Behind Enemy Lines - Marthe Cohn - One Woman against Nazi Germany
Petite Yet Powerful
“You should never accept to be kept under the boot of anybody; you have to fight back.”
Marthe Cohn spoke with fervor and conviction. Never hesitant to resist an unjust cause,
especially during the Nazi reign in World War II, she courageously risked everything and
contributed to the Allies’ victory. Now as a renowned author and international speaker she tells
me her story, a memoir that truly impacts us all.
I was graciously invited inside her home, just as Marthe had been invited and helped by
so many others. Many of these people didn’t know her purpose, but those who did were
determined to help her despite the consequences of risking their lives and those of their families.
They didn’t speak of it, but simply prayed for her survival. Marthe Cohn’s harrowing mission
had to succeed because as she said, “the alternative would be death.”
This petite, lively, remarkable lady has deservedly received numerous honors, awards,
certificates and medals; yet she is humble and filled with great gratitude. Her story is full of love,
fear, unimaginable loss, family, friendships, trust, persuasion, conviction in one’s beliefs, and
without question, an unbreakable will. I spent hours captivated by Marthe – with sparkling blue
eyes that had seen so much in their past, and her intriguing story – I was spellbound. I can only
highlight her story here. To understand the magnitude of what this amazing woman
accomplished for herself, her family, and for the people fighting the Nazis, one must read Marthe
Cohn’s book with Wendy Holden, published in 2002 by Random House, Inc. called, Behind
Enemy Lines: A true story of a French Jewish spy in Nazi Germany.
Marthe was born near the Germany border in Metz, France into a Jewish Orthodox
family where the laws of Jewish observance were a part of her everyday life. The discipline and
routine of her religion also instilled the importance of education. Marthe is a highly educated
woman who fought for Jewish rights in high school and later became a registered nurse (in
France in 1943; in Swizerland in 1954), then a nurse-anesthetist, (graduating in 1958 as a
Certified Nurse Anesthetist from Barnes Hospital, Washington University, St. Louis, MI). She
practiced nursing while serving three years in the French Vietnam War and later, anesthesia in
the United States (New York, NY; Minneapolis, MN; Pittsburgh, PA; since 1979) in Los
Angeles, California. Reflecting on what Marthe chose to do in life, I was pleased by the fact that
her ambition was to take people out of their pain. Marthe’s young life was full of the effects of
anguish but she faced them with fortitude in an effort to survive.
Here, I will share her inspirational story.
In Metz, Marthe read daily the newspapers, and in1938 she learned of Kristalnacht (the
breaking of all the Jewish store fronts, synagogues, and homes and the Jewish people’s spirits).
The wealthier Jews made plans to leave the country. Others tried to figure out how to leave, but
most had nowhere to go and no means to get there if they did. Those people perished. It was in
1940 that the German Army invaded and occupied a large part of France. Marthe and her family
were refugees in Poitiers, which became part of the occupied territory. Enforcing Aryanization
rules, many unethical laws were put in place degrading the Jews and preventing them from
living the open and free lives they had once known.
As a one of eight children, one has to wonder where Marthe got her inner strength,
looking to protect her family and formulate an escape. With the help of her nursing school
classmates she, her parents, 82 year old grandmother, two youngest sisters and a seven year-old
German cousin from Dusseldorf her family had given refuge since 1938, were able to escape
from occupied France into non-occupied France.
Sometimes I wonder how God brings everything together in such a way to create
miracles. Marthe had worked with a young man who insisted on providing her and her family
with forged identity papers without the stamp Jew which permitted them to escape the Nazis.
The Gestapo later arrested her sister Stephanie, a medical student, and sent her to prison for
helping others escape. Before she was sent to the Drancy concentration camp, she had a chance
to win her release but declined because the children in the camp near Poitiers needed her
compassion, care and leadership. Torn between her family and these children, Stephanie finally
yielded and with Marthe’s master plan, attempted to escape. The plan failed due to the Gastapo’s
non-commission officer Whilhelm Hipp, and Stephanie was deported to Auschwitz on Yom
Kippur of 1942. She never returned.
After graduating as a registered nurse in Marseille in September 1943, Marthe moved to
Paris to live with her oldest sister Cecile. Following the Liberation of Paris in 1944, Marthe
joined the French Army where she met a Colonel who was impressed with her fluent German.
He asked her to serve in the French Military intelligence. Marthe was willing.
Marthe was sent into Germany, “behind enemy lines,” to spy for France. She used
endless stamina trudging through fields, mountains, night and snow to achieve her mission. Her
acute acumen and intuition saved her life more than once. Sizing people up, asserting herself
when needed, acting demur when needed and telling a story that would encourage people to help
achieve her goal, Marthe gathered valuable information. Sometimes she had no idea what would
happen next, but with a level head she forged on. When her nerves immobilized her, she used
patience and focus to bring her to a state where she could function intelligently.
