A Sixth Sense for Danger: The Marthe Hoffnung Cohn Story

A Jewish nurse spying in Nazi Germany

Picture of registered nurse Marthe Cohn on the left, the cover of the book in the center, and then a few photos of clips of the movie on the right

Marthe Hoffnung Cohn was an Orthodox Jewish nurse from Alsace-Lorraine who went underground to evade Nazi capture. She worked behind enemy lines as a spy for French military intelligence, and later set up a field hospital in Indochina, where she had to learn anesthesia from a manual.

This is her amazing true story.

Hazardous Crossings

Seventy years after the fact, Marthe Cohn tells the story with a slight smile on her lips, although it is no laughing matter:

“Then, my footing gave way beneath me and I plunged feet first through thin ice into a canal. I went completely under, breaking through before bobbing back up, gasping for air. The water was as cold as death. ‘Come on, Marthe, keep trying,’ I told myself angrily. The temptation to give up and sink back into the water was becoming greater and greater. Closing my eyes, head down, I gave myself one final push on my arms and collapsed on my side into a drift.”

This harrowing incident was only one of her 15 attempts to cross from France into Germany in early 1945. Although she trained as nurse, Cohn — born Marthe Hoffnung — spent the final year of World War II in a far more perilous role: as an agent of French military intelligence, interrogating captured Nazis and conducting surveillance behind enemy lines.

France Falls: Military police scream “Juden raus!”: “Jews Out!”

Alsace-Lorraine is an area west of the Rhine River, which separates France from Germany. Over the years, control of this region has passed between the two countries with surprising frequency. Until 1939, Marthe Hoffnung’s large, “very Orthodox” Jewish family lived in Metz, an industrial city in western Lorraine, about 80 miles northwest of Strasbourg. When she was young, her parents spoke only German, but Marthe and her siblings were bilingual, shifting easily from German to French and back again. This bilingualism, routine for the area and the era, was to serve her well in the years to come.

Just before the outbreak of World War II, the French government directed the Hoffnungs and other Jewish families to move to Poitiers, in western France. At first, life was relatively smooth, but with the fall of France in June 1940 and the ensuing German occupation, most French people soon felt intolerable pressure, from curfews to rationing.

The Jewish population was particularly hard hit. Under the occupation, French Jews faced barriers to employment, were stripped of legal rights and were prohibited from using public facilities or owning radios. Before long, outright threats to their life and freedom became commonplace.

The Hoffnung family business was seized and, in August 1941, Marthe was sacked from her new job at the city hall by German military police officers screaming, “Juden raus!”: “Jews out.” In that climate, envisioning a new career was an act of faith. Marthe chose nursing, in part because her fiancé, Jacques Delauney, a medical student, dreamt that they could work together after the war.

Escape to Vichy: Stephanie Hoffnung is arrested and sent to Auschwitz

Marthe began her nursing training at a nearby Red Cross school run by the nuns of les Sœurs de la Sagesse. At first, things went well. She was under the protection of the head of the school, Mademoiselle Margnat, who knew that Marthe was Jewish and hid the young woman from the German soldiers who periodically came to the hospital to arrest patients.

At the end of her first year, however, Marthe was forced to quit school. In June 1942, German security police had arrested her sister Stephanie, a medical student, for resistance activities and were now holding her in a camp near Poitiers.

Hoping to facilitate Stephanie’s escape, Marthe organized the successful passage of the rest of her family in Poitiers to Vichy, the then-unoccupied French puppet state headed by Philippe Pétain. Nonetheless, in September 1942, Stephanie was deported in a convoy headed for Auschwitz. The family spent years wondering if she had survived, but she was never heard from again.

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Help from a Friend: “I can’t just stand by and watch”

The Hoffnungs’ successful departure from Poitiers owed much to the courage of Marthe’s former coworker Albert Charpentier, a city clerk who, at the risk of his own life and the lives of his family, volunteered to provide her entire family with new identity cards lacking the JUIVE/JUIF stamp.

“I’m doing this because it is what I can do — something has to be done to save people like you,” Charpentier told Marthe. “If I can help one family escape from the Germans, then I will. I can’t just stand by and watch what’s happening. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t at least try.”

Nursing School: Jacques Delauney is executed for Resistance involvement

After leaving Poitier, Marthe attempted to continue her training as a nurse. However, even in Red Cross facilities, she faced considerable discrimination. The director of the Red Cross school in Montpellier refused to admit her altogether. Another school in Pithiviers admitted her only under duress and attempted to make her presence untenable. “They treated me terribly, you know,” Marthe said later. “I was there against their will and they hated Jews.”

Despite these obstacles, she succeeded in finishing her training. “The patients loved me because they said I was always smiling,” she later recalled. The school administration gradually warmed to her as well. “Finally, they were even very nice to me after. I never thought I could finish, but I did.”

Around the time she took her licensing exams in November 1943, she received another harsh blow: Her fiancé, Jacques Delauney, had been arrested and executed by the Germans for being a member of the Resistance.

Paris Under the Occupation: Lying, hiding and continually moving to evade arrest

With her nursing credentials in hand, Marthe moved to Paris to live with her sister Cecile. They joined the 175,000 Jews who remained there even as the city became the seat of the German military administration.

Life in Paris was difficult. Shortages abounded. Roundups and deportations became grim realities that Marthe and her sister managed to evade thanks to their appearance, quick wits and what Marthe describes as “my sixth sense” for danger.

