Marthe Cohn: A Jewish spy infiltrates Nazi Germany
Marthe Cohn (nee Hoffnung), was crouching in a forest, dressed in a skirt and jacket, with white socks covering her silk stockings. She took a deep breath and grabbed her suitcase, taking leave of Georges Lemaire, the Swiss intelligence officer who had accompanied her to this spot on the Swiss-German border. Marthe began crawling through the underbrush toward the stretch of road patrolled by two German sentries. She waited until they met midway and reversed direction, so their backs were to her.
This was her cue. She was to pose as Martha Ulrich, a German nurse searching for her fiancé, but she was suddenly paralyzed by fear, overcome by the enormity of her mission, so she just lay there for more than two hours. Then she thought about a captain named Mollat, the French officer who had overseen her previous 14 missions to infiltrate enemy territory, all unsuccessful, and who had doubted her abilities.
She rose, pulling herself up to her full 4-foot-11 height, and walked to the road. “Heil Hitler,” she greeted the sentry coming toward her, presenting her papers. “Go on your way,” he said.
It was April 11, 1945, two days before Marthe’s 25th birthday.
Marthe was born on April 13, 1920, in the French Lorraine city of Metz, the fifth of Fischel and Regine Hoffnung’s eight children. An observant family, they lived in a comfortable five-bedroom apartment, supported by Fischel’s photofinishing business.
Marthe spoke fluent French and German and attended the Lycee de Jeunes Filles, but she disliked school, preferring to read at home. At 17, she left school and worked at her sister Cecile’s hat salon.
After Kristallnacht, Marthe and her family feared for the Jews in Germany. Still, she said, “We never thought Hitler would do that to the French.” Nevertheless, in August 1939, at the request of the local government, the family relocated to Poitiers, a city southwest of Paris, where they opened up a wholesale clothing business.
Life continued fairly normally until May 10, 1940, when Germany invaded the Low Countries and France. Two months later, the Germans occupied Poitiers and appropriated the Hoffnungs’ business, but not before Marthe and Cecile had removed their valuable inventory.
Marthe later secured a job as an interpreter at the Poitiers town hall, and on April 13, 1941, she met Jacques Delaunay, a lapsed Catholic and medical student. Their paths would cross again.
The following August, Marthe and the other Jews in her office were let go, at gunpoint. Marthe then enrolled in the local Red Cross nursing college.
Meanwhile, Adjutant Wilhelm Hipp, a member of the German security police, visited the Hoffnungs’ house every evening to make certain they were adhering to curfew. On June 17, 1942, he barged in and snapped, “Which one is Stephanie?” When Marthe’s next-youngest sister stood up, he announced, “You’re under arrest.”
Stephanie had been helping Jews flee into unoccupied France, less than 25 miles to the south, and was sent to an internment camp. Marthe tried to help her escape by having her transferred to a hospital from which she could be rescued, but that plan endangered the entire family. Marthe decided that the family would attempt to flee at the same time.
Several months later, carrying forged documents and dressed as French peasants, the family headed to Saint-Secondin, which bordered the unoccupied zone. Once there, Fischel and three others immediately set out while Marthe waited.
Early that evening, with Marthe’s grandmother propped on a bicycle and Marthe and her mother flanking her, they proceeded down the main road. Near the border, they came upon small houses where local farmers, poor French peasants, sat outside chatting and relaxing.
Marthe became worried. She knew they had been offered huge sums of money to report escapees. But as she approached, she saw them kneel down to pray for the family’s safe passage. Marthe cried, bowing her head in thanks. “It’s the most beautiful human story that I lived through,” she recalled.
The group reunited at Usson-du-Poitou, but Stephanie never arrived. The next evening, they had to depart for Arles. Marthe learned two weeks later that Stephanie had been transferred to Drancy, another internment camp.
On Nov. 11, 1942, the Germans occupied Vichy France. By this time, Marthe was living in Marseilles, continuing her nursing studies.
Marthe saw Jacques briefly in February 1943 and at Passover. They met again in July in Paris, where he was taking his medical exams and she had procured a summer job. He told her he was in trouble. His small resistance unit had inadvertently killed a French doctor, a Nazi collaborator, in a kidnapping gone awry. He had also helped attack a German supply train.