Once over the border between Switzerland and Germany, Marthe reached the safehouse
that was provided by the French intelligence. She was a pleasant German woman whose husband
was missing in action and was pleased to have the company. Marthe could relate to this
woman’s experience because Marthe’s fiancé had been captured and executed by the Germans in
1943. The woman noticed Marthe’s torn stockings and was suspicious that Marthe was a spy
having crossed the fields at the nearby border. Petite, angelic, blue-eyed, and blonde, Marthe
looked herself down and up, then turned to her hostess, and with a big jovial laugh said, “Do I
look like a spy?” That was enough to elude the woman. But Marthe realized she needed to carry
on with her mission and soon afterwards the woman was helping Marthe board a train to
Freiburg. Marthe first learned that the Siegfried Line near Frieburg had been completely
evacuated by the German Army – an essential piece of information for the French army. Second,
Marthe discovered the exact location where the remnant of the German Army was hidden in
ambush in the Black Forest. Not having had the time to code the message, these two vital bits of
information were sent in a letter written, in French, to the French Army Intelligence via the
Swiss Intelligence Service.
As her courier was not available for several days, Marthe decided to cross into
Switzerland and hand her message to a Swiss Custom Guard After crossing the Swiss border,
she was mistakably led to a German guard post. Fortunately the guards were sleeping, and
Marthe realizing the danger was able to flee and reach the Swiss custom officer to whom she
confided the letter containing the vital information.
The receipt of this news was instrumental in the war. As a result, Marthe Cohn, known
by her undercover name as Lenotre, became a decorated hero. After the war, her heroism
continued as she served as a nurse on the front lines of Vietnam. She went on to meet her love
and husband of 52 years, Major Cohn, M.D., Ph. D. and in 1970 became his assistant in
Neuroscience Research. The professional collaboration lasted until 1999 when Marthe retired.
Marthe has two sons and is sought after to speak around the world about her experiences.
I asked Marthe, “What important messages would you like everyone to take from your
story?” She said there are three things. First, one must take an active role in fighting for freedom
and treating all people with dignity and respect. Second, we must never forget about the tragedy
that happened almost 70 years ago, known as the Holocaust. And third, those that died (the Jews
and the Non-Jews) must not have died in vain, and we must always remember them and fight in
their names for the betterment of humanity.
At the close of our talk, I asked Marthe “What did you learn from this experience and
what can people in my generation do to carry on the memory of the Holocaust?” Her response
was priceless. She said she was proud to have contributed to the war effort, and we smiled
broadly to one another. We are all proud of her. She also said she learned there is a strong
human connection between people that goes beyond race, religion, and belief systems. It was
that common thread of humanity that motivated people to risk so much to help her and her
family and many other people. She said that the youth of today must not become complacent,
and that we must educate ourselves to strengthen our minds. Marthe always found that her
desire to give back by serving her country was important. She said some can fight, but those that
can’t fight can contribute in other ways to strengthen the country and make contributions to a
My afternoon visit with Marthe Cohn led to a nighttime departure. Fortunately, we will
see each other soon, since she has accepted my family’s invitation – and we will be honored – to
have Marthe and her husband join us at our Passover Seder this year.
Marthe Cohn and Sarah Sax
Marthe was awarded the “Médaille Militaire” by decree of the President of France
It is rare for women to receive such a prestigious honor.
The President of the French Republic, Jacques Chirac, awarded Marthe the “Ordre
National De La Légion D’Honneur” – translated in English as the National Order of Legion of
Honor in 2004. With this award, Marthe became a “Knight of the Legion of Honor” because of
her outstanding military service.
This medal was awarded to Marthe by the Republic of France for her nursing services in
the French Army in Vietnam.
The Supervisors of Los Angeles County, specifically Don Knobe from the 4th
invited Marthe to be honored in 2000. The inscription states: “MARTHE COHN Recipient of
The Medaille Militaire – Congratulations upon your recognition by the French government for
the courageous and heroic actions taken during your service in World War II. Your exploits are
awe inspiring to all and a testament to your dedication to the French Army during the war. The
Board of Supervisors of the County of Los Angeles hereby congratulates, salutes and extends its
appreciation and thanks you for your service to the allied forces during World War II.”
(Left to Right: Front of the medal, Back of the medal) The Los Angeles Simon
Weisenthal Center named Marthe Cohn a “Woman of Valor” in 2002. The circumference of the
picture to the right states “Whoever saves a life is as if they have saved the entire world.”
The “Medaille Militaire” was
awarded to Marthe.
Marthe was decorated twice in front
of the French Army in 1945 for the “Croix