98-year-old woman recounts career as a spy behind enemy lines in Germany
'My hope is people will walk away with a message of strength that one individual could make a positive change'
Marthe Cohn was a tiny, blond, blue-eyed, 24-year-old from Metz who had joined the French army just three weeks earlier, in 1944, to work as a social worker and nurse.
Her sister had been sent to Auschwitz. The rest of her family had fled to the south of France. Cohn wanted to fight back against the Germans any way she could.
That was the plan, anyway, until Cohn met the regiment's colonel, who asked her to work for him as his office assistant.
"He asked me to answer his phone," she said.
Once he'd given Cohn a tour of the office, he had to leave and apologized for leaving her with nothing to do because, he explained, his office contained only German books.
"And I answered, I read German fluently," Cohn said, in an interview with CBC's Terri Trembath.
The information piqued the colonel's curiosity. Did she also speak German?
"I told him yes — as well as [I spoke] French," she said.
That's when the colonel explained how in Germany all males over the age of 12 wore military dress, so that any man dressed in civilian clothes would immediately be detained and arrested.
As a result, the Allies were desperately seeking women to drop behind enemy lines in order to blend in with the population and provide intelligence for the war effort.
"He asked me if I would accept being transferred to the intelligence service and I accepted. That's how I became a spy," Cohn said.
Cohn was in town to speak about her wartime spy experiences on behalf of Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta — on Tuesday night at the Jack Singer Concert Hall — as well as to be white-hatted by Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
Adopting the identity of a German nurse searching for her lost soldier husband, Cohn travelled throughout Germany, speaking to both German soldiers and civilians.
"My mission was a dual mission. I got military information but also information [about] how German civilians were reacting to war and behaving, because that was very important for Allied armies who were going to occupy Germany," she said.
It was a harrowing existence, where her life was on the line pretty much every day — but Cohn managed to talk her way out of trouble every time it found her.
That included a German woman who asked her if she was a spy. Cohn got out of it by making a joke out of the question, and the woman became her friend.
"We became great friends. She saved my life," Cohn said.
In 2002, Cohn published a memoir, Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.
She received the Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire, and, at age 80, was awarded France's highest military honor, the Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honour).
'Exactly like in the '30s'
Now, on the cusp of turning 99, Cohn, who lives in California, looks around and sees disturbing similarities to the way language was manipulated in the 1930s.
"It's a very dangerous time right now. It's exactly like in the '30s. Because our president — and I don't mind saying that — follows exactly what [Nazi propaganda chief Joseph] Goebbels did for propaganda.
"Do you know [the idea of] fake news came from Goebbels?" she said. "[President Donald Trump] didn't invent it.
"Constant lies [get] repeated, because if you repeat them often enough, people will believe them."
She continues to do public appearances internationally, even as she closes in on the century mark, to share a message the world needs to hear, she said.
"I have done it all these years so that people remember," she said.
"Not just for the Jews — I mean for all kinds of people."
Rabbi Menachem Matusof, executive director of Chabad Lubavtich of Alberta, said Cohn's message is proof that one person can make a big difference.
"To have a lady who was in her 20s and sacrificed her life to be a spy in Nazi Germany in World War II, to stand up for the rights of freedom and her own people and a better world, is a tremendous, positive message," he said.