World War II Spy, Author Shares Experiences in Phnom Penh

As a young Jewish woman in France during World War II, there was no time to be frightened, 91-year-old author and former spy Marthe Hoffnung Cohn said Mon­day evening, addressing an auditorium of 200 students at the campus of Cambodia’s Pannasastra Uni­versity in Phnom Penh.

Ms Cohn, who published “Be­hind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany” in 2002, is in Cambodia for a two-day speaking tour sponsored by Pannasastra University.

With her family forced out of their home and her sister murdered at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, the young blonde-haired, blue-eyed Cohn joined the French First Army in early 1945.

“I got into an agency of nurses…but after the liberation of France, I decided to join the army,” she told the students, adding that she had initially been given an inactive role as a social worker, but after her colonel realized she could speak German, she was transferred to intelligence, where she began training as a spy.

“I was asked to interrogate prisoners of war, east of Toulouse [in France] and I never questioned anyone in my life [before], but I was able to get some very important information about how the Germans were retreating,” she said.

After only a few weeks as an intelligence officer, she was asked to go undercover into Germany by way of the Alsace in France. She failed 13 times, but after a change in approach, she finally made it into Germany through Switzerland.

Behind a forest near an open field that leads into Germany, she waited for an opportunity to sneak past German sentries guarding the area.

“They told me: ‘At night, you are going to crawl on the field, and hide between the bushes by the wall, and when the soldiers turn their back to me, go east,’” she said. “I was so afraid. I just couldn’t get the courage to get up. They told me that if I was ar­rested, there was nothing they could do to help me, so I lied there behind the bushes for a very long time, but finally, I got up.”

“However, a soldier caught me, so I lifted my arm and said, ‘Heil Hitler.’ He asked me for my pa­pers, and I had no idea how good my papers were. He gave them back to me, and then I was in Germany,” she said.

Though the war finally ended, her job was not finished. Ms Cohn served in the French army as a nurse in Indochina from 1946 to 1948.

In 1946, Ms Cohn spent nine months in Phnom Penh working as a nurse at a military hospital, which today stands as Calmette Hospital.

“It was a military hospital then,” she said. “I had one male nurse and took care of a big ward of Cambodian soldiers, and it was very difficult because at that time, the Royal family was staying with the soldiers at the hospital, and they were cooking at the foot of the bed. You know, as a French girl, that was a real experience.”

Ms Cohn has received numerous medals and distinctions, including the French Croix de Guerre, with two silver stars, and also the Medaille Militaire, which was conferred by then-French President Jacques Chirac, and the Medal of Valor by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a museum focusing on the history of the Holocaust, and the order “La re­connaissance de la Nation” (for services rendered during World War II).

Ms Cohn will give a second lecture tonight at the Panna­sastra University in Siem Reap at 6 pm.



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