True Spies Episode 13: The Survivor
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? This is True Spies. Episode 13: The Survivor. In this episode, I’m going to introduce you to an incredible woman. She’s 4’11, French, a nurse, and an intrepid spy.
MARTHE COHN: I preferred to die than to be called a coward. So I talked to that sentinel, asked for my identity card. I presented it to him. It was Marthe Ulrich and I wondered if he too would discover that it was a forged card but he gave it back to me. I was now in Germany.
NARRATOR: But her name wasn’t really Marthe Ulrich, it was Marthe Cohn, a Jewish name - just to add to the danger. Before we start Marthe’s story, I’ll let her introduce herself properly.
MARTHE COHN: My name is Marthe Cohn. I am 100 years old. I was a French spy during World War II, who infiltrated Germany by pretending I was a German nurse. My job was to collect information on top-secret Nazi movements to relay to the French Intelligence Service. Thank you very much.
NARRATOR: Carve Her Name with Pride, Background to Danger, Decision Before Dawn - so many classic movies have been made about the spies of World War II. It’s surprising really, that there hasn’t been a film about our spy. Because Marthe Cohn is the real deal. Her greatest endeavor during the war was a mission at the Siegfried Line, the German western defensive wall on the French-German border. It involved befriending a cruel and arrogant SS officer who totally underestimated her.
MARTHE COHN: As we walked, he suddenly fainted. Before he fainted, he said he could smell a Jew a mile away. And I was walking next to him - and he never smelled me - to show how stupid that was.
NARRATOR: She slipped in right under his nose to steal his secrets. Intrigued? Me too. We’ll come back to this later. But, for now, what you need to know is that what Marthe discovered enabled the allies to finally advance into Germany after six years of fighting and bring an end to the war in Europe. It’s no surprise then, that Marthe has a case of medals that recognize the risks she took and the lives she saved, including the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award. But Marthe never planned to be a spy. In fact, it all sort of happened by accident.
MARTHE COHN: Do you know, if it had not been offered to me, I wouldn't have done it. But it was offered and I did it, and I'm very happy and proud that I did it.
NARRATOR: She was born in the French province of Lorraine near the border between France and Germany in 1920. In those days, German influence was still strong in the region after the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870s when Germany took over Lorraine. Even decades later, when Marthe was born, German was still the main language alongside French. I was raised with my parents speaking only German. But my older brothers and sisters were already in school. I learned French. I spoke both languages at the same time. And then I had seven years of German in high school so I knew how to write and read and speak German as well as French.
NARRATOR: They were a big family - five sisters and two brothers. They were orthodox Jewish. They followed their religion closely but even from an early age, Marthe knew her own mind. She loved her religion but she didn’t love being told how to practice it.
MARTHE COHN: At the age of 12 I revolted because I asked my mother to learn Hebrew. I’d known how to read Hebrew since the age of four, but I didn't understand it, so I didn't know what I was saying when I was praying. So I wanted to learn Hebrew from the Torah, and understand the Torah. And my mother answered me. She always understood where we stood, and she always helped us reach our goal, but that day she lost it. She told me: “That's only for the boys.” And, from that day on, I refused to pray in Hebrew. I prayed in French. Because I couldn't understand what I was saying, I said that's hypocrisy.
NARRATOR: So, as you can tell, even as a young girl Marthe stood by what she believed in. Then, when she was 19, the war arrived at their door. It was 1939 and the family fled their home in the city of Metz.
MARTHE COHN: The French government asked that all the people who could do it on their own should move from here. We were only 35 miles from the German border. And we were assigned to a city which is called Poitiers. It's southwest of Paris, on the line from Paris to Bordeaux. And we left. My two brothers were in the Army, but my four sisters and I left with my parents and my grandmother. So, we were now in Poitiers, and we had nothing to do. We had no house. We had only these suitcases which were absolutely necessary to survive, but we had nothing more. We had no furniture. We had nothing. We left everything in Metz because the government told us to just leave with absolutely necessary things. And my mother made the decision. She said we should start a store to make a living because my parents did not want the government to pay for our upkeep. So my older sister and I started a store in Poitiers.
