WW II spy brings Sask. audiences daring tales and a warning on the rise of populism

Marthe Cohn's public persona during the Second World War was as a nurse and social worker. Behind enemy lines she had another, more dangerous role.

Marthe Cohn says people forget about the rise of Nazi Germany

Marthe Cohn will be talking in Regina and Saskatoon this week about her experiences as a Jewish spy during the Second World War. (CBC News)

Marthe Cohn knows what it's like living on the brink of danger.

The 98-year-old's public persona during the Second World War was as a nurse and social worker. Behind enemy lines she had another, more dangerous role: she was a Jewish spy.  

"I was moving around constantly," she told CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition, in advance of talks she will give this week in Regina and Saskatoon.

"I was constantly on the go, and I was able to talk to people and get information."

Story of a spy

Cohn was in Paris in 1944 when the city was liberated. She wanted to join the army and was sent into foxholes as a social worker.

A colonel discovered Cohn was fluent in both French and German. He asked her if she would be willing to work with the French intelligence service. He needed a woman for the job.

"Any man in civilian clothes walking in the streets of Germany would be immediately arrested, and God knows what would happen to them," she recalled.

"That's how I became a spy."

Cohn's fluency in French and German made her a good candidate for spycraft. (Photo from Chabad Jewish Centre of Regina/Facebook)

Cohn interrogated German POWs to learn about retreat plans and uncovered details about people evacuating from a German underground fortress.

As Germany prepared for the imminent invasion by Allied forces, Cohn found herself in Frieburg as the city was emptying. She was alone and without identity papers to prove she was with the Allies.   

Being healthy enough to travel in your 90s is impressive alone but Marthe Cohn's life story is astonishing. Cohn was born in France in 1920. When the Nazis rose to power, Cohn's sister was sent to Auschwitz and her family fled to the south. Cohn instead joined the army as a nurse in November of 1944, then worked shortly as a social worker. She sat down with Morning Edition host Stefani Langenegger to share her story of how that led her to becoming a successful spy. 15:45

"I had no way to tell them I was a friend, not an enemy," she recalled.

"I went in the middle of the avenue and I . . . lifted my arm as high as I could, and made a V sign of Winston Churchill, the victory sign."

She was picked up, confirmed her identity and shared important details of the evacuation with the invading Allied forces.

A word of warning

Cohn now lives a calmer existence in the United States, but she is not riding quietly into the sunset. She said it's important for her to travel and speak, to share memories of the rise of anti-Semitism, populism and the toppling of Nazi Germany.

"Populism is extremely dangerous, how quickly things can change," she said, adding she sees populism on the rise in the U.S. and Europe.

"It's important to remind people what happened, not so long ago."

Cohn's talk Behind Enemy Lines is hosted by the Chabad Jewish Centre of Regina. Cohn takes the stage tonight at Conexus Arts Centre in Regina and will be at TCU Place in Saskatoon Thursday.

with files from CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition


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