Employment was tricky. Nursing jobs were abundant, but working in a hospital presented too much risk of exposure as a Jew. Instead, through an agency, Marthe found a job caring for an elderly woman. She and her sister maintained a routine of frequent moves and constant vigilance. Every time someone was arrested who knew where they lived, Cecile and Marthe fled to a new location.

Being a woman was no protection. “We always felt at that time that men were much more in danger than we were,” she recalled in a later interview. “But in reality, the Germans arrested the women, and tortured and killed the women the same way.”

Becoming a Spy: German fluency is a ticket behind enemy lines

The liberation of Paris in 1944 gave Marthe the opportunity she had been seeking to fight back. The war continued to rage in other areas and, that August, she was able to enlist in the French Army. She wanted to serve as a nurse, but the captain of her regiment refused to make her an officer because of her lack of formal resistance activity. (He thought she should have killed a German soldier!) He instead made her a sergeant and ordered her to serve as a social worker for the troops.

It was only by accident that Resistance hero Col. Pierre Fabien learned of Marthe’s fluency in German. That discovery changed everything. “They had not so many people who spoke German absolutely fluently,” she later explained. She was first assigned to interrogate Nazi officers captured in North Africa, but in early 1945, after training in map-reading, recognition of Nazi equipment and assorted spycraft, she embarked on the more dangerous mission of infiltrating German territory to send back information to the French command.

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Just crossing the German border was far from easy and it was only on her 15th attempt that she finally succeeded. Once in Germany, she posed as “Marthe Ulrich,” a young nurse searching for her POW boyfriend Hans and fleeing from the Allies. “The Germans are so sentimental for these types of things,” she later remarked. To complete the story, she was equipped with photos, love letters and of course, her fluent German. (“I had a Lorraine accent, but I had always said I was from Lorraine,” she noted later.)

The information she garnered in deceptively casual conversations with German soldiers and civilians, like an SS man who boasted that he could smell Jews, proved decisive: She learned that the Nazis were retreating from the area near Freiburg and abandoning the Siegfried Line. She later discovered an imminent ambush by a remnant of the Nazi Wehrmacht, which awaited the advancing Allies in the depths of the Black Forest.

The work demanded sheer nerve and persistence. In one frightening incident, Marthe was arrested and almost shot by French soldiers who believed she was a German spy.

Indochina and Another War: A crash course in anesthesia

At war’s end, Marthe received the Croix de Guerre for her intelligence work. Deciding she enjoyed army life, she volunteered for an assignment to French Indochina (today the nations of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), this time as a nurse. It would be a connection to her dead fiancé, who had been raised there — a chance to fulfill one of his dreams.

When she arrived in early 1946, the French forces in Indochina were focused on mopping up the remains of the Imperial Japanese Army. Late that year, however, Ho Chi Minh began his fight for independence from colonial control.

Soon, Marthe was once again at war. Conditions were more primitive than in France and Germany and the fighting produced a constant stream of casualties. Snipers kept everyone on alert.

Working primarily as a surgical nurse, she was — almost inevitably — required to perform well beyond what her training had provided. She even had to set up an entire field hospital. “I found all the equipment and all the supplies,” she said later.

When a colleague refused a transfer, she was given a book to study and ordered to administer anesthesia. “Here, read this,” her team head said. “Concentrate on the sections dealing with intravenous Pentothal and the administration of ether with the masque d’Ombrédanne [a type of anesthesia inhaler invented by surgeon Louis Ombrédanne]. You’ll be fine.” Remarkably, she was. She never lost a patient.

A Return to Normal Life: “I am a nurse. I could never kill anyone.”

When offered a chance to resume her intelligence work, Marthe demurred. “No, thank you. My days as a spy are over. I’m a nurse now. It’s what I do best,” she said.

Nursing and caring for others defined her in a profound way. Not only did she find herself helping even when it would have been easier not to, she also experienced the discomfort of seeing others suffering, even if they were the enemy.She told one officer, “I am a nurse. I could never kill anyone.” As she explains now, “Certain callings demand certain behavior.”

Marthe left Indochina exhausted in December 1948. After five years back in Poitiers, she moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where she met her future husband, an American medical student, Major L. Cohn. They moved to the U.S. in 1956, where she went to work at Newark Beth Israel Hospital in New Jersey.

For many years, Marthe never spoke of her exploits. Her two sons knew nothing of her wartime activity, and even her husband had only the sketchiest of notions.

Many years later, in 1998, while visiting family in France, she decided to try to reclaim the French citizenship she had relinquished when she became a citizen of the United States. Along with that, she applied for the Medaille Militaire, a senior military honor given for meritorious service and acts of bravery in action. This was bestowed in a Beverly Hills hotel by the French consul on Bastille Day, July 14, 2000.

“I considered then and I believe now that I accepted that medal for Jacques and for every single member of my family, alive and dead, who were all as brave as, if not braver than, me,” she says.

Bearing Witness: A book and a documentary tell her story to the world

In 2002, Marthe published a book about her exploits, Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany, written with Wendy Holden. In 2005, it was translated into French and in 2018, it appeared in German.

Marthe is also the subject of a soon-to-be released documentary, Chichinette: The Accidental Spy, directed by Nicola Hens. It is a crowdfunded German-French production that has been at least three years in the making. You can see the trailer on YouTube and hear Marthe speak in her beautiful, lilting French-accented English.

Even now, at the age of 98, you can hear just a hint of the steel — enough to help you understand how she was able to shoulder great risk, deceive her adversaries and triumph against all odds.

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN, is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Hanink is retiring and this is her last article for Working Nurse. She has been a staff writer for over a decade and has contributed many of our most enlightening and important pieces, such as this one. She has had a profound influence on this magazine and will be greatly missed.

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