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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Behind Enemy Lines Sparks Discussion About WWII

Author, Holocaust survivor, and World War II French spy Marthe Cohn is currently 91 years of age. Her book, Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany, revisits the years before and during the war in France, where Marthe lived, and in Germany, where Marthe sneaked across the border to spy for the Allies. Cohn first published her story in 2002. The book has been quietly gaining in popularity, and the author has been making some appearances at libraries and bookstores. Of course, at 91, Cohn will not go on the kind of book tour that would generate the kind of fame she deserves.
Marthe Cohn was a smart and brave young woman, living in a time and place where she had unique opportunities to display wit and bravery. Talk about reaching one's potential! Cohn had amazing adventures before and during the war! Amazing but horrifying, set in the crucible of what may have been the worst years in history.
Our book discussion group was lucky to find this gem of a true story! This happened because a relative of Jay was on an airplane with Cohn and told Jay about the book.
Behind Enemy Lines was another winner for our group, with everyone at our meeting glad they read the book! Jay compared Behind Enemy Lines with The Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, saying that Behind Enemy Lines provided more of the in-depth information about the daily lives of the public during the war that we had felt was interesting but not developed enough in Potato Peel Pie.
Phyllis and Sandy raised some questions: How was Cohn able to travel extensively by herself as a young woman during the war, and how did she get such important and dangerous assignments? I think we decided that the answers were a combination of factors, kind of a perfect storm. Cohn was smart and kept trying to join the resistance even when rejected. She was bilingual, without an accent in either language, in a war between 2 countries speaking different languages. As Frank said, during a war, whoever is available to do a job is used. During World War II, people were all living in extenuating circumstances. Many were fleeing from one place to another, looking for loved ones, joining the