The German woman had been hospitable when Marthe Hoffnung had arrived late the night before. The next morning, though, she was suspicious of the woman she had given a place to stay. It was the tail end of World War II, and the German woman had tossed and turned all night worrying that her guest with the torn stockings had crawled across the nearby Swiss border as a spy.
She had and she was.
So, Hoffnung laughed. “Do I look like a spy?” she asked. After a moment, the German woman also started to laugh. “No, you don’t,” she agreed.
That was just one of many close calls, for the now 97-year-old Marthe Cohn. To the world she was a German nurse searching for her fiancé. In reality she was a Jew and a spy for the French army — one who was never arrested and never detected.
Now, Cohn tells her story almost weekly and travels all over the world to do so. She even wrote a book on the subject in 2002 called “Behind Enemy Lines.” On Tuesday, she came to Olney to speak to a sold-out crowd of about 500 at the Olney Theatre.
In a telephone interview, Cohn said she was born just after World War I in the French city of Metz, in a territory that belonged alternately to France and Germany. After Germany’s defeat in the World War I, Metz became French again, but the family remained fluent in German, a fact that aided the future spy.
During World War II, Hoffnung trained as a nurse while she and her family lived under false identity papers in France. After Paris was liberated in August 1944, she joined French army as a social worker.
But when a French officer discovered she could speak and read German fluently, he offered her a transfer to the intelligence service, which she readily accepted.
Because German men were serving in Hitler’s military, any male spy posing as a German was likely to be found out, Cohn said. That’s why women spies were sought after. After training, Hoffnung crawled across the border from Switzerland into Germany, just as her German hostess feared she had.
And Hoffnung got results. Upon discovering the Siegfried Line — a fortified German line of defensive forts and tanks — had been evacuated, she relayed the information to Allied forces at Freiburg, which had been abandoned by residents in the face of Allied invasion. As a spy, she had no documentation to prove which side she was on. So when a tank approached, she stood in the middle of the street and held up her fingers in the Allies’ “V for Victory” sign.
“And because I’m extremely lucky, the tank stopped and did not kill me,” she said. “And I asked for the officer in charge and — lucky again — it was the French who invaded Freiburg. If it had been an English-speaking army, I don’t know what I would have done because I did not speak English yet.”
Hoffnung also took advantage of the Nazis’ racism and sexism to discover another key piece of information. When she happened upon a German military ambulance, she spoke to the colonel in charge, complaining — in her guise as a German woman — that she was scared of the French forces because their ranks included dark-skinned Tunisians.
The colonel reassured her that remaining German forces were lying in wait in the Black Forest for the Allied forces. Hearing this, Hoffnung returned to Switzerland to pass along this information to her intelligence chief, not even bothering to encode it for speed.
In the post-war years, she got married and moved to the United States — she lives in the Los Angeles area — and did not talk at all about her espionage. People wanted to move on with their lives, she said, and no one wanted to relive the war.
But in 1996, she saw an advertisement for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation that urged those who had fought the Germans in World War II to come forward. So, she decided it was time. She gave testimony to both the Shoah Foundation and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She’s been telling her story ever since and has even been decorated with several major French military awards.
“Nobody knows what one’s legacy will be,” she said. “I just hope people will be inclined to act and to be engaged and not to just sit down and wait for other people to do it. And that one person can make a change, a lot of change. If that person is really willing to do it.”
Cohn’s appearance was sponsored by B’nai Shalom of Olney, Chabad of Olney and Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah Congregation of Olney.