The Smell of Danger
There was no time to be frightened. My mission was clear. Shortly before midnight on that bitterly cold night in February 1945, I left the small French town of Thann with four officers and twenty Moroccan commandos. The men were heavily armed with machine guns, tommy guns, and grenades, and well-prepared for the weather. Posing as Martha Ulrich, a young nurse fleeing from the Allies, it was part of my subterfuge that I was neither armed nor suitably dressed. I wore simple clothes--a woollen skirt, jacket, hat, and gloves. I had knee-high socks under my ski boots, but my legs were bare above the knees.
It was very dark and intensely cold. The towering fir and pine trees dimmed what little light there was, and only the snow was distinguishable in the gloom. We set off in a long line, marching through deep drifts. The snow came halfway up the legs of the fourteen men in front of me and the ten behind me, but most of the time I sank up to my hips. My only consolation was that I was now warm. I had to use my hands to pull each leg out of the snow as I walked, but I never once faltered. I could see the men constantly watching me, ready to help if I fell, but the challenge of keeping up drove me on.
For five hours we traveled in complete silence, aware that the Germans were all around us. Sound carries surprisingly well in such a still, frosty environment. Outside Thann, with all its crooked buildings, we must have gone more than four miles up a mountain, and then down toward Amselkopf. The snowy peaks of the Vosges Mountains loomed high above us.
At the edge of a small valley my military escort stopped and stared at me, blinking in the dark. This was where they were to turn back. We were deep in the thick pine forests, trees close all around, making it almost impossible to see. Nothing was said, only hand signals were used. The guide shone his hooded flashlight on his map to remind me which narrow, icy path to take along the southern slope of the mountain. There were several, all running parallel. When I reached the second path before dawn, I was to follow the flank of the mountain for about an hour until I came to the heavily armed enemy post at the end of the pass.
"The Germans will shoot anything they can't clearly see," the guide had warned me the previous night. "You'll be no good to anyone dead."
In silence, the men waved farewell and evaporated into the trees. Lieutenant Neu, who'd become a friend, squeezed my arm.
Forcing myself to move, I stumbled on in the pitch-darkness, crossed the valley, found the second path heading east and turned onto it. As instructed, I crouched against a tree and waited until the first streaks of dawn lit the sky before moving on. I was so keyed up, I no longer felt tired, cold, or hungry.
I'd only gone a little way along the flank of the mountain when I spotted two German soldiers lying way down in the valley, covered in fir branches for camouflage. They lifted their heads but did nothing to stop me. I tilted my chin high and pretended not to have seen them. I suspected they were scouts, as intent as I was on avoiding detection. Continuing to walk, I tried not to think of their fingers twitching on their triggers.
I knew I was very near my goal. I had to be. In my mind, I was constantly urging myself on.
Just a little farther, Marthe, I told myself silently. Stay calm, smile, cry, play the part, do whatever you have to do. Think of the colonel and how important this mission is to him and to his men.
I thought of how he'd kissed me on both cheeks the night before. Tears had welled in his eyes and he'd turned away, hoping I hadn't seen them.
Suddenly, a soldier sprang out from behind a tree just below me, his rifle pointed straight at me, its bayonet glinting. Though I'd expected this kind of welcome, I was so startled I nearly screamed. Taking a deep breath, I swallowed. Three more soldiers leaped out from behind adjacent trees, machine guns at the ready, sprigs of fir attached to their helmets.
Looking around me intensely for the first time in the half-light, I saw several soldiers dead on the ground nearby, their blood seeping into the snow after a recent skirmish.
"Don't shoot!" I cried, my hands raised in defense against their weapons.
Cross of Lorraine
The place of my birth was the cathedral city of Metz, in the northeastern region of French Lorraine, an area with a complex and tumultuous history. With the Franco-German border just thirty miles east, this frontier province had been the target of invasion for a thousand years. In 1870 the Germans annexed it for nearly fifty years.
By the time I was born, on April 13, 1920, less than two years after the end of the First World War, the map of Europe had been redrawn and Alsace-Lorraine was back in French hands. Raised as true French patriots in an area of such national significance, it was a matter of the greatest pride to us all that General de Gaulle later chose the double-barred Cross of Lorraine, above all symbols, to signify Free France.
Metz was a bustling, cosmopolitan city of pedimented and classical facades whose outlying steel factories and coal mines were manned by Poles, Italians, and Czechs. A garrison town, its streets were also full of soldiers in uniform. On the east bank of the Moselle River, it sat astride major trade routes linking Paris and Strasbourg. An independent republic in the twelfth century, it had a character all its own, with its medieval French quarter around the Gothic cathedral of St. Etienne, and the elegant "Ville Allemande" built under Prussian occupation, with its bourgeois apartment buildings. Filled with a mixture of seventeenth century squares, Italianate streets, and grand German edifices, it was not at all the dour place one might have expected from its geography and industrial background.
My parents had effectively grown up as Germans. Living most of their lives in occupied territory, they'd only been allowed to speak German; it was taught in school, and they were under pain of arrest if they uttered even a single French mot. By the time I was born, French and German were spoken freely. For seven years I learned Hoch Deutsch as a second language in school. But my siblings and I spoke French to each other, our school friends, and some of our neighbors, and spoke German to my parents and most of their generation. It was like having a secret language. If we didn't want our parents to know what we were up to, we'd just chatter away merrily in French.
