WASHINGTON -- Marthe Hoffnung Cohn is 84 years old now and hard of hearing. Her white hair and petite frame -- all 4 feet 7½ inches of her -- suggest an innocent demeanor. But behind the twinkling eyes is a penchant for observation that marked her past occupation.
She 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. That she was French made the journey dangerous. That she was Jewish heightened the peril. But she was blond and blue-eyed and fluent in German. And she was good at the assignment -- getting Nazi soldiers to tell her where their frontline soldiers were and then getting word to French First Army Intelligence through Swiss conduits.
On Thursday, nearly 60 years after she first crossed the border into Germany clutching "a small suitcase and nothing else -- no radio, no maps, no compass, nothing but my wits," France will bestow on her one of its highest honors, the Legion d'Honneur, created by Napoleon Bonaparte to reward gallantry in military action or distinguished service in military or civilian life that enhances the reputation of France.
En route to Paris, the Rancho Palos Verdes [California] resident stopped in Washington, D.C., to appear at the International Spy Museum, where she signed copies of her 2002 book, "Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany." Amid an unprecedented crowd -- museum officials said the turnout of 100 was six times the usual audience for book signings there -- she was asked why it took her so long to tell her story.
"It's not modesty," she said, in an accent that still, after a half-century of living in the United States, sounds European. "I just thought nobody would believe me. Spies are usually tall and good-looking. I am a very unlikely spy."
The story of this unlikely spy began in Metz, France, part of the region of Alsace-Lorraine so close to the German border that her parents spoke only German. She learned French at school. Hoffnung Cohn grew up amid a tight-knit Jewish family of seven children. Her father, Fischel, ran a photo finishing and enlarging business. Her mother, Regine, was, like her, small, blond and pretty. During the war, Cohn's younger sister, Stephanie, was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz, where the family believes she died.
The others were spared by the decision to abandon their home for the south of France and by a neighbor who made them identification papers that did not bear the dreaded notation that they were Jewish. Living in France under German occupation, they survived, aided by her older brother Fred's work in the Resistance. "He made all the right decisions, which kept them alive," she said. Cohn's older sister, Cecile, who now lives in Geneva, will also attend the Legion d'Honneur ceremony this week.
Cohn did not take up spying until late in the war, after the Germans left France, when she joined the army as a nurse. When the commander of the 151st Regiment, to which she was assigned, learned she spoke fluent German, he asked her to join the Army Intelligence Service. It seemed to suit her.
There were, she relates in her book, close calls, like the woman in Singer, Germany, who became suspicious and asked her point-blank if she was a spy. Cohn said she laughed and said, "Do I look like a spy?" to which the woman could only laugh in return. Another time, awakened quickly by German hosts, she started prattling on in French. Their looks of horror told her she had to escape, and she did.
There were moments of near comedy. Terrified of her first mission on German soil, she watched the border with a tall, slim intelligence officer. Crouching near the border, the officer suggested that since "you may well die tonight, why not have a good time first?" She declined.
There were intelligence coups -- a German officer gave her the exact location of the remnants of the German army in the Black Forest in 1945 -- and near calamities, as when she knocked on the door of the German guard shack instead of the Swiss one while trying to relay the information.
And there were moments of enormous pain, as when she learned that her real fiancé, Jacques Delauney, had been executed by the Germans for his work in the French Resistance. And later, after the war, when she served as a nurse in Vietnam, she was forced to part company with a 7-year-old orphan, Serge Lenay. For more than a year, Serge had regarded her as his mother and she had lavished him with affection. But his grandmother in France demanded his return. He and his family will also attend the ceremony this week.
After Vietnam, she returned to the family business in Poitiers, France, but soon found herself restless. A friend suggested that she go to Geneva and enroll in classes to become a registered nurse in Switzerland. There, she met an American named Major Cohn. She did not like him at first, but after a courtship -- and a $4.50 ring that she wore until she broke her wrist two years ago -- they married, and had two children. On their trip to Washington last week, Major Cohn accompanied Marthe, serving as her interpreter for questions she could not hear.
Asked at the Spy Museum when her children learned the story of her espionage exploits, she replied that they had not known the whole story until her book was published, "although I'm not sure my oldest son ever read it."
Through it all, she evidenced an optimism. "I do not wish for another life," she said before her museum appearance. "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."
To some, Marthe Hoffnung Cohn's story is a reminder that Americans were not the only heroes of the World War II generation. Tom Brokaw, the former NBC anchor who wrote a book about what he dubbed "The Greatest Generation," said via e-mail that "I could write an entirely new book based on the contributions of Resistance fighters and other ordinary Europeans and Pacific Islanders who performed heroically and yet received almost no attention." Noting the remarkable stories of personal courage, Brokaw added, "And they just keep on emerging 60 years after the fact."
To Sheldon Rutter, an industrial designer who served as a navigator on a B-24 bomber during the war and who came to hear Cohn last week, her story was inspiring. "I was shot down over occupied France," he told her. "As difficult as my experience was, it was a cakewalk compared with what you did. I am in absolute awe of you."
The hard-of-hearing Marthe Cohn smiled when she realized she'd been complimented. "Thank you," she said, smiling with pride in her eyes. The audience applauded.