Celebrating Women’s History Month: Marthe Cohn

There are dozens of documented cases of female physicians—working on both sides of the conflict—but there are very few detailed stories about any of them, and I found no detailed stories about any women who worked covertly as a physician. Likewise, while members of the International Red Cross performed near-miraculous acts of heroism and suffered incredible personal sacrifice throughout the conflict, the organization was then and is now, completely neutral.

Finally, the very much not red-headed nurse on the original cover of this book never personally went to combat but represents so many young women who surrendered their lives to a life of service, willingly answering the call to offer aid and comfort in a time of global war.

Marthe Cohn

Like all of my characters, the fictional character, Doctor Beatrice “Betty” Grimes, is entirely made up. The half Scottish and half French redheaded surgeon who worked in a London hospital until a bombing during the Blitz, and who later becomes a spy pretending to be a Red Cross nurse who really works covertly as a doctor for the resistance does not represent a single historical woman. The thing that makes her unique in my mind is that, more than any of my other Virtues heroines, Betty represents an amalgam of many real people and not just a single individual.

While there were few details of physicians working covertly to defeat the Nazis from which I could draw to fill out my fictional character, there is one particularly brave woman who came to mind. What follows is only a summary of the fantastic story of the incredibly courageous woman named Marthe Cohn.

Marthe was a Jewish woman from Alsace-Lorraine, France, near the border of Germany. Her family actually helped hide Jews who fled Germany until the German occupation of France. Her sister, father, and brother were arrested in 1942. Her father and brother survived.

At one point, her sister was offered her freedom but insisted on staying a Nazi captive in order to help care for the interned Jewish children. Eventually, she ended up at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and did not survive the war.

After the liberation of Paris in 1945, Marthe joined the French army. Because she had blonde hair and spoke fluent German, the French intelligence created falsified documents and a fictional identity for her—that of a German nurse.

Marthe made thirteen unsuccessful attempts to cross the border into Germany, finally succeeding. During a speech given after the war, Marthe said, “I took my little suitcase and walked towards the German border guard. Then I raised my right arm and said, ‘Heil Hitler’ and showed him my papers. It worked, and I was in Germany.”

Her job was to seek out information regarding the German retreat; specifically, information about the Siegfried Line, a 400-mile long German defense system. While covertly obtaining and funneling vital information to her contacts, Marthe treated German soldiers, including members of the Schutzstaffel, the dreaded Waffen SS.

As a spy, to gain the sympathy of her assets, she told the Nazis she was desperately trying to find her fictional fiancé, a German soldier listed as missing in combat. Gaining the confidence of the men she treated, she discovered that the retreating German army lay in wait for Allied troops in the Black Forest and that the Siegfried Line had, in fact, been abandoned.

Because of the intelligence she provided, Allied troops broke through the Siegfried Line and successfully penetrated into the heart of Germany, eventually taking Berlin.

In 2000, Marthe received France’s highest military honor, the Medaille Militaire. In 2002, the Los Angeles based Simon Wisenthal Center declared her a Woman of Valor for her service to the Allied forces. In 2006, just four years after its establishment, she received the Medaille de Reconnaissance de la Nation from the French government.

Read about my character Dr. Betty Grimes in Mission of Mercy, part 6 of the Virtues and Valor series.

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