NARRATOR: The relief was short-lived. In 1940, the Third Reich swept across the French border and brought with them their campaign to exterminate the Jews.
MARTHE COHN: They occupied three-quarters of France, and Poitiers was in the occupied region, so now we were in the occupation of the Germans, and they started very fast to make rules for the Jews. The father of the family had to go to city hall and declare all the children, everybody in the family. And so, the Germans had a perfect list of all the Jews in occupied France. And that was the first thing. So, the Germans almost daily had new rules to make us pariahs. From free people, we became pariahs overnight. And we had no rights whatsoever.
NARRATOR: And things only got worse.
MARTHE COHN: The rules against the Jews became almost daily, and very soon our store was closed. We had no right to work anymore. So, we lost our store. We were restricted from many, many things. We had no right to be in any public space. We couldn't go to the train station. We couldn't go to the post office. We couldn't go to any store - even the stores which sold food. And the Germans [created] a rule that the Jews could only go to the store that sells food from 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm. We had a window of only one hour to do our shopping. And at that time, there were no supermarkets. There were small mom-and-pop stores, and each store sold only one, or two, or three items maximum, so you had to go from store to store to buy your food.
NARRATOR: Imagine. You’ve fled your home, left everything behind, and now they’re trying to take your humanity as well. You’re new to the area. You don’t have those same connections and friends here. Would you dare to ask your neighbors for help? You don’t have much choice. Luckily, the neighbors oblige.
MARTHE COHN: The French, who were not Jewish owners of these stores, all told us: "Do not worry. We know that you have only so little time to come and buy. We will put things away for you. You will not be deprived. Just come at 4:30 pm and take what we have prepared for you." And all that helped. They risked their lives and that of every person in their family. And they did it to help us survive.
NARRATOR: They seem like such little acts, but the risks were immense, the penalties for helping Jews included fines, beatings, imprisonment, deportation to Nazi concentration camps, and even the death penalty. Against this backdrop of fear, a friend showed Marthe an act of extraordinary kindness, one that could save her life and risk his.
MARTHE COHN: Mr Charpentier, with whom I worked, met me in the main street of Poitiers, and he stopped me. He took me to a very quiet place in the street, and told me: "I am now [able to] make identity cards for you without the stamp ‘Jew’." Because all our identity cards had the stamp ‘Jew’.
NARRATOR: He’d offered to forge identity cards that would enable them to pass as non-Jews - a serious offense.
MARTHE COHN: And I told him: "Mr Charpentier, you cannot do that. You risk your life and that of your wife and little boy." And he answered me: "If I didn't help you, if I didn't save you, I could not live with myself." And I asked him how much it would cost to make the identity papers for seven people. And he started crying. I was 21 years old. I had never seen a man cry yet, so I was very embarrassed. And he said to me: "I do not want any money. I want to save you."
NARRATOR: Watching people taking these risks to help them, despite knowing what the consequences could be, started to stir something revolutionary in Marthe. If others could do it, maybe she could too. It was 1942. France was divided. Remember, two-thirds, including Paris, was Nazi-occupied while the rest was free under the French government. The town of Poitiers, where Marthe lived, was in Nazi-occupied territory - but only just. It lay excruciatingly close to the free territory line. This presented an opportunity.
MARTHE COHN: My sister and I helped people cross from occupied to unoccupied France, and we did it by sending them to a French farmer who was not Jewish, and who had a farm partially in occupied France and partially non-occupied France because the line of demarcation between occupied and non-occupied France was not a straight line. It was a zig-zag line. And it passed through his property. So once on his property, it was very easy to go from occupied to unoccupied France. And that farmer, Noel Degout, helped thousands of people. He saved thousands of people, among them American and English pilots who had been shot down over occupied France and couldn't stay in occupied France because they didn't speak a word of French, and would have been immediately noticed by the German Army who were everywhere. So, Mr Degout helped them. He helped all the Jews who came to his property that we sent him. And he helped so many other people, all the people that Germans considered pariahs, bad people, sub-human. That was, really, what they considered them.
