Like many of her brilliant contemporaries — U.S. Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Holocaust survivor and renowned sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and acclaimed Canadian zoologist Dr. Anne Innis Dagg come immediately to mind – World War II spy Marthe Cohn’s crucial work behind enemy lines is finally receiving some well-deserved recognition in an inspiring documentary.
Cichinette: The Accidental Spy, filmmaker Nicola Hens’s intimate, engaging portrait of the 98-year-old French-Jewish activist who spied on the Nazis for France during the Second World War, is beautifully crafted and superbly directed. The film follows Marthe and Major Cohn, her husband of more than 70 years, on their latest European tour. Their journey from Los Angeles, where they now live, takes them to speaking engagements in London, Paris, Metz, and other cities that played a pivotal role in Marthe’s fascinating life. Marthe suffered tragic losses during the war, including the deaths of her sister in Nazi Germany and her fiancé who fought for the Resistance, but she never gave up. She studied to become a nurse, and after the war, married Major, a doctor whom she worked with for many years. Today, their roles have reversed, and he accompanies her everywhere to support her efforts to share her story so that people will never forget and to prevent history from repeating itself.
Marthe was a fiercely independent feminist at an early age with a strong mind of her own. Her grandfather was a Rabbi in Metz, and her family expected her to learn the Hebrew alphabet at an early age. “I didn’t understand what I was reading,” she explains, “so I asked my mother to let me learn Hebrew to understand the Holy Scriptures of the Torah. My mother answered, ‘Only boys are allowed to learn that.’ From that moment on, I stopped praying.” Marthe describes herself as a perfectionist who drives her husband crazy with her meticulous attention to detail. She reveals that the French intelligence services gave her the nickname, Cichinette, which means “little pain in the neck,” because she asked too many questions when they were training her and she annoyed them all the time. However, her persistence paid off. The intelligence she acquired regarding German troop movements and reported to the Allies was invaluable and saved hundreds of lives. The many medals she earned for her courageous service to her country are proudly on display for her audience at every event she attends.
Marthe never spoke about her dangerous wartime experiences until recently, and it’s thrilling to see her story become the basis for this amazing documentary. Her lifelong motto, “Be engaged and don’t accept any order that your conscience cannot approve,” is something she proudly shares with younger generations. She agreed to spy on the Nazis during the Holocaust, posing as a young German nurse desperately trying to find her fiancé, because she believed it was her duty. When people ask her what message she hopes to convey, she responds by saying that the act of telling her story is a moral imperative. Indeed, every truth has a consequence. In 2018, Marthe recorded her life story for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and it’s now part of their oral history collection. Her courageous life is an inspiration to all of us, and Hens’s documentary about her life is very worthy of our viewing time.