Past Catches Up to Palos Verdes Woman--Carrying a Medal
Marthe Cohn’s children, who have flown in from around the country to witness her moment of glory today, say she never told them what she did to earn one of France’s highest military honors.
To them, Cohn, an 80-year-old Rancho Palos Verdes resident, is a strict but loving mother, fanatical about keeping the kitchen clean and over the moon about her granddaughter. She taught her two sons French and took them to visit Europe, but she never talked about her experiences as an intelligence officer in World War II.
Cohn, who is Jewish and lost a sister at Auschwitz, was 24 when she crept across a field, under barbed wire and into Nazi Germany to get vital information for the Allied advance in 1945.
“I always felt that people wouldn’t believe me,” Cohn said the other day at her home. “They would think it was tall tales.”
In a ceremony at the Sofitel Hotel in Los Angeles this afternoon, however, the French consul to Los Angeles will award Cohn the Medaille Militaire, and tell the world about the role Cohn played in the “liberation of France,” Commandant Olivier Saint-Leger, a military official, said in a telephone interview from Paris.
The relatively rare medal is awarded for outstanding military service and has gone to such luminaries as Winston Churchill and French generals since it was established in 1852.
Yo Jung Chen, France’s vice consul in Los Angeles, said it is very unusual for such an honor to be given in the United States, but that Cohn is clearly deserving.
“She walked behind enemy lines during the war. It must have been very, very dangerous,” he stated.
Cohn had never intended to become a spy, but French army officials found out in 1944 that the 4-foot, 11-inch nurse could speak German and asked her if she would work in intelligence.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Cohn said. “I’m not a liar or an actor, but when your survival depends upon it. . . . I did it for what Germans had done to us.”
According to French government documents and interviews with officials this week in Paris, Cohn assumed the identity of a German nurse searching for a missing fiance. She visited the German front lines in the closing days of the war, hobnobbed with SS officers and ascertained plans for the German army’s retreat and counterattack in southern Germany.
Then she crawled back across the border and got the information to French intelligence in time.
“I have a sixth sense about danger,” said Cohn, who now suffers from hearing loss and arthritis but is still active, working on her memoirs and refurbishing her bathroom. “It’s why I’m still alive.”
Even before she slipped behind German lines, Cohn and her family frequently found their lives in peril, as Jews in Nazi-occupied France.
Marthe Hoffnung grew up speaking German and French in the Lorraine region of France, which is close to the German border. In 1942, after her younger sister Stephanie was arrested and killed in Auschwitz, the rest of the family fled from German-occupied France to the southern territory controlled by the Vichy government.
Cohn entered nursing school, while her brothers joined the French resistance. Her fiance, who also fought in the French resistance, was shot to death by the Germans in 1943 in Paris. When France was liberated by Allied forces in 1944, Cohn joined the French army.
One afternoon, she remembered, a colonel asked her to answer his phones during lunch. He apologized that there was nothing for her to read because there were only German books in his office.
“I said, ‘That’s OK, I can read German,’ ” she said. “It’s as simple as that, how your life can change,” said Cohn. French intelligence officers were looking for women who spoke German to enter Germany.
After brief training, Cohn tried and failed 14 times to cross the border. On the morning of her 15th try, an intelligence officer drove her to a field near the Swiss border with Germany.
In her pockets, she carried papers identifying her as a German nurse, along with letters and a picture of a German soldier, who was allegedly her fiance, but who in fact was locked securely away in an Allied prison.
For the next three weeks, she traveled around southern Germany, collecting information, constantly afraid that she would be discovered. She befriended an ailing SS officer who fainted on the road. When he woke up and found Cohn tending him and heard her story of how she was searching for her fiance, he invited her to come to the German front lines to look for him.
A few weeks later, after Allied forces had entered southern Germany, Cohn met German soldiers in the road. In keeping with her role, she burst into a hysterical fit and said she was terrified by the Americans, and frantic about the fate of her fiance.
“They told me not to worry,” she said. “And then they told me in precisely which section of the Black Forest the German army was waiting for the Allies. . . . That just goes to show you should never tell anyone anything, no matter how innocent they seem.”
By bicycle and on foot, Cohn made her way to the Swiss border and got the information to French officials.
After the war, she served in Vietnam as a nurse with the French army. Her slain fiance had grown up there, and the two had always planned to return.
She returned home to pursue a career as a nurse, but in 1956, while studying in Geneva, she met an American medical student, Major L. Cohn, who was the roommate of a friend.
Within three years, they were married and living in the United States. Now both retired, they had worked together for years, he as an anesthesiologist and she as a nurse.
Why a medal 55 years later? French officials say that was partly because they lost track of her and partly because she never applied for the honor, as many do.
Four years ago, Cohn was in France and asked for her military records in an attempt to regain her French citizenship, which was revoked when she became a U.S. citizen. More recent laws allowed dual citizenship and Cohn figured her records would strengthen her case.
When archive officials saw her file of commendations, they urged her to apply for the Medaille Militaire. She did and it was approved. Cohn, whose relatives in France recently received the medal there and sent it to her for the official ceremony, said she never sought glory for her work.
“I think this award is long overdue,” said her son Remi Cohn, who is visiting from Chicago for the ceremony. He said he never really asked his mother what she did during the war, and she never volunteered the information. Tales of how his family suffered persecution for being Jewish upset him too much, he said.
“I know her as one of the best mothers anyone could ever want and the more I find out about what she’s been through and how much strength and will power it must have taken for her to go on with life, the more I appreciate what kind of mother she is.”