NARRATOR: Picture it, having one foot in occupied France and the other on free land. It must have been extraordinary. For many weeks the operation worked perfectly. But then, a mistake. Something so tiny, but it changed everything. One day, Marthe’s sister Stephanie wrote a letter to the farmer but made a huge mistake.
MARTHE COHN: So, my sister wrote that letter, but she signed her real name, which you never did. Why she did it, we never knew. It was too late. We never asked her what she was doing. It was no use.
NARRATOR: Because the letter was intercepted by the German secret police, who identified her and her address.
MARTHE COHN: That night, on June 17, 1942. They came to the house and arrested my sister Stephanie, took her to the office, and questioned her. And she refused to talk. So, two hours later, they came back to the house and arrested my father to put pressure on my sister to give them the information they wanted. But even in the presence of my father, she refused to talk, so she was kept. My father was released. So, my sister got one month in prison. She celebrated her 21st birthday on July 10th, 1942 in prison. And after that month, she was transferred to the camp where only foreign Jews were. So she started to give medical care to the children in the camp.
NARRATOR: During this time, Marthe tried to help her sister escape from the camp but her sister refused. She told Marthe that she was providing medical care for the children imprisoned in the camp and she was the only nurse around to help. She chose to stay. Then, the unthinkable happened.
MARTHE COHN: She was deported to an unknown destination on September 21, 1942, and she disappeared.
NARRATOR: Years later, Marthe learned that her sister had been sent to Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp in Poland. In staying to help the others, Stephanie had sealed her fate. It’s now very clear what the consequences for helping are. It’s the dilemma that almost everyone during war faces at one time or another. Do you keep your head down and keep your own safe? Or do you forget yourself and stick it above the parapet? Like her courageous sister, Marthe chose the latter. She trained as a nurse and joined the French Resistance. In November 1944 she arrived on the French frontline in Alsace ready to do her bit.
MARTHE COHN: When we arrived at the front, I was immediately interviewed by an office of intelligence. So that officer asked me what I had done during the resistance in France, and I told him what I had done with my sister Stephanie, who had been deported. That I helped people cross from [the] occupied [zone] with Stephanie. We helped them. We did all that.
NARRATOR: But the intelligence officer didn’t think much of the operation she had run back in Poitiers with her sister.
MARTHE COHN: He said: "That's a lot of hogwash. You should have gone into the street and killed a German." And I told him: "I'm a nurse. I take care of people. I don't kill anybody. Not even Germans I hate." So he said: "You see? You are not fit to be in the Army. I want you to go back to your mother." And I said: "Oh, no. I'm going to stay."
NARRATOR: Like most of the men Marthe would encounter during her time as a spy, he quickly dismissed her.
MARTHE COHN: I was 4'11". I was very thin. I was very blonde with blue eyes, and very light skin. And they felt that I had no substance whatsoever, so they didn't trust me, and they never accepted me.
NARRATOR: Eventually she was given a job.
MARTHE COHN: He told me: "You're a nurse. But I don't need any nurses. You're going to be a social worker." I had no conception at all of what it meant to be a social worker. I had no training for that. I was a nurse. But, in the Army, if they tell you you are a social worker that's what you are. So I left, and I went to the small city where the regiment was headquartered, and everybody who was not on the front had a room in the little city. So I got a room, and I slept all night, and the next morning, I got up and put on the uniform I was given. That uniform was much, much too big for me. I looked like a clown, but it was warm, and that was very important because the winter of 1944, 1945, was unusually cold, and we were near the Vosges Mountains, where it was even colder. So I put on that uniform and wondered what I should do because I was not given any order, any indication of what is expected of me as a social worker.
NARRATOR: So she took things into her own hands.
MARTHE COHN: Nobody told me what to do, so I decided I was going to visit our troops.
NARRATOR: For the next three weeks, Marthe took supplies to and from the troops in the forest close to the town. She took them socks, food - anything she could get their hands on. Then, a chance encounter with a French Resistance colonel who was looking for a secretary.
