Marthe Misses Nothing
The Lady was a Spy
During World War II, Marthe Hoffnung was a French espionage agent in Nazi Germany, posing as Martha Ulrich, a 25-year-old ‘Fräulein’ whose cover story was that she needed to find her fiancé at the German front
“You should never accept to be kept under the boot of anybody; you have to fight back.”
Marthe Cohn (nee Hoffnung), was crouching in a forest, dressed in a skirt and jacket, with white socks covering her silk stockings. She took a deep breath and grabbed her suitcase, taking leave of Georges Lemaire, the Swiss intelligence officer who had accompanied her to this spot on the Swiss-German border. Marthe began crawling through the underbrush toward the stretch of road patrolled by two German sentries. She waited until they met midway and reversed direction, so their backs were to her.
This was her cue. She was to pose as Martha Ulrich, a German nurse searching for her fiancé, but she was suddenly paralyzed by fear, overcome by the enormity of her mission, so she just lay there for more than two hours. Then she thought about a captain named Mollat, the French officer who had overseen her previous 14 missions to infiltrate enemy territory, all unsuccessful, and who had doubted her abilities.
She rose, pulling herself up to her full 4-foot-11 height, and walked to the road. “Heil Hitler,” she greeted the sentry coming toward her, presenting her papers. “Go on your way,” he said.
It was April 11, 1945, two days before Marthe’s 25th birthday.
Marthe Cohn was an unlikely World War II spy. At just 4 feet, 11 inches, Cohn was petite with blonde hair and blue eyes. She was also Jewish. Never hesitant to resist an unjust cause, especially during the Nazi reign in World War II, she courageously risked everything and contributed to the Allies’ victory.
With her fair features and flawless German language skills, however, she was able to convince Nazi officers she posed no threat.
“I was now in Germany,” she said.
Cohn had no compass, map, radio or weapons, only clothes without labels and German money and vouchers.
“Everything I needed to know was in my memory,” she said with a smile. “I have a pretty good memory.”
Now 96 years old, Cohn said she feels compelled to travel around the country to share her story with others. “It’s important that people know that Jews fought,” she said. “We were not just waiting to be arrested.”
Marthe Cohn, born Marthe Hoffnung, was one of seven children, she was born on April 13, 1920, born near the Germany border in Metz, France into a Jewish Orthodox family where the laws of Jewish observance were a part of her everyday life. The discipline and routine of her religion also instilled the importance of education. She was in her late teens when Hitler was rising in power.
The Hoffnung-Glutgluck family – Fishel, Régine, their seven children, Régine’s mother Zipporah and Jacob Farber, a young relative who escaped from Germany – lived in Metz, where they ran a family business developing and framing photographs. Some of the older children worked in fashion and tailoring.
There was antisemitism in Metz, but very low-grade. In September 1939, before the war started, the French government demanded that the people who could afford to do so, move to Poitiers [400 miles to the southwest, and away from the German border]. My two brothers were in the French army; her oldest brother was on the Maginot Line and the youngest was in Tunisia, where he was doing his service, until 1940, then he was sent back because Jewish kids were not kept in the French army anymore. Marthe’s oldest brother was taken prisoner on the Maginot Line. He was in a camp in Strasbourg, and he overheard the Germans say that the next day they were going to be transferred to a camp in Germany so he escaped that night and he was able to come home. He joined them in Poitiers in December 1940.
The family had started a store in the beginning of 1940 in Poitiers which was closed in 1941 on orders of the Germans. Her oldest brother tried to escape from occupied France – Poitiers was in occupied France. He tried to cross at Bordeaux but he was caught and spent one month in prison in Poitiers. The Germans did not realize that he was an escaped prisoner of war and that he was Jewish. He came out of prison and escaped again and this time he made it. He got married in 1941 in Sainte Etienne, in unoccupied France.
The family stayed in Poitiers and the youngest brother, Arnold, escaped in the beginning of 1942 to non-occupied France because at that time, they were still very naïve and thought that only the young men were in danger. The rest of the family stayed in Poitiers.
