Marthe Cohn is a 99-year-old Holocaust survivor born to an Orthodox Jewish family in a small town on the German border of France. After her sister was sent to Auschwitz, she joined the intelligence service of the First French Army in November of 1944.
Posing as a German nurse searching for her missing fiancée, she obtained and relayed critical information to the Allied forces. In 1956, while working as a nurse in Paris, she met her husband, Major L. Cohn. Three years later, she moved to the United States with him, where she lives to this day.
In 2002, she was awarded the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit. She is the author of “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany” and will be giving a talk on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. in McCosh 50.
Cohn sat down with The Daily Princetonian on Wednesday, Feb. 28 to discuss her life story, how it informs her political views today, and the importance of preserving Holocaust memory.
This interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: I wanted to start our conversation in the same way you start your book, which is with this quote from Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski: “Each of our deeds, even those as small as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, has great consequences.” I was wondering if you could talk about an example of how that has manifested in your life?
Marthe Cohn: You never know when you do something what [will be the] consequences of your actions. You have no idea. When I found out in Germany some very important information, I had no idea that the German government would one day reward me with the highest award of Germany because they felt that my information had shortened the war, and I saved a lot of German lives. I helped them get rid of the Nazis … which is unbelievable. The president of Germany, Mr. [Frank-Walter] Steinmeier, and his wife invited my husband and I for tea in their castle in Berlin last year. So, you see, you never never know.
DP: In your book, you talk about how the same person can be “a coward one minute and brave the next.”
MC: You can only find out when you are doing the walk. You have no idea of your own reaction until you did it. When I was offered the job, I had no idea that I could do it … but I accepted. I was trained and I did it … It’s very simple.
DP: Can you talk about one moment from the war that required the greatest moral courage?
MC: When I was crossing from Switzerland into Germany, I didn’t think I could do it. It took me a very long time to overcome the fear; I was completely paralyzed by fear. I felt very sorry for myself. I felt that nobody could oblige me to do it. It took me at least three hours to overcome that fear. It became later and later, and suddenly I remembered something, which made me get up, take my little suitcase, and walk.
DP: What did you remember?
MC: I remembered the French captain of intelligence … he had a noble name with a “de”... He was an excellent officer and a perfectionist, and he could not accept if the missions he had organized were not successful. Thirteen times I tried to cross the pond in Alsace, and I was not successful. Every time he said that I had done something wrong because I had cold feet … he would say that publicly. I had huge fights with him in front of Colonel [Georges-Regis] Bouvet … and every time I proved that I was not responsible. The more I defended myself, the more he hated me. When I was lying there, suddenly I remembered that if I don’t do it this time, he will be right. So I got up and walked ...
You cannot accept [being] called a coward, and he called me a coward. Colonel Bouvet would tell me every time that I was right, and I should not accept being insulted; I should not accept being told that I was wrong.
DP: Was there ever a time when you were spying in Germany when you came very close to being found out?
MC: Many times … I’ll give you one example. When I arrived in Singen, when I crossed from Switzerland into Germany … I went to a woman’s house. She opened the door; it was already very late because I had waited so long to cross. It was about 10 p.m. when I arrived at her house; she was already in a robe and nightgown.
When I told her who sent me, she was extremely hospitable and gave me a room; she even gave me some food because I had had no dinner that night … The next morning I got up and went into the kitchen, and I saw immediately that she was in a very bad mood … She said to me, “I did not sleep all night. I was very worried because I noticed that your stockings were completely torn.” I had fallen because there were craters between where I crossed into Germany and Singen because Singen had been bombarded by the Allies …
Then she looked me straight in the eyes, and she said, “Fraulein, are you a spy?” I bent over a little, stretched out my arms, and I started laughing immediately. I said, “Do I look like a spy?” She started laughing, too, and said, “No.” We became best friends, and she saved my life …
DP: What do you see as the importance, especially for young students, of hearing your story?
MC: Because they all have very short memories, and they don’t know enough about the Shoah. If they don’t know about what happened in the past, they cannot prepare for the future. Impossible.
DP: I wanted to talk more about preserving Holocaust memory. As I’m sure you know, there was a survey recently that showed 41 percent of Americans don’t know what Auschwitz is. What do you think needs to be done about that?
MC: We are going to disappear in a very short time — the survivors. But the museums don’t do a good enough job. They have to do much more to contact the schools and let them know what happened. But in detail, not just a little story. It has to be known. Right now, it’s extremely dangerous, here in America, too ...
DP: I was wondering if you could talk about how your life experiences affect the way that you think about the global refugee crisis today.
MC: I never knew how to understand Hebrew, but now, since about two or three years ago, I belong to a reform synagogue — every day I receive commentaries on the Torah and I read them every day. So now I suddenly understand what the Torah means.
That was a problem with my mother, who was an extremely good mother, and she understood all of our needs. But the day I was 12 years old, I told her, “I want to learn the Torah, because I don’t want to pray anymore in Hebrew if I don’t understand what I’m saying. It’s hypocritical to do that, because I’m talking to God, but I don’t know what I’m telling him.” My mother answered, “It’s only for the boys.” That was the only time she did not answer the right answer. I refused to pray in Hebrew from that day on. I still pray in French ...
[In terms of refugees], I go back to the Torah. The Torah teaches to love the stranger as your brother. That I agree with. But you have to be very careful to accept only the people you should accept. But not what the government now [is doing] — that’s atrocious.
DP: So, I wanted to ask you a bit about the government now —
MC: Okay, I will tell you immediately what I think. Trump does not help Israel for the love of the Jews — he does it for the evangelists, that’s it. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand what’s going on. Even today … he attacked Ruth [Bader Ginsburg] and [Sonia] Sotomayor … He has no right to attack them, but he does it, and he repeats it, and repeats that lie, and repeats that lie, until people believe it. That’s propaganda … Most people, most Jews, don’t understand that. But I know propaganda … because I followed it as a teenager and I remember it because I have a very good memory.
You have to be very careful with [Trump] because he has no love for anybody but himself. None. Not for the Jews … He’s taken advantage of the problem of [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi [Netanyahu].
DP: Some people have compared the Trump administration right now to the early days of Hitler and the Third Reich. As someone who lived through those days, do you think that’s a fair comparison?
MC: Absolutely true. Look, his troops never think, they just believe everything he does and says, and they have no idea what’s going on. They just follow him … exactly like the troops followed Hitler in the early days.
DP: Another issue that was controversial recently was when Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez said that Trump’s “migrant detention centers” on the southern border are “concentration camps.” What do you think of the use of that language?
MC: They are not concentration camps, but they are very bad camps — very, very bad camps. Separating children from parents is something that should not be allowed for anybody … We are supposed to love [the migrants]. It may be difficult to love them, but at least you should be right with them and not do wrong things to them.
DP: Do you think the United States should be accepting more refugees and migrants?
MC: We should be accepting at least as many as we accepted before. Now, we don’t accept even a tenth. He wants only white people, intelligent people, and people with money. That’s not an answer.
DP: One last question: what do you think young people should do to live a meaningful life?
MC: Be engaged and do not accept any order that your conscience cannot approve of. These are the two [pieces of] advice I give children. If they follow this advice, they will be okay.