MARTHE COHN: He asked me to answer his phone during his lunch break because he needed to go to lunch and he had nobody to answer his phone. And I just went by and he stopped me. So, I went with him to his office. He showed me around and leaving he said: "I'm sorry. I have nothing for you to read here. There are only German books." Remember that Alsace was completely annexed, and they were all only speaking German. They didn't speak French. So, they had German books. And I answered: "That's quite all right. I read and speak and write German fluently."
NARRATOR: He quickly realized that maybe Marthe’s German fluency - and her propensity for being underestimated by men - could actually prove quite useful for spy work.
MARTHE COHN: That's how life plays tricks on you. He explained to me that in Germany, all the males from the age of 12 to old age were in uniform in the Army, so any man in civilian clothes in the streets of Germany would be immediately noticed and arrested. That's why they needed a woman. And he asked me if I accepted to be transferred to the intelligence service. And I accepted. So he left.
NARRATOR: Wait a moment. Twenty-two years old. 4’11". Jewish. And you’ve just agreed to go behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. What are you thinking?
MARTHE COHN: I sat on a chair and wondered in what predicament I put myself in, but it was too late.
NARRATOR: So, in January 1945, Marthe’s life as a spy began. Her mission would be to collect intelligence on enemy movements in Germany.
MARTHE COHN: I was asked to create my own alibi because that would stick much better than an alibi given to me. And so I created my alibi. My two parents were killed in a light bombardment. I kept that I was born in Metz, but not my name. I was now Marthe. I kept my first name but Germanized it to Marthe with an ‘e’. Ulrich, that was my new name and my parents had been killed in a bombardment. I had no siblings.
NARRATOR: Mmmm what else shall I add to embellish my story? A sibling, a pet. Ah I know, a fiancée!
MARTHE COHN: I had love letters from him, several love letters. And my alibi was that I was looking everywhere for him because I knew one thing. We knew very little of what was going on in Germany, but I knew one thing, that so many had disappeared - 100,000 of them, if not more - had disappeared in the last months of the war. On the Russian Front, on the Western Front, there were prisoners of war, or they were dead, or they were in the hospitals and they couldn't write because everything was so chaotic. You couldn't communicate. So I knew that families went without information about their loved ones in the Army. I used that and that made me very sympathetic to the Germans who were looking for their own people. They had the same problem as I had, so that made me very close to them and it helped me tremendously.
NARRATOR: It would explain why she was asking so many questions. As a concerned girlfriend, she wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. After all, the idea of a woman being a spy was surely preposterous? If you’re wondering what being a spy in World War II involved, here’s a little idea.
MARTHE COHN: I trained to recognize anything about the German Army. As soon as I looked at a soldier by his button, by his little insignias, I could recognize what kind of regiment he belonged to. And I had to learn coding, to decode or to write it in code. I had to learn how to read a map. From that time on, I was able to navigate my husband when he was driving, and I still navigate for him because I know how to read maps. And military maps. And I had to learn how to use every arm.
NARRATOR: She’s talking about guns.
MARTHE COHN: Even the very heavy ones. I had to know how to use them, but I never had an arm. I had no compass. I had no map. I had no radio because you have to be two to have a radio, and I was all alone.
NARRATOR: You’re on your own with no one watching your back in case something goes wrong. What skills do you have up your sleeve to compensate for the lack of support?
MARTHE COHN: You have to have an excellent memory. Fast thinking, rapid responses to danger. Getting along, that's very, very important. Getting along with all kinds of people.
MARTHE COHN: Do you agree with my list?
NARRATOR: Well, do you? You should know by now if you’d be up for the job. Once fully trained, Marthe was told she had to cross the frontline in France to see what information she could collect from the German-occupied zones. But, even with all the training in the world, in a war zone, things easily go wrong.
MARTHE COHN: Thirteen times I tried to cross the front and it never worked because, during the war, everything was very fluid. Everything was very fast. And I was sent to a certain place, telling me what I would find there and when I arrived I didn't find it, so I couldn't proceed. That's one of the reasons. There were other reasons. We had military guides, French Military guides, who explained to me exactly what I would find on the front of the ground from A to B, where I was going, and how to proceed on the ground. But they make mistakes. They're humans.