Marthe and her sister, Stephanie, were helping a lot of people who wanted to escape to unoccupied France. They had the assistance of Noel Degout, a farmer in the small village of Dienne, near Poitiers, who helped thousands of people cross through his property, which was partially in both zones.
In 1941, Marthe Hoffnung, aged 21, enrolled in a nursing school affiliated with the Red Cross. She was the only Jewish student at the school, but her instructors assured her that she would not be discriminated against, as they vehemently rejected the Vichy-imposed anti-Jewish sanctions. Over the following year, Marthe became close friends with a fellow student, Odile de Morin.
Meanwhile, Marthe’s family began to make plans to escape to the unoccupied southern zone of France, an exceedingly difficult endeavour. Two obstacles to their plan were the family’s substantial size and Régine’s 80-year-old mother, who found it difficult to travel. A third issue was the watchful eyes of the Germans, who were actively trying to prevent Jews from fleeing to the southern “free” zone; they knew all the city’s Jews, and checked house-by-house each evening to ensure each one was accounted for.
June 1942: Every evening, German SS officers would hammer on the door of the Hoffnung family’s home in Rue Riffault, Poitiers. This was occupied France and the Hoffnungs were Jewish.
Led by Adjutant Wilhelm Hipp, the officers would visit Jewish homes to ensure that they were complying with the various rules and curfews that had been imposed. Any deviation from these rules and regulations could mean imprisonment.
The Hoffnungs were a large family – there were seven siblings, their parents and their grandmother. Usually, Hipp inspected them, made sure everyone was accounted for and checked for any regulations they might be contravening before abruptly departing to go to inspect the next household on his list. But this evening was different.
“Which one is Stephanie?” he barked
Twenty year old Stephanie, who had recently been ill, stood up unsteadily.”I am” she said. Hipp grabbed her by the arm and told her she was under arrest. His fellow-Nazis had their weapons at the ready. The Hofflung family watched helplessly as Stephanie was led away.
Stephanie was taken to Gestapo headquarters and interrogated. For some time, the entire Hofflung family had been helping Jews to escape to the Free Zone, thanks to local farmers whose lands bordered the demarcation line. Stephanie had sent a note to one of these farmers, M. Degout, and signed her own name. The Germans had discovered the letter, implicating her. But Stephanie refused to give way under interrogation.
Stephanie had been studying medicine. She was sent to Poitiers jail and categorized as a political prisoner. Despite her young age and frail health she became the leader of her fellow inmates and tried to keep their morale up and their bodies in good health.
A month later she was moved to an interment camp just outside the town and now she was allowed one visitor per month. It wasn’t too bad at first because it was controlled by the French police but the Gestapo took over and conditions deteriorated quickly. Stephanie’s health became worse and her sister Marthe went to see her captor, the dreaded Hipp. She pleaded with him to allow Stephanie to have medicine or medical treatment. He absolutely refused.
Marthe visited her sister to tell her about the plan. But Stephanie refused to leave. She said:
“I can’t leave here, I have an important job to do. Besides, if I escaped, Hipp would arrest the whole family and throw you all in here too. So what would be the point of that?”
Marthe refused to give up. She arranged for the whole family to escape to the Free Zone. Once they were out of the way and safe from Hipp, there was nothing to prevent Stephanie from escaping too. Stephanie agreed to escape once her family were safe. Her plan hinged on her being sent to the prison hospital where the doctor planned to help her escape.
After months of careful arrangements, the family’s escape plan was in place. The evening before their planned departure in August 1942, however, they received an unexpected knock on the door. It was Marthe’s friend Odile, who told them in a panic that a large wave of arrests was planned for that very night. She insisted that the family stay with her that evening. The Hoffnungs declined, pointing out the great risk to Odile and her family. Odile refused to leave without them, and eventually she persuaded them to come with her. Taking only the most basic necessities, they left their home and somehow managed to make their way to Odile’s home in the midst of a stringently enforced German curfew. After a quiet night, Odile prepared breakfast and packed provisions for the Hoffnung family. Most of the family left that morning, and in the afternoon, Odile, Régine and her mother Zipporah navigated the heavily patrolled streets to the bus station at the edge of town.
