“Nobody spoke about the war; people didn’t want to hear about it,” said Rancho Palos Verdes resident Marthe Cohn in the 2019 documentary “Chichinette: How I Accidentally Became a Spy,” which details her two years as a spy in Nazi Germany during World War II.
Cohn did not speak about the war, including to her family, for decades until the release of her 2002 autobiography “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.” Cohn was planning to attend the Los Angeles premiere of “Chichinette” and have a party for her 100th birthday this year, but the novel coronavirus pandemic stopped those celebrations.
For her 100th birthday, along with her husband, Major, friends and neighbors held a drive-by birthday celebration on April 13 that Cohn said she was “extremely” grateful” for. She also received hundreds of emails and phone calls from well wishers and letters from the president of Germany and Israel.
“It was amazing to me so many people made such an enormous effort to make me happy the day of my 100th birthday. The quarantine is so difficult,” Cohn 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 October, "Chichinette - How I Accidentally Became a Spy,” directed by 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 and her 1944 enlistment into the Intelligence Service of the French Army.
Cohn said she was a nurse by profession. But the French army had other plans for her. When she went to enlist, she met a colonel who leaned she read and spoke German fluently.
“He explained to me that in the German Army, all males from the age of 12 to old age were in uniform. 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, masquerading as a German nurse, she would have to commit to memory and return back to France. She said she operated as a spy from December 1944 through January 1947.
“I was all alone,” she recalled. “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, the American Major Cohn and they married and moved to the United States. In 1979, they moved to Rancho Palos Verdes, after living in Pittsburgh.
But for decades, Cohn kept her life as a spy mostly secret. Her oldest brother had asked her to write a book about her experience during the war, which she declined, But, she changed her mind when her brother contracted Parkinson's Disease in 1996.
“I decided I owed that to him," said Cohn. "So in 1998 I finally decided to write the book.” Her brother died in 2001.
So Cohn returned to France because she did not have any documented proof that she was a French spy.
“It's very difficult to talk about some things which happened to you if you have absolutely nothing to show for it. People will think you’re telling them tall tales,” Cohn said.
Cohn added, "When you’re in Intelligence Service you are brainwashed that everything is absolutely secret. I kept that secret for over 70 years, even my husband and my children didn’t know anything. They knew I had been in the French army. They never asked me questions and I never told them anything. My husband knew a few small details. I would tell them occasionally.”
All that changed when she wrote “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.”
“He (Major) loved what I did when he read my book and it was published—my children too,” Cohn said.
Filmmaker Michael Potter grew up across the street from the Cohn family in Rancho Palos Verdes and the “crazy part of the story was that nobody knew she was a spy.”
“She had two sons, one that was older than me and one was that was younger than me,” Potter recalled, growing up, we were probably incorrigible kids, but at some point we finally grew up and and then we got to appreciate the sacrifices she made.”
By the time the revelation she had been a spy was made public, Cohn was already 80 years old.
“She has since that time given a thousand public talks. So I've been doing a handful of public talks and I went to two award ceremonies,” Potter said.
The filmmakers behind the documentary eventually asked for Potter’s assistance in making the film so he became one of its executive producers.
Potter and his wife attended the premiere of the film last October.
“It's extraordinary that she left Palos Verdes, jumped on a plane at 99 years old and flew to Israel,” Potter said “Then we won an audience participation award at the film festival and she was interviewed by German and Israeli television.”
“There's all sorts of horrible news out there and then here's a story that hopefully people will find will put a smile on their face or people can be inspired by it,” Potter said.
Cohn has won a number of awards for her bravery including the Counsel General of the German consulate in L.A. presented her with the Cross of the Order of Merit, Germany's highest honor, as well as several from France, and the Woman of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
A video of her 100th birthday celebration can be seen at https://vimeo.com/407460961.