Marthe Cohn was the perfect spy because she didn’t look the part.
She stood only 4 feet, 11 inches tall and had blond hair and blue eyes, making her look more like a young German girl than a 24-year-old Jew who had been recruited to spy on the Nazis during World War II and lived in daily fear of being exposed and executed.
Cohn was born in 1920 into an Orthodox Jewish family that lived in Metz, a small French town on the country’s border with Germany. One of seven children, she and her family were caught up in the world-changing events spawned by Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the Nazi occupation of France.
During World War II, her family sheltered Jews fleeing the Nazis including children who had been sent away by their terrified parents. As the Nazi occupation of France escalated, her sister was arrested and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where she later died. Her family fled to the south of France.
Her fiancee, who fought in the French resistance, was arrested, tried and executed for killing a Nazi sympathizer in Paris in 1943.
In November 1944, Cohn was recruited by the French Army Intelligence Service to serve as a Nazi spy, a calling that she excelled at, but was not recognized for until decades later. Now, the 99-year-old Holocaust survivor travels around the world with her husband, 93-year-old Major Cohn, sharing her story with anyone who will listen.
She was greeted Wednesday evening with a standing ovation by a sellout crowd at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall in Portland.
Cohn spent part of the evening signing copies of her 2002 autobiography: “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.” Cohn and writer/journalist Wendy Holden collaborated on the book.
“Thank you for filling the house tonight and every seat is filled,” USM President Glenn Cummings told the crowd. “We are lucky to have this person, who wasn’t afraid to stand up in the face of terror.”
After the arrest of her sister and the death of her fiancee, Cohn remained in Paris where she studied nursing. In November 1944, after the Allies liberated Paris, she was recruited by the French Army Intelligence Service to spy on the Germans.
Her commanders were intrigued by her language skills – she was fluent in German and French – and possibly her appearance. She had blond hair and blue eyes. As she explained to a private gathering Wednesday evening before taking the stage at Hannaford Hall, “Women who were spies didn’t look like me. I was 4 feet, 11 inches tall. I looked like a little girl.”
Cohn attempted to cross the border from Switzerland into Germany more than a dozen times before finally succeeding by creeping across a field and crawling under barbed wire. She maintained her cover by telling German soldiers that she was searching for her missing German fiancee.
“I had to be constantly on the alert knowing I was in danger of being arrested at any moment,” Cohn said during a telephone interview on Tuesday night.
Cohn earned the trust of the Nazi soldiers, providing intelligence about Nazi troop movements that shortened World War II and saved thousands of lives with the highlight coming after she discovered that German troops had evacuated a battle line near Freiburg, a German town, and hid in the Black Forest waiting to ambush Allied troops.
“Marthe is an example of the power of an individual, who has the ability to change the course of world events. Just one individual’s act of courage can make a difference,” Rabbi Levi Wilansky told the audience. Wilansky is with Chabad Maine, one of the co-sponsors of Cohn’s appearance in Maine.
Cohn’s willpower has not waned, even as she approaches her 100th birthday. Wilansky revealed that Cohn fell Sunday and broke her elbow, but the injury did not prevent her from flying to Maine from her home in Southern California.
“She was determined to come here,” Wilansky said.
“When I give my word, I have to come,” Cohn said.
During the interview Tuesday night, Cohn said the Nazis were worse than modern day white supremacists “because they had complete authority and were absolutely cruel.” She does, however, see some similarities between the Nazis and white supremacists, as both groups are intent on promoting hatred of individuals who are not like them.
She also is concerned that President Trump is promoting misleading information, especially his repeated attacks on the media, labeling most news outlets as fake news. She said it is the same type of propaganda that led to the rise of Hitler in the 1930s – and the Holocaust in which the Nazis murdered more than 6 million Jews in Europe.
“I am very concerned. We have to fight back, like we fought the Nazis,” Cohn said.
Nina McLaughlin, spokeswoman for the Maine Republicans and Trump Victory campaign, declined to comment on Cohn’s remarks about Trump.
Trump has been repeatedly criticized for statements seen by many as anti-Semitic, and his rhetoric has been blamed for contributing to a rise in anti-Semitic violence. The criticism continued this week after Trump said that Jews would be disloyal if they support Democrats. Trump has denied that he is anti-Semitic.
Cohn said she kept her life as a spy a secret because she did not have any documentation that proved she had been a spy. In the 1990s, she returned to France and asked to see her military records. The French government had lost track of her. But after archive officials saw her military record, they encouraged her to contact government officials.
In 2000, at the age of 80, Cohn was awarded France’s highest military honor, the Medaille Militaire. The medal recognizes meritorious service and acts of bravery in action against enemy forces. It is rarely given out, with Winston Churchill being one of the recipients.
When asked what her key to living a long life was, Cohn responded by saying, “You’ll have to ask God. Only he knows.”
Cohn said her intent is not to teach, but to guide.
“My message is that everybody be engaged in life and fight for what is right,” she said.