Thanks to Odile’s determination and courage, seven members of the Hoffnung family successfully escaped to the southern free zone.
When Hipp had gone to inspect the Hoffnung household to carry out his usual inspection and found that they had fled, he went straight to the camp. He saw Stephanie waiting to be transferred to hospital and ordered that she was not to go. He had her transferred to a much more rigid and secure camp near Paris.
Stephanie was then transferred yet again to Pithiviers. There she managed to get a letter out to her family via a nurse who risked her own life to smuggle it from the camp. She wrote that the camp was terribly over-crowded and that there was little to eat. Then, Marthe received a letter from her fiancé, Jacques Delaunay, telling her that on September 21st Stephanie had been moved to an ‘unknown location’.
Marthe Hoffnung was distraught, not knowing where her sister had been sent. She and her fiancé, Jacques, were determined to make a difference. Their beloved France was overrun and ruled by Nazis and they felt that they couldn’t stand by without doing something. Marthe was trying hard to join the Resistance and Jacques and his brother Marc were quietly undermining the German war effort.
Jacques and Marc were both imprisoned for attacking a train loaded with German armaments. Both young men were executed by a firing squad.
Marthe’s young life was full of the effects of anguish but she faced them with fortitude in an effort to survive.
Marthe was now even more determined. Her fiancé was dead and she had no idea where her sister was.
After graduating as a registered nurse in Marseille in September 1943, Marthe moved to Paris to live with her oldest sister Cecile.
Paris was liberated in August 1944 and she tried immediately to join the army and was able to do it only in November 1944. She was engaged at the time to Jacques Delaunay. His mother Madame Delaunay, had come to Paris to tell her that Jacques and his brother had been executed by the Germans on Oct. 6, 1943, at Fort Mont-Valérien, the worst prison in Paris. Her husband was in Buchenwald. Madame Delaunay was respected by the resistance fighters as she had lost both her sons — including Cohn’s fiancé — and her husband during the war.
“She vouched to the army that I was a decent person,” said Cohn, who joined the army as a nurse in November 1944. “So Marthe was finally accepted.”
Marthe joined the army as a nurse, but when she arrived in November 1944 the front was in Alsace. She went by bus from Paris to the front, and was the only girl on the bus. After arriving in a small village very late at night she was debriefed by a captain of intelligence.
Every regiment in the war had at least one intelligence officer from the Second Bureau of the General Staff. He asked Marthe what she had done in the Resistance and she told him about the work she was doing with Stephanie and he said that it didn’t impress him at all.
Marthe had never been able to join the Resistance because after being interviewed by several groups in Paris and they never took the young girl seriously: She was very short and slim, very blond with blue eyes and light skin, and they took her for a bimbo and never trusted or accepted her.
The captain said, “You should have gone out into the street and killed a German. “As much as Marthe hated the Germans at that time, she was unable to do that, and told him, “I’m a nurse, I take care of patients, I don’t kill people” and he said, “You see, you’re not fit to be in the army.” Marthe said, “The headquarters in Paris assigned me to your regiment; I’m going to stay.”
He said, “I don’t need nurses, I have enough nurses. You are going to be a social worker.”
Marthe had no background as a social worker, but in the army, if they tell you you’re a social worker, that’s what you are. The next morning she decided to go to see her troops at the front. She crossed a little forest and at the other side, there was a narrow canal. The troops were on the western side of the canal.
Marthe entered the foxholes of the troops, who were very surprised because they had never seen a social worker in their foxholes. They were asking for underwear, socks, food, writing and reading materials, and the villagers gave her whatever they could give me. She went every day for several weeks to the front to bring whatever she could.
One day, crossing the village square, Marthe met Col. Pierre Fabien, who had been a huge hero of the Resistance. He killed the first German in 1942 during the occupation, in the Barbès Metro station. He had put together a huge group of Resistance in Paris and they had fought so well against the Germans during the last two weeks of the German occupation before the French and American troops came in that Genl. Degaulle and Genl. de Lattre de Tassigny, who commanded the French 1st Army, decided to incorporate the whole group as a regular regiment in the army. That was the regiment that she had been assigned to. Col. Fabien asked her to answer his phone during his lunch break.
