Risking her life for two years as a spy in Nazi Germany, Rancho Palos Verdes resident Marthe Cohn quietly helped win World War II. Her best weapons: Her language skills and her memory.
Cohn waited decades to tell anyone, including most of her family. She let her oldest brother in on her secret, but she declined his requests to tell her tale in a book. “People didn’t want to hear about it,” she said.
Cohn changed her mind when her brother contracted Parkinson’s Disease in 1996. “I decided I owed that to him,” said Cohn of her brother, who died in 2001. “So in 1998 I finally decided to write the book.”
The result: Cohn’s 2002 autobiography, “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.”
“Nobody spoke about the war,” said Cohn, whose story was told anew in the 2019 documentary “Chichinette: How I Accidentally Became a Spy.”
“The crazy part of the story was that nobody knew she was a spy,” said filmmaker Michael Potter, who grew up across the street from the Cohn family in Rancho Palos Verdes.
By the time it became known, Cohn was 80 years old. “She has since that time given a thousand public talks,” said Potter, who assisted with the film and ended up one of its executive producers.
Since then, Cohn has won a number of awards for her bravery, including the Cross of the Order of Merit medal, Germany’s highest honor, multiple awards from the French and the Woman of Valor award from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
In October, “Chichinette,” directed by German filmmaker Nicola Alice Hens, premiered at the Haifa International Film Festival and won the audience award.
The documentary details her life growing up in France near the German border, one of seven children in an Orthodox Jewish family, and her 1944 enlistment into the Intelligence Service of the French Army.
Cohn was a nurse by profession.
The French army had other plans for her.
While enlisting, she met a colonel who learned she read and spoke German. “He explained to me that in the German Army, all males from the age of 12 to old age were in uniform,” she said. “So any men walking the streets of Germany in civilian clothes would be noticed and arrested and that’s why they needed women.”
She accepted a transfer to the Intelligence Service and was able to cross the border into Germany undetected through Switzerland.
Any information she was able to commandeer, while masquerading as a German nurse, she would have to commit to memory and return back to France. She wrote nothing down.
“I was all alone,” she said, describing her career in espionage from December 1944 through January 1947. “Everything I needed to know was in my memory. They had not told me what to do. They only told me to send us back as much information as you can send.”
After the war, while working as a nurse, she met her future husband, an American named Major Cohn.
They married, moved to the U.S. and in 1979, they landed in Rancho Palos Verdes after years in Pittsburgh.
Once she decided to break her silence on her wartime efforts, she realized she had nothing to document it. Cohn returned to France, seeking proof.
“It’s very difficult to talk about some things which happened to you if you have absolutely nothing to show for it,” Cohn said. “People will think you’re telling them tall tales.”
“When you’re in Intelligence Service you are brainwashed that everything is absolutely secret,” she said. “I kept that secret for over 70 years, even my husband and my children didn’t know anything.”
All that changed when she wrote her book. “(Her husband, Major) loved what I did when he read my book and it was published,” she said. “My children, too.”
Cohn was planning to attend the Los Angeles premiere of “Chichinette” and host a party for her 100th birthday this year, but the novel coronavirus pandemic derailed those celebrations.
“The quarantine is so difficult,” she said. “I like to meet people and I like to be with people, so it’s difficult for me all day closed in my home.”
In response, her husband, friends and neighbors held a drive-by 100th birthday celebration on April 13.
Cohn received hundreds of emails and phone calls from well wishers and letters from the presidents of Germany and Israel.
“It was amazing to me so many people made such an enormous effort,” she said, “to make me happy the day of my 100th birthday.”
A video of Cohn’s 100th birthday celebration can be seen at vimeo.com.