"She turned around and looked me straight in the eye. Then she asked: Fräulein, are you a spy?"
Marthe Cohn was a spy. A 24 year old Jewish spy for the French army who crossed the border to Germany from Switzerland. She spoke German fluently, was just a bit more than 5 feet tall, blond, and determined to do everything in her power to help end WWII. It is eye opening how much power a small, young woman can have once she dares to take this power seriously!
I met Marthe and her husband Major in their house in Rancho Palos Verdes. She told me her story of being one of the most unlikely spies in history. She had to change her identity, become Martha Ulrich, German patriot, orphan, looking for her fiancé Hans, a missing soldier.
Marthe's sister had been arrested in their home in France by Gestapo and brought to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Her fiancé was executed by the Nazis for his work in the résistance. "Many Jews have fought against the Nazis. My mission now is to let people know about this." Marthe told me while she was serving tea and cookies.
Her spy mission started at the end of the war, in April 1945. She risked her life, was almost uncovered several times, but used her wit, humor and charme to escape dangerous situations. Marthe managed to gather invaluable information about movements of the German military, as well as about morale of the Germans which she swiftly transferred to the French army headquarters.
For decades she did not talk about this time. "First of all I thought nobody would believe me because I do not look like a spy." She told me. "And also: my story is not that unusual. A lot of people helped others during the war, and did what they could to defeat the Nazis."
Well, Marthe Cohn's story is one of the most unusual stories I have ever heard. I still sometimes cannot believe, what she did when I think of this tiny woman. But as soon as she starts to speak you know that she is not someone to mess with.
As fearless as she took on her mission in the war, she corrected any dates or locations I got wrong, and any military vocabulary that was not accurate.
Marthe is wonderful and inspiring to be around. She is now 97 and keeps travelling to share her story and to inspire especially young people. "I do not give advice to adults. But the young ones I tell: stay engaged. Each person can make a difference. But you have to stay engaged!"
What a great message for our times!