That’s how your life changes. Marthe went with him and he showed her around and he said, “I’m sorry: I have nothing for you to read here; there are only German books,” and she said, “I read German fluently,” and he asked if she spoke German and Marthe said yes.
He explained that men could not go into Germany on missions because all males from the age of 12 to old age were all in the army in uniform and any men in civilian clothes in the streets of Germany would immediately be arrested. And that’s why they desperately needed women who spoke German to go on missions to Germany. He asked Marthe if I would accept a transfer to the intelligence service of the French 1st Army. She accepted and he left and Marthe sat down and wondered in what predicament I had put myself in. But it was too late.
She had now become a highly valuable spy behind enemy lines. Marthe, well-educated and bilingual in French and German, was recruited into the intelligence service of the French 1st Army, commanded by Marshal of France, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny.
Two or three days later, she was picked up and taken to Mulhouse [northeastern France] and underwent extremely intensive training for what she was going to do. Marthe was assigned in January 1945 to the French army commanders in northern Africa, who were overseen by Col. Bouvet. From December 1944, the Germans were desperately fighting in Alsace to prevent the Allied Powers to enter Germany. That was the last resort, and they were unable to dislodge them and had huge losses. On the morning of the day she met the commanders in northern Africa they had lost 182 dead and had a lot of wounded. Col. Bouvet immediately asked her to interrogate prisoners of war because he needed to get information for the French 1st Army on the plan of retreat of the German army from Alsace to Germany. Marthe interrogated German colonels and generals and obtained important information. She can boast about it because it’s written in one of the citations of her Croix de Guerre, which is a medal she received on the front in 1945 from Col. Bouvet.
After that, the captain in charge of their “antenna” – the intelligence name for the group – decided that she would go into Germany directly from Switzerland. Switzerland was neutral but they had helped the Germans as long as the Germans were successful; now that they were successful, they were helping them. Marthe was taken by an agent, “Mr. LeMer,” to Schaffhausen, very close to Germany near the Rhone River. They came to a small forest and walked through it. On the other side was a huge field and then a road. The forest and the field were Switzerland and the road was Germany, controlled by two armed German sentinels. One came from the eastern edge of the field and walked toward the middle; the other sentinel came from the west, met him in the middle, they talked for a few seconds, turned around, and walked back to the edges. Mr. LeMer told her that, toward evening, she have would to crawl along the edge of the field when both sentinels had their backs turned, and then walk along the road.
Marthe had no arms, maps, radio, nothing written, not even a flashlight. Everything she needed to know was in her memory. She took her little suitcase, which contained only a change of clothes, and started crawling along the field and hid behind the bushes. Until then, everything was fine. But once behind the bushes, she suddenly realized the immensity of what she was going to undertake and became so terrified that she was completely paralyzed by fear and it took Marthe a very long time to overcome the fear. Finally, she got up when the two soldiers had met, separated, and turned their backs to her, and she walked down the road.
There were no barriers to separate the field from the road. She walked toward the east until one of the soldiers came back towards her, and she raised her right arm and said, “Heil Hitler,” and he asked for Marthe for her identity papers. She was now called Marthe Ulrich. He looked at her papers, gave them back, and she was now in Germany.
Marthe used endless stamina trudging through fields, mountains, night and snow to achieve her mission. Her acute acumen and intuition saved her life more than once. Sizing people up, asserting herself when needed, acting demur when needed and telling a story that would encourage people to help achieve her goal, Marthe gathered valuable information. Sometimes she had no idea what would happen next, but with a level head she forged on. When her nerves immobilized her, she used patience and focus to bring her to a state where she could function intelligently. Once over the border between Switzerland and Germany, Marthe reached the safe house that was provided by the French intelligence. She was a pleasant German woman whose husband was missing in action and was pleased to have the company.
Marthe could relate to this woman’s experience because Marthe’s fiancé had been captured and executed by the Germans in 1943. The woman noticed Marthe’s torn stockings and was suspicious that Marthe was a spy having crossed the fields at the nearby border. Petite, angelic, blue-eyed, and blonde, Marthe looked herself down and up, then turned to her hostess, and with a big jovial laugh said, “Do I look like a spy?” That was enough to elude the woman. But Marthe realized she needed to carry on with her mission and soon afterwards the woman was helping Marthe board a train to Freiburg.