NARRATOR: One night, those mistakes nearly cost Marthe her life.
MARTHE COHN: One night, I was taken by two officers. It was a very cold and dark night in February 1945. And I was taken to a field and they told me - I had only a little suitcase with a change of clothes. And I had no compass, no arm, no radio, no map, nothing in writing. Everything I was supposed to do was in my memory. So my memory was very charged at the time. That's why there are things I remember and some I don't. They took me to the field and told me that I had to cross the field and go to a certain region and find a small town by crossing the field and there, I would find a group of Germans.
NARRATOR: Her job?
MARTHE COHN: To mix with them and go with them and send back as much information as I had.
NARRATOR: Out in the pitch black, in the icy wind and the falling snow, there’s not another human around.
MARTHE COHN: So, I left and I started walking on that field, and I suddenly heard a huge crack. The military guide had explained to me what I would find on that field and how to go without a compass to that little town. So I walked in that direction I thought and suddenly I heard a huge crack and here I was, submerged in the ice-cold water of the canal. The guide, the military guide, had forgotten to tell me there was a canal on the field.
NARRATOR: For those of you who don’t know, falling into freezing water can kill you in seconds. If you survive the first 10 minutes, you can expect your limbs to become incapacitated, making it difficult or even impossible to climb out. After about an hour, hypothermia sets in. Weighed down by sodden heavy clothing and completely alone in the dark, our spy didn’t have good odds.
MARTHE COHN: I tried to get out, but I tried to grasp the side of the canal. The canal was not very wide, it's man-made, and it was not too deep, but it was still deeper than my height. But I popped up and I tried to grasp the sides and I couldn't grasp them because everything was so frozen that I couldn't grasp sufficiently to get out. And I was now much heavier because I was drenched in that ice-cold water from head to toe. I couldn't call for help. That was impossible. I had no right to do that. I knew that.
NARRATOR: She thought she was going to die, and yet she felt like she had no right to trouble someone for help. So Marthe didn’t give up and finally, in a feat of superhuman strength she hauled herself out. Soaked, freezing, and exhausted. Do you head back to base to get warm and find the gentleman who helpfully forgot to tell you about the canal or do you keep going? You have a mission. Marthe kept going. But then, another blow.
MARTHE COHN: I walked all night trying to find that small town and I didn't find it. And in the morning, early morning, at daybreak, I saw my footprints on the snow. They were my footprints. The snow showed that I'd walked in a circle all night. That's why I never found it.
NARRATOR: Thankfully, it wouldn’t be long before she got another chance to prove her mettle. As spring blossomed across Europe in 1945, the Allied forces advanced closer to Germany. Once the Rhineland was occupied, the war would more or less be won. But they needed to know what they were walking into. Cue: our spy.
MARTHE COHN: We didn't know what was going on in Germany. That's why I was sent to Germany for two purposes: for military intelligence of course; but also intelligence on how the civilians were behaving and reacting to the war, which was very important for the Allied armies, which were going to invade Germany.
NARRATOR: The plan was for Marthe to crawl undetected through the bushes down a road that crossed from Switzerland into Germany. It was the easiest access point as Switzerland was a neutral country. She would then walk 2km to the town of Singen where she would assume her cover as a nurse looking for her fiancée as she traveled deeper into Germany gathering intelligence to send back. Ahead of the mission, she was introduced to another intelligence officer, who we will call agent LeMer, who drove her to the border. When the time came for her to make the crossing, he gave her a rather unhelpful pep talk.
MARTHE COHN: Mr LeMer suddenly said to me: "Do you know, you may die tonight. Why don't we have a good time now?" And he was married and he told me about his wife and children and all that. But that didn't matter. So I told him I was absolutely not interested. I felt that was horrible. I was mainly mad that he told me: "You may die tonight." I didn't want to hear that.
