‘Chichinette’ Documents the Life of an Accidental Spy

March 18, 2020
Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

Looking at Marthe Hoffnung Cohn, you would never guess that this tiny 70-pound Frenchwoman spent the last year of World War II crossing enemy lines to gather crucial intelligence for the Allies. But the box of medals she travels with and the certificates of valor on the walls of her South Bay home signify that Cohn is not your average 99-year-old Jewish grandma.

The subject of the documentary “Chichinette: The Accidental Spy,” Cohn first detailed her exploits in her 2002 memoir, “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.” She now tirelessly travels the country and the world — medals of honor in tow — to speak about her experiences in vividly remembered detail. She does so “Because people have such a short memory,” she said. “You have to remind them of what occurred and why it occurred.”

The granddaughter of an Orthodox rabbi and one of seven children, Cohn had a good life in Metz, a French town near the German border, until the Nazis occupied France in 1940. Conducting their own secret resistance, her family sheltered and helped many Jews flee to the free zone in the south. Her sister was arrested, imprisoned and deported to Auschwitz, and her fiancé was caught and executed. But Cohn was undeterred. Volunteering for the French army, she was assigned to do social work until her commander discovered she was fluent in German. The blond, blue-eyed nurse was transferred to the Intelligence service.

She spoke about having to precisely time crossing the Swiss-German border when the patrolling guards were farthest away. “I realized the immensity of what I was going to do and I became so terrified that I was completely paralyzed. I couldn’t move for two or three hours,” she said.

Once in Germany, she was nearly exposed when a contact noticed that her silk stockings were torn, having ripped en-route. When the woman asked point-blank if she was a spy, Cohn laughed and said,“ ‘Do I look like a spy?’ Thinking fast got me out of trouble.”

It was the first of many close calls. “I was very afraid to be tortured,” Cohn confided. “I had asked for cyanide pills, but they never gave them to me.”

“I had only one thought: my mission and how to survive. I was risking my life to find the most important information I could.” — Marthe Cohn

On every assignment, “I had only one thought: my mission and how to survive,” she said. “I was risking my life to find the most important information I could.”

Outspoken and feisty, Cohn was given the nickname Chichinette “because I constantly questioned things.” She hated it, and was “horrified” when director Nicola Hens used it for the film’s title without her knowledge or approval. Hens’ camera followed her for three years as she traveled for appearances and speaking engagements at schools and universities, synagogues, veterans’ groups and other Jewish organizations.

While in Paris for lectures in November 2019, Cohn suffered four fractures in a fall and became seriously ill, but she resumed her busy schedule as soon as she could walk. “My husband doesn’t say anything because he knows how important this is to me,” she said.

Seven years her junior, Major Cohn, a retired doctor, accompanies her on all her engagements. They met in Geneva, Switzerland, after the war and came to the United States in 1956, settling first in Newark, N.J., where she learned English, and then moved to St. Louis. Now married for 62 years, they have two sons, Stephan and Remi. They’re members of Temple Beth El in San Pedro, a Reform congregation. “I’m very Jewish,” Cohn said. “But I could not belong to an Orthodox synagogue now.”

Asked what keeps her going as she approaches her 100th birthday on April 13, Cohn credited willpower and the determination to keep telling her story. “It’s important to have a goal in life,” she said. “If you just sit in a chair and don’t move, you’re going to die young.”

When told her life story would make a compelling feature film, Cohn couldn’t conjecture who might play her. “I only know the old actresses. I never go to movies,” she said. “The only TV I watch is ‘60 Minutes.’ I have no time for that.”

Reflecting on her remarkable life, Cohn commented, “You never know what life will bring you. I’m very proud of what I’ve done,” she said. “But I’m proudest that I saved my family.”

She stressed the importance of teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to the next generation. “One person can change things,” she said. “When I talk to young kids, I tell them be engaged, and do not accept any order that your conscience can’t approve.”

“Chichinette” will be available for rental and purchase at KinoNow.com on April 15.

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