Soon after, Jacques was arrested. In November 1943, Marthe learned he had been executed the previous month. Devastated, she vowed never to marry.
Soon after Paris was liberated on Aug. 25, 1944, Marthe joined the French army, where she was assigned to the 151st Infantry Regiment and sent to the Alsatian front.
Three weeks later, in a chance meeting with the unit’s commanding officer, who had been seeking German-speaking personnel, she was asked to help with intelligence work. She enthusiastically agreed.
Marthe began memorizing German ranks, insignia and armaments. And she became Martha Ulrich, a German nurse from Metz, who was desperately searching for her fiancé, Hans, a soldier in a front-line unit. “I knew the Germans, and I understood what would work in Germany,” she said.
She began spying on Jan. 20, 1945, interrogating Alsatian civilians and German POWs.
Under the command of Mollat, the captain, she was sent to infiltrate the enemy on Amselkopf mountain. But after trudging four miles at night through heavy snow, she was accosted by two soldiers who pointed their bayonets at her. They were French soldiers; the intelligence guide had sent her on the wrong path.
Another day, she was crammed inside a claustrophobic personnel carrier with a driver and gunner when fighting broke out and the Sherman tank in front of them erupted in flames. “I thought I would die,” Marthe said, but they managed to escape.
Finally, on her 15th attempt, Marthe successfully crossed the border from Switzerland into Germany, where she began picking up information about enemy troop movements.
One day, on her way to visit a contact near the Westwall, also known as the Siegfried Line, a series of fortifications along Germany’s western front, Marthe met Sgt. Maj. Helmut Werner, a rabid Nazi. They began to talk, and Werner invited her to return to the Westwall in a few days, promising her a guided tour.
On her way back to the Swiss border to send a report to her unit, Marthe was descending a mountain deep in the Black Forest when she spied a huge German army encampment below. “Mon Dieu!” she said to herself, taking a full mental picture. She reached contacts at a farm near the Swiss border two days later, dispatching a report the next day.
Several weeks later, Marthe returned to the Westwall to discover soldiers leaving, as the section had been disbanded that morning. She hurried to Freiburg and relayed the information to a commandant named Petit, of the Second Zouave Battalion, who was able to revise his entire plan of attack and invade Germany sooner.
Soon after, Marthe came across a convoy of German ambulances waiting for safe passage into Switzerland. A senior medical officer offhandedly told her the exact location of an entire German armored division hiding in the Black Forest, waiting to ambush the French army. Marthe thought it might be the encampment she had seen.
Marthe reached the farm the next afternoon and delivered a message alerting the Allies.
After Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, Marthe remained in Germany, working intelligence for the French army until January 1946. During this time, she learned that her sister Stephanie had been transported to Auschwitz on Sept. 21, 1942.
In February 1946, Marthe set sail for Indochina, a dream she and Jacques had shared.She worked as a nurse, returning to France in December 1948.
In December 1953, while enrolled in nursing school in Geneva, she met Major Lloyd Cohn, an American medical student. After spending New Year’s Eve together, Marthe said, “I felt truly happy for the first time in years.”
In June 1956, Marthe and Major sailed to the United States. On Jan. 30, 1958, they married in a civil ceremony in St. Louis, where they were then living. They followed up with a Jewish ceremony on Feb. 9, 1958, at Major’s parents’ home in Brooklyn.
Marthe and Major lived in New York, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh before settling in Los Angeles in 1979. Their son Stephan Jacques was born in December 1960, and second son, Remi Benjamin, was born in April 1964. They have one granddaughter.
In 1945, Marthe was awarded the Croix de Guerre. This was followed by the Medaille Militaire, awarded in 2000; the title Chevalier de l’Order de la Legion d’Honneur in 2005; and the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, for helping Germany become a democracy, in 2014.
Marthe’s 2002 memoir, “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany,” (written with Wendy Holden) is available on Amazon. A documentary on her life by German filmmaker Nicola Hens is scheduled for release later this year. And at 96, Marthe maintains a full schedule of traveling and speaking.
In all her talks, Marthe attributes her success as a spy to luck.
“L-U-C-K with capital letters,” she said. “I always met the right people at the right time. Sheer luck. No other reason.”