French Jewish spy draws big crowds

French spy and Holocaust survivor Marthe Cohn — telling the remarkable story of how she crossed into Nazi Germany during World War II by posing as a German nurse seeking her fictional fiancé — drew large audiences at five Bay Area appearances this month.

Marthe Cohn photo/david spieler

A crowd of 500 packed the Bankhead Theater in downtown Livermore on March 17 to hear Cohn, 94, the author of “Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany.” She also drew 350 to the Orinda Theatre, 200 to the Berkeley City Club and a Vacaville hotel, and 175 at Liberty High School in Brentwood.

Invited by several local Chabad chapters, Cohn, a resident of Palos Verdes Estates in Southern California, spoke in vivid detail about her work as an undercover spy for the French army. Blond, blue-eyed and fluent in German, she gathered intelligence for the Allied advance in 1945 after sneaking into Nazi Germany at age 24, on her 13th attempt. She is also credited with helping to save countless French citizens during the war, although her sister was killed at Auschwitz.

Some of her medals, including Simon Wiesenthal Center Medal of Valor­­ photo/david spieler

The local appearances were packed with emotion. In Liver-more, Aaron Latkin, a local 92-year-old who helped liberate Ohrdruf, the first concentration camp captured by U.S. forces, presented Cohn with a mayoral proclamation, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “La Marseillaise” played over the sound system.

Cohn has received France’s highest military honor, the Médaille Militaire, the Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a number of other honors. However, she didn’t talk about her wartime adventures for nearly 50 years after the fact.

“I always felt that people wouldn’t believe me,” Cohn told the Los Angeles Times 15 years ago. “They would think it was tall tales.” Her story became widely known when “Behind Enemy Lines” was published in 2002. — j. staff