsburgh, where 11 people were gunned down at the Tree of Life Synagogue less than a year ago.

In reviewing the suspect’s online posts, police said they found “lots of anti-Semitic comments and white nationalist content,” according to a report by CNN. And a search of his home revealed a cache of weapons and ammunition.

“Even at 99 years old, I have to keep telling what happened,” Cohn said. Even 75 years later, she said, “I’m still fighting the same battles every day.”

Although Cohn risked her life many times during the war, first working with her family to save Jews fleeing Nazi persecution and then as a spy, she never told the full story to anyone – not even her husband and children knew what she’d done.

She initially had hopes of joining the French Army as a nurse, but after graduating from nursing school was assigned to be a social worker. It wasn’t until a colonel in one of the units Cohn was sent to support found out that she could both speak and read German that she was offered a chance to join the intelligence services.

For her valor as a spy during World War II, Marthe Cohn in 2005 received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest military honor. Contributed

After training to become a spy, which included identifying German military ranks, reading maps and learning to fire a gun, Cohn was asked to interrogate prisoners of war to gather information. Then she crossed the German front.

Cohn posed as a German nurse who was desperately trying to learn the fate of a fictional fiance. While undercover she was able to travel the countryside and pick up knowledge for the Allied forces.

Once, she recalled, she came across a convoy of German ambulances waiting to pass into Switzerland. In asking what was happening, she learned the exact location of a German armored division hiding in the Black Forest. But to pass that information on, Cohn knew she had to find a way to show the Allied troops she was a friend and not an enemy. So she stood in the middle of the road and flashed the two-fingered victory sign that had been made famous by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

“They never, never told us what they did with our information,” Cohn said.

When asked if she ever came close to getting caught, Cohn recalled that once she was asked point-blank if she was a spy. She fell back on her training and defused the situation by asking, “Do I look like a spy?” Not only was she blond and blue-eyed, but Cohn was also tiny, at 4 feet 11 inches tall.

“I was always able to get out of trouble by saying the right thing,” she said.

Cohn said the hardest part of being a spy was the waiting, which was then followed by times of urgent activity, and then more waiting. But she never regretted it.

“I had a duty to defend my country,” she said.

At first, Cohn said, she didn’t talk about her experiences because she didn’t fight the Nazis to be called a hero. Later she thought no one would believe her because she didn’t have any documentation or other evidence to back up her story.

It wasn’t until 1996, when she traveled to France, that she went to the military archives and found proof of her activities during the war.

Cohn was eventually awarded the Medaille Militaire, for meritorious service and bravery, by the French government. She also wrote a book about her experiences.

“Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany,” was published in 2002 and will be the basis of her talk in Portland on Wednesday.

Cohn also received the Chevalier of the Order of the Legion d’ Honneur, France’s highest military honor, in 2005, and then the VerdienstKreuz, or Order of Merit, from the German government in 2014.

Wilansky, at Chabad of Maine, said he invited Cohn to speak after recently hearing from a Jewish high school student who said he’d not only been bullied for his faith, but that he’d never been taught in-depth about the Holocaust.

“With the rise of antisemitism in the country, and across the world, it’s important for us to remember and educate others about what happened just two generations ago,” the rabbi said. “Marthe Cohn’s message, and the lessons that we can learn from her story, is a powerful one.”

Cohn said she never thought twice about taking up the fight against the Nazis. “It was extremely important to me to fight the occupation forces,” she said.

She also said she hopes her example will show people that you “must be engaged and do your part. You have to do it, you can’t count on others” to make things right.


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