Our family name was Hoffnung Gutgluck, which means "Hope and Good Luck" in German, shortened to Hoffnung for ease of use. My given name was Marthe, pronounced "Mart." My grandfather on my mother's side, Moishe Bleitrach, was a marvelous man, a prominent Orthodox rabbi and a renowned Hebrew scholar. By the time I was born, he was nearly sixty, with a long beard. My earliest childhood memories are of tugging at it while he laughed a deep, sonorous laugh.
At the age of two, however, it was my mother, Regine, to whom I'd become obsessively attached. She was small, blonde, and pretty, and I adored her beyond reason. She was a warm, fun-loving woman, looking more like an older sister than a mother, and if she ever left my sight I'd become hysterical and go blue in the face with screaming. My elder brothers, Fred and Arnold, or my sister Cecile, would lift me and, with great relish, slap me on the back to restore normal breathing. By the age of four I realized that my siblings resented me carrying on and that I never gave them or my hardworking mother any peace; so--an early pacifist--I simply desisted.
Sixteen months after my birth, my younger sister Stephanie arrived in this world, a gorgeous, chubby confection of dark brown curls, the exact opposite of me. I was tiny, skinny, pale, and very blonde, just like my mother. I was also insanely jealous.
"She may be pretty," I would tell Stephanie's many admirers indignantly, "but I'm very bright." My jealousy soon vanished, however, when Stephanie melted my heart and became my very own little doll to play with. Permanently cheerful, angelic to look at, she and Cecile were the most sweet-natured of us all, and I adored her. Stephanie soon became a confidante, a friend, and a spirited childhood playmate.
In 1924 my sister Helene arrived, a fragile pixie of a child, followed in 1925 by Rosy, our baby. Stephanie and I were sent to school together soon afterward. But the teachers took one look at me, at the age of six, and because of my size refused to believe I was old enough to be in the first grade.
"You must go to the kindergarten with your sister," they told me, assuming I was the same age as Steph.
Despite my protests, they sat us side by side in the kindergarten to learn the alphabet. I was already reading entire books from cover to cover. Infuriated, I sulked until the teacher asked if anyone knew any songs. To my mortification, Steph raised her hand. Knowing what a dreadful voice she had (as we all did, apart from Cecile and my mother), I grabbed it and pulled it down.
"Don't put your hand up, stupid," I told her. "You know you can't sing." But the teacher had already spotted her and called Stephanie to the front of the class. As I held my hands over my face, she launched into "Je Cherche apres Titine," a popular song that made me cringe. At lunchtime I ran home to tell my mother what had happened.
"I can't possibly stay there," I told her, grimacing. "I won't. They think I'm a baby, and worst of all, Steph sang!" My mother hid her smile from me and walked me back to school in the afternoon. Taking my birth certificate with her, she proved to the staff that I was indeed old enough for the first grade. Thereafter, Stephanie sang alone.
I hated school and wanted nothing more than to be at home, my nose buried in a book. Each time the teacher produced a new book for us to read, I'd already read it months before. I was bored and frustrated.
One day, when I'd requested new books in the town library, the librarian told me I couldn't have them. "You're far too young to read these," she told me, looking at my list and peering over her round-rimmed spectacles at me. When I complained to my oldest brother, Fred, he marched me to the library and took her on, face-to-face.
"My sister is allowed to read anything she chooses," he told her, firmly but politely. "It is for her family to decide whether or not they are suitable, when she gets them home." I loved him even more for his intervention.
Fred was the one I felt closest to as a young child. He was more like a father than a brother. Each night, after dinner, he would read aloud to us from the daily newspaper, an event I keenly anticipated. Sitting at my mother's knee, I'd listen awestruck as he recounted news of the latest political or historical events in Europe.
One story that transfixed me from an early age was the case of Shalom Schwartzbad, an immigrant Jewish watchmaker and poet who'd fled to Paris from Bessarabia (now Moldavia) in the Russian Ukraine after the 1919-20 pogroms against the Jews. Once in the French capital, Schwartzbad sought out Symon Petliura, the former general and supreme commander of the Ukrainian army who'd since become the socialist leader of the Ukrainian independence movement. His armies had been responsible for some of the most appalling brutality against Jews. One morning, Schwartzbad approached Petliura as he left his home, and shot him dead. The murder trial in Paris made international headlines. His defense lawyer, Henri Torres, turned it into a trial against Petliura and the loss of sixty thousand Jewish lives. Witness after witness gave the most harrowing evidence of what had happened under Petliura and the Cossacks. They'd burned whole villages; tortured, raped, maimed, and killed, even children. The descriptions Fred read to us were horrible. I was appalled to learn what some people could do to others, just because they were Jewish. When Fred read that the jury had acquitted the watchmaker, I wept tears of joy. From that moment on I wanted to become a lawyer and bring justice to the wronged.
Fred was kind and thoughtful, but he could also be a terrible tease. He and Arnold would often ambush us in the hallway of our apartment, jumping on us and boxing our ears. "Only sissies cry," they'd goad us. "Come on, girls, get those fists up and fight back." I realize now he was trying to teach us self-defense.
Each Thursday, Fred would chase me around the house with the huge live carp my mother had bought for our Sabbath dinner, terrifying me with its gaping mouth and goggle eyes. Terrified of fish, I was genuinely afraid. One day he cornered me in the kitchen between the stove and the wall, and I was so frightened I stopped breathing. My mother, who usually didn't interfere with our boisterous games, pulled Fred away.
"That's it," she told him firmly, reaching for me and slapping me hard on the back to restore the color to my face. "You must never torment Marthe about the fish again." And he never did.
Copyright © 2002 by Marthe Cohn with Wendy Holden. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.