OUR LAGUNA: Sister City group hears from Nazi-era survivor

Nazi-occupied France was a desperate place, especially for French Jews — even petite, blue-eyed blonds like Marthe Cohn Marthe Cohn who had spoken German as their first language since the Alsace and Lorraine provinces, where she was born, were handed over to Germany in 1871.

When the Nazis invaded France at the beginning of World War II, Cohn was in nursing school and engaged.

The family responded to the invasion by hiding Jews. Cohn’s sister, Stephanie, and their father were arrested. Her father was released. Her sister was not, and she is believed to have died at Auschwitz.

But Resistance leaders could not see beyond Cohn’s looks. “Little girl, go home,” they told her when she begged to be of service. Home she went and completed her nurse’s training


Cohn completed her training in 1942 and in 1943 she traveled with false papers to plead with her fiancé, Jacques, to give up his role in the resistance. But she failed. He was captured and executed.

Having graduated, Cohn went to Paris to practice.

“When Paris was liberated, the whole town sang ‘The Marseilles’ [French National Anthem],” Cohn said.

The war did not end for Cohn when France was freed. She joined the First French Army and was assigned to the Intelligence Division where her language skills, medical training and looks were an asset during forays into Germany.


Cohn co-authored her story in 2002: “Behind Enemy Lines, the True Story of a French Jew in Nazi Germany.” It wasn’t modesty that kept her from writing her story any earlier.

“I didn’t think I’d be believed,” Cohn said. “I was such an unlikely spy. Spies are usually tall and good-looking.”

Unlikely or not, Cohn elicited information that helped shorten the war. Her service has been honored with Croix de Guerre in 1945 with two citations. She was also awarded the title of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by M. Andre Bord, veterans’ minister in the Pompidou administration. The French Government awarded her the Medaille Militaire and the Medaille of the Reconnaissance de la Nation.

The diminutive Cohn spoke about the experiences recounted in the book at a salon, hosted by the Laguna Beach Sister Cities Assn., recently at the home of Dr. Gary and Betsy Jenkins, a member of the Laguna Beach Unified District Board of Education.

Betsy Jenkins is an avid supporter of the Sister City concept, which has linked Laguna Beach with Menton, France.

Under Jenkins’ leadership, Laguna students created collages that were sent to French students and letters have been exchanged between the children of Laguna and Menton.

“The Model United Nations students at the high school were loaned a video camera and over the winter break they shot scenes of Laguna that are part of their lives,” Jenkins said. “They are editing the videos and they will be sent to a Menton high school.

“We are also exchanging guest columns between high school newspapers on topics of interest to the students.”


People familiar with the Sister City concept have opined that the educational component is the most effective aspect, according to association board member Carol Reynolds, crediting Jenkins for spearheading it.

Reynolds has participated in the Sister City project almost from the beginning: a Fete d’Musique in June 2007 in Los Angeles, which she attended with Laguna Beach Visitors Bureau President Karyn Philippsen and Arts Commissioner Pat Kollenda. The invitation had passed along to them by then-Mayor Toni Iseman, who could not attend.

They came home fired up with the notion of a local fete, said Reynolds, founder of the Laguna Beach Concert Band and chairwoman of the first Laguna fete in 2008.

The fetes have become a worldwide event, sometimes called World Music Day.

“Guidelines are very strict,” Reynolds said. “The first one is no pay for the musicians and the second is that it is supposed to be held on June 21, the winter solstice.

“We will hold the second one this year on June 20, because the 21st is a Sunday.”

But one of the contacts the trio made at the Los Angeles fete was Didier Rousseliere, an official at the French Consulate in Los Angeles, and he had a bigger project in mind.

Rousseliere was the one who first suggested Menton as a sister city for Laguna, Philippsen said.


Dazzled by the concept, the three drafted the support of Iseman, who exchanged letters with the Menton mayor. Iseman, Philippsen, Kollenda and Reynolds planned a trip to Menton to evaluate the possibilities of sisterhood, overcoming a contretemps when it became obvious that some members of the City Council were unaware of a possible alliance until a public hearing asking for city support in November 2007.

The ambassadors came home more excited than ever, enchanted by Menton and awed at the similarities between the two cities — the vistas, the art schools and the somewhat tenuous relationship between the late Severn Wunderman’s Jean Cocteau museum in Menton, which Laguna had turned down.

“The council gave its official blessing to a sister city relationship with Menton at the council meeting in January of 2008,” Philippsen said. “However, the association has no official connection to Laguna [government] other than city officials will participate as a welcoming committee to visiting dignitaries from Menton.”

Nor is the association officially affiliated with the Visitor’s Bureau, except for benefits of increased tourism, which is expected to be generated by the sisterhood.

The association plans to hold a series of salons, which in France are gatherings of intellectuals and artists.

Cohn was recruited for the first salon by Reynolds.

“I met Marthe at Michelle Reinglasses annual New Year’s Day party and I immediately saw the possibilities of her being a speaker at our first salon.” Reynold’s said. “I approached her that day, and she instantly said she would love to do it.”

Reynolds bought Cohn’s book that day.

The books also were sold at the Jenkins’ home.

Friends of the Library President Martha Lydick bought a copy for herself and one for the Friends annual book sale at the annual members’ dinner in October.

“She is amazing,” Lydick said.

Born in 1920, Cohn held the salon guests mesmerized for almost an hour, only occasionally stuck for an English word or two.

About 70 people attended and never were so few fed so much. The buffet was, to say the least, bountiful, with contributions by the executive board of the association, which includes the Menton Four, Arts Commissioner Nancy Beverage, who photographed the event, Helen Garrison from the Laguna College of Art and Design and Richard Schwarzstein, who will host the next salon.

Entertainment was provided by Ed Merrilees, who tickled the ivories while guests munched, crunched and sipped; bi-lingual singer Lisa Morrice, accompanied by Chip McDaniel; and South Laguna attorney Ron Harris, who performed a piece by Eugene Nollet, a late 19th Century composer.

Morrice’s repertoire included the French and English versions of the Frank Sinatra signature song, “My Way,” which in French is about the disintegration of a family, not the bravado of a singular man.

Association members and non-members were welcomed to the salon by Philippsen.

“Membership is $25,” Philippsens said. “Donations are also asked, but we would rather have memberships.”

Family and business memberships are available for $100.

Among the guests: City Councilwomen Verna Rollinger and Jane Egly, with her daughter-in-law Angel McQuade- — Iseman was attending a funeral; Anne Wood, who taught at Metz where Cohn was born; Ben and Belgian-born Gigi Blount, who helped rescue down allied aviators and passed them along the underground to safety; Arno and Arts Commissioner Susi Chauvel; school board member Theresa O’Hare; Leon and Bree Burgess Rosen, founder of No Square Theatre and “Lagunatics”; Playhouse Development Associate Anne Morris; Laguna Beach Woman’s Club board member Peggy Ford; Debby and School Supt. Robert Fraisse; Odile Dewar, Laguna Beach High School French teacher — and probably the only one in the house familiar with Nollet; and Jennifer and Fred Karam, who has been active in the association.

For more information about the book, call Philippsen at (949) 492-0883. For more information about the association, visit www.lagunabeachsister or call Philippsen.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; call (949) 494-4321 or e-mail