MARTHE COHN: Later in the afternoon, he told me: "Now is the time." So I took my little suitcase and I crawled along, as he told me to do. I crawled along the field and hid behind the bushes near the road.
NARRATOR: But the road was manned by guards.
MARTHE COHN: The road was under the surveillance of two German sentinels, heavily armed, which came one from the western edge, one from the eastern side. It's the eastern edge of the field and he walked towards the center, near the bushes where I was hidden, and the other soldier came from the west and met him. They stopped to switch their guns, turned their back, and walked back to the edge of the field on both sides. And they were doing that constantly without stopping. And Mr LeMer had told me: “When you crawl and you hide behind the bushes and when they arrive, you watch them and when they leave and come back and separate again, that's when you go on the road, and walk toward the east, toward Singen.” And so, when Mr LeMer told me: "Now is the moment." I took my suitcase and crawled, and I hid behind the bushes until then everything was perfect.
NARRATOR: But then, an unexpected obstacle.
MARTHE COHN: I was completely paralyzed by fear. I was so paralyzed I could absolutely not move and I was very sorry for myself. I felt that nobody had the right to ask me to do that. And I couldn't even think of doing it.
NARRATOR: Of course, a moment of hesitation. Don’t you deserve to question the whole endeavor? You’ve already gone above and beyond.
Almost as soon as those thoughts entered Marthe’s mind, they were replaced by memories of the men who expected her to fail: the intelligence officer who’d called her a coward the first time she arrived at the front line. She remembered the commanding officers who had told her she’d failed her missions when she fell in the canal. Anger and defiance rose up inside her.
MARTHE COHN: That made me get up and go. I preferred to die than to be called a coward. So that's why. So I talked to that sentinel. He asked for my identity card. I presented it to him. It was Marthe Ulrich and I wondered if he too would discover that it was a forged card but he gave it back to me. I was now in Germany.
NARRATOR: Success! When she made it to Singen, she got on a train to another town called Freiburg, 100km away, situated close to Germany’s western defensive line on the French-German border. This line of defense was called the Siegfried Line and it was where she hoped to gather information from anti-Nazi contacts given to her by her commanders. Despite making it safely into the country, Marthe still spent the train journey sweating.
MARTHE COHN: In the train, the same type of military police were checking our papers constantly, every few minutes during the ride. That's the only time I ever took a train because it was too dangerous. Every time they looked at my papers I wondered if they would find out it was forged. So, I never took another train.
NARRATOR: After a few days in the German town of Freiburg, she noticed something unusual.
MARTHE COHN: Germans who wanted to go from A to B had to walk. And they always walked in a group. They never liked to walk alone.
NARRATOR: She thought this could be an excellent opportunity for some reconnaissance. It turned out to be the smartest move she’d ever made.
MARTHE COHN: I joined a group. And we walked and I was walking next to an SS who came back from the Russian Front.
NARRATOR: The SS was Hitler’s personal bodyguards and the elite corps of the Nazi Party, notorious for their brutality, cruelty, and fanaticism.
MARTHE COHN: He had been wounded on the Russian Front, and now he was recovering. And he was assigned to the Siegfried Line, which was northwest of Freiburg. We walked in that direction. And he was telling us all the atrocities that he said were committed on the Russian Front, which was much, much, much worse than whatever was on the Western front. And the Germans were pushing him to talk more about that and they were clapping their sides. They loved to do that. And said: "Ar, Mensch," which is like: "Oh boy," in English. He told us he could smell a Jew a mile away - and I was walking next to him and he never smelled me - to show out stupid that was. As we walked quite fast and he was constantly talking, he suddenly fainted.
NARRATOR: Stop and consider this situation. Marthe is a nurse. She knows how to give medical aid to someone who has just passed out. She could help this man. But this man isn’t just any German civilian or even a soldier. He is a Nazi in the purest sense. He whole-heartedly believes that Marthe and her family are vermin who should be exterminated. If he knew she was a Jew, he’d shoot her right there on the spot. Marthe knows this. She knows what the SS did to Jews and the others they called ‘subhuman’ in ghettos and concentration camps. Remember, her sister was taken away by men like him. If you were Marthe, what would you do? Leave him to come round on his own and watch him suffer a little? Or help?
