Even before she went behind enemy lines and spied on Nazi Germany in the closing months of World War II, Marthe Cohn lived in constant danger in her native France.
She and her family helped hundreds of Jews escape from the part of France that was occupied by the Nazis to the unoccupied Vichy region, she told more than 200 people who listened with rapt attention to her story last week.
After the Allied forces liberated France, she joined the French Army and because of her ability to speak fluent German, she was assigned to sneak into Germany and report on enemy troop movements.
Major Pasquale Russolillo, commander of Massachusetts State Police Troop A, introduced Cohn at the event last Thursday night at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill. He described her as “a very special person who helped change the world'' and as “the first female James Bond.”
Cohn said her orders during the war were to “bring back as much information as you can.'' After 13 unsuccessful attempts at getting into Germany, she was able to cross the border by entering through Switzerland, which was neutral during World War II.
She took on the identity of a German nurse who was looking for her fiancé.
“I was completely paralyzed by fear,” she said about when she entered Germany. She overcame that fear, however, and when she encountered a couple of German sentinels, “I raised my right hand and said, ‘Heil Hitler,’” she recalled.
She subsequently learned that the formidable Siegfried Line was “completely evacuated.'' She returned to France to report that information. The Siegfried Line was the name Allied troops dubbed fortifications constructed before World War II on Germany’s western frontier.
“I had no documents to prove who I was,” she said. Nevertheless, she was able to convince the Allied military authorities that she was a legitimate spy.
She then crossed into Germany again. This time, she learned that the remnants of the German Army, the Wehrmacht, were hiding in the Black Forest – ready to ambush the Allied forces.
She brought that information back to France. The intelligence she obtained helped shorten the war.
Cohn is 99, yet she held forth at last week's event for nearly two hours, talking about life in France during the Nazi occupation, as well as her espionage activity. She spoke while seated and her husband, Dr. Major Cohn, in an adjacent chair, helped her recall her wartime experiences.
“My husband is my prompter,” she said with a smile.
“How strong was your faith in God?” Russolillo asked, after she had finished telling her story.
“I have never been able to figure out where I stand,” she admitted, although she was one of seven siblings who were raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Metz, France.
Cynthia Janisch, of Manchester-By-The-Sea, said she was impressed with Cohn's "courage and her generosity.” She also noted that Cohn believes humans can be good despite the horrors that surrounded her, her family and her people.
Cohn said 75% of the Jews living in France survived the Nazi genocide because of the kindness and courage of non-Jews. Denmark saved 95% of the Jews living there, she added.
Robert Rockwood, an Army veteran who lives in Pelham, New Hampshire, said he was impressed with Cohn’s “drive to do what was best for the world.”
Cohn’s visit was arranged by Chabad of the Merrimack Valley. She and Wendy Holden co-authored “Behind Enemy Lines,” which tells her story in detail.