Marthe first learned that the Siegfried Line near Frieburg had been completely evacuated by the German Army – an essential piece of information for the French army. Second, Marthe discovered the exact location where the remnant of the German Army was hidden in ambush in the Black Forest. Not having had the time to code the message, these two vital bits of information were sent in a letter written, in French, to the French Army Intelligence via the Swiss Intelligence Service. As her courier was not available for several days, Marthe decided to cross into Switzerland and hand her message to a Swiss Custom Guard After crossing the Swiss border, she was mistakably led to a German guard post. Fortunately the guards were sleeping, and Marthe realizing the danger was able to flee and reach the Swiss custom officer to whom she confided the letter containing the vital information. The receipt of this news was instrumental in the war. As a result, Marthe Cohn, known by her undercover name as Lenotre, became a decorated hero.
She was still in Germany when the war ended, still performing valuable work, and after the war, her heroism continued as she served as a nurse on the front lines of Vietnam.
When Jacques was executed, Marthe Hoffnung vowed that she would never marry but in 1953 she met American Major Lewis Cohn and they married in the States in 1958.
In 1970 Marthe became Major Cohn, M.D., Ph. D. assistant in Neuroscience Research. The professional collaboration lasted until 1999 when Marthe retired. Marthe has two sons and is sought after to speak around the world about her experiences.
Through it all, she evidenced an optimism. “I do not wish for another life,” she has said. “You seldom live history the way we did.” Asked about her upbeat perspective, she offered this: “Why wouldn’t I be an optimist when so many people risked their lives to save me? It changed my outlook on life.”
It wasn’t until years after the end of World War II that Marthe Cohn, learned what happened to her sister.
Marthe received a letter from her brother who had discovered that the ‘unknown destination’ to which Stephanie had been sent was Auschwitz. The convoy of 1258 prisoners from Pithiviers – men, women and children – had arrived at Auschwitz on September 23rd, 1942.
On arrival, 150 men were selected to be transported elsewhere. Sixty five were chosen for labouring gangs within the Auschwitz camp. Of the women, 144 were selected for work. The others were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
Those who were not gassed were treated with the utmost cruelty. Of the men, women and children on Stephanie’s convoy, only twenty three survived. Stephanie was not one of them. Marthe’s family had no way of knowing whether Stephanie was one of the group that were immediately sent to the gas chambers but they chose to believe that she was, due to her ill health. They preferred to think that she had been unwittingly led to her death (for ‘de-lousing’) rather than suffer a slow and painful end in the horrors of the camp.
Years later, when Marthe’s parents died, she and her siblings had Stephanie’s name engraved on their headstone.
“Underneath that stone is a handful of earth scooped up from the notorious Polish concentration camp”.
Marthe Cohn said she’s gratified that so many people are interested in hearing her story today and she will tell it for as long as she’s able. She especially enjoys speaking to groups of high school and college students, for whom she has just two pieces of advice:
“I tell them ‘be engaged and do not accept any order that does not agree with your conscience.’”
Today, there is a doctor working in Illinois – the son of Marthe and Major Cohn.
His parents named him Stephan Jacques in memory of Marthe’s lost sister and executed fiancé.
Marthe is a highly educated woman who fought for Jewish rights in high school and later became a registered nurse (in France in 1943; in Switzerland in 1954), then a nurse-anaesthetist, (graduating in 1958 as a Certified Nurse Anaesthetist from Barnes Hospital, Washington University, St. Louis, MI). She practiced nursing while serving three years in the French Vietnam War and later, anaesthesia in the United States (New York, NY; Minneapolis, MN; Pittsburgh, PA; since 1979) in Los Angeles, California.
Awards and Honours
Croix de Guerre, 1945
Médaille militaire, 1999
Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, 2002
Woman of Valor, from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, 2002
Medaille of the Reconnaissance de la Nation, 2006
The Cross of the Order of Merit, Germany’s Highest Honour