MARTHE COHN: I was a nurse and took care of him.
NARRATOR: Difficult as it must have been, from an espionage point-of-view, it was ingenious.
MARTHE COHN: When he regained consciousness, he was so grateful that I had taken care of him that he invited me to come and visit him at the Siegfried Line.
NARRATOR: Three weeks later, she decided to take him up on the offer to visit him with the German soldiers on the defense line to get some intel. But when she got there, she discovered there were barely any soldiers there. She expected to find battalions of men with weapons and tanks and fortifications. Perplexed, she asked around.
MARTHE COHN: I asked several independent working stragglers and they all told me: "They're all gone. We are the last ones to leave."
NARRATOR: The line had been evacuated.
MARTHE COHN: I heard on the German radio that Allies were very close and were going to invade Freiburg.
NARRATOR: She knew she had to get back to Freiburg to deliver a message to her commanding officers in France, that the Germans knew the Allies were coming and were preparing for the invasion. But when she got there she discovered that the Allies had already advanced on the town.
MARTHE COHN: I arrived in Freiburg, and all the people in Freiburg were running to their home because they all had heard on the German radio that the Allies were going to invade that day. So I waited. I was all alone on the main boulevard and I waited. The first tank arrived and rode toward me.
NARRATOR: But dressed as a German nurse, she now faced another problem.
MARTHE COHN: How was I going to tell the people on that tank that I was a friend and not an enemy? I had no papers, nothing, nothing to prove who I was.
NARRATOR: Close your eyes and picture it. You’re standing in the middle of an empty town. No one around you, nothing moving beside the wind blowing leaves and bits of paper around the cobbled street. You’re on your own in an abandoned town as an entire Army rumbles toward you. Soldiers high on adrenaline and the taste of promised victory armed to the hilt. You look like the enemy. The only one standing in their way.
They can’t hear you from that far away and even close up the rumbling of the tanks are too loud. You have roughly 10 seconds to come up with a way to show them who you really are. How are you going to do that? What are you going to do?
MARTHE COHN: I raised my two fingers, the free sign of Winston Churchill. It's a victory sign of Winston Churchill because we all knew at that time that Winston Churchill during the war was very seldom photographed not doing the victory sign, the V side with two fingers. I raised my arm as high as I could.
NARRATOR: The tank rumbles closer.
MARTHE COHN: I stayed in the middle of the avenue. I'm extremely lucky the tank did not kill me, but stopped. I asked the officer in charge to come down and talk to me. And he came. I was very assertive, I must say. He came and he talked to me and I told him he has to take me to the headquarters of Freiburg.
NARRATOR: Another stroke of luck. The officer was French. It was the French Army.
MARTHE COHN: If an English-speaking Army had invaded Freiburg, I don't know how I could have communicated with them, but with the French Army there was no problem.
NARRATOR: But Marthe wasn’t out of the woods just yet. She had to prove to the intelligence officers at HQ she wasn’t lying about who she said she was. They had no idea that the Siegfried Line had been evacuated and the commander at French HQ feared she was an enemy trying to get them to walk into an ambush.
MARTHE COHN: I told Commander Petit that I just came back from there, at the Siegfried Line, and it's completely evacuated. He looked at me. He had been in intelligence. So he said to me: "Who tells me the truth? It may be a trap." So I took a piece of paper and a pen from his desk, and wrote a phone number because we could call any service on the field. He talked to the people in my service who were very happy to hear that I was still alive. They had no news. I had no radio. I couldn't communicate often. The last time I communicated was when I was at the Swiss border in the farm. Commander Petit sent a patrol to the Siegfried Line, and they came back hours later saying: "That's true. The Siegfried Line is completely empty."
NARRATOR: News that the line was clear meant the Allies could advance more quickly and safely into Germany in stronger numbers. Finally, Marthe was given some of the recognition she deserved.
MARTHE COHN: I was a very important VIP that night at the French headquarters in Freiburg. I was invited for dinner. I was given a home and the next morning at breakfast, Commander Petit asked me if I wanted to go and rejoin my service. I told him: "No, my mission terminates the day of the armistice. I must cross the border again."
NARRATOR: Marthe knew she still had work to do. As the German Frontline receded further and further back, she needed to get more intelligence to help the Allies advance deeper into Germany. And it was just as well she didn’t go back to France because, while still in Germany, she had another chance encounter, on a road with another man who underestimated her. It led to the most valuable information she collected during the war.
MARTHE COHN: I stopped along the road [near a] group of German military ambulances and a colonel, a physician. I saw by his uniform immediately that he was a physician standing there, with all his entourage, near the ambulances. So, I stopped to inquire what was going on. When you see something unusual, you have to stop and know what's going on. The Colonel told me that they would, that night, drive into Switzerland, which was fairly close, and from there to Austria to prevent becoming prisoners of war. They knew that Freiburg was already occupied by Allied armies. They didn't know which one. I knew, but they didn't. He asked me where I was coming from, and I told him. He said: "I had just escaped from Freiburg because I was terrorized by the French Army.”
NARRATOR: She played along.
MARTHE COHN: I complained too that the German Army was not defending us anymore as much as they should.
NARRATOR: Then, a gift. The kind of intelligence only a spy on the ground, behind enemy lines, could get.
MARTHE COHN: The colonel said to me: "Don't be so desperate. The war has not ended." And he told me exactly where the remnant of the German Army was hidden in an ambush in the Black Forest.
NARRATOR: The lives of Allied soldiers advancing on the Black Forest were in Marthe’s hands. She wrote it in a letter and ran as fast as she could to the nearest customs office so the message could be delivered to her commanding officer.
MARTHE COHN: It arrived on time. And Colonel Reinhart read it because it was not coded, so he could read it. It was in French. I didn't take the time to code it. I had no time for that.
NARRATOR: Intelligence received. The Allied leaders were warned. In those last days of the war, no Allied troops died in a Black Forest ambush thanks to Marthe. She had saved countless lives.
MARTHE COHN: And that's why I got all these medals.
NARRATOR: The war ended and Marthe went back to working as a nurse. She met her husband who was an American medical student and together they settled in the United States in 1956. They now live a very peaceful life overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Southern California. In 2002, she wrote a book about her life as a spy called Behind Enemy Lines, and soon after she was given France’s highest award.
MARTHE COHN: It was a very, very incredible time for me. I was very, very honored by that. Do you know, when I did all that work, I never thought that I would be honored for it. I just did it because I felt that I had to do it. What is so important, and I want to tell you, that so many French people who were not Jewish risked their lives to save ours. So it was absolutely normal that we, all of us, were fighting and helping get rid of the Germans in France.
NARRATOR: The fear of being called a coward had plagued Marthe her entire life. But now, I don’t think anyone could ever call Marthe Cohn a coward. And this is what she’s come to understand about courage, after a long and incredible life
MARTHE COHN: Do you know, courage is not a thing that you have all the time. You are brave one minute, and you can be a coward two minutes later, the same person. You have to understand that courage is something that comes and goes. It's not always there, but you have to - when you lose that courage - you have to overcome that fear. And that's the only thing that is important, is to overcome it. But nobody is courageous all the time.
NARRATOR: And almost eight decades later, at heart, Marthe is still the same Jewish woman who survived the decimation of her people, who interrogated war criminals and crawled across enemy lines during the deadliest conflict in human history.
MARTHE COHN: I still cannot refuse challenges, even now. You know, that makes my life interesting, and I love it!
NARRATOR: I’m Hayley Atwell. Join us next week for another debrief with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Marthe Cohn turned 100 years old in 2020, but she didn’t know if she’d live past age 25 during WWII. The Nazis had occupied France. Marthe’s family was Jewish and lost their home, jobs, and neighbors. When her sister was shipped to a concentration camp, Marthe trained as a nurse, determined to join the French Resistance and bring down Germany. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her bravery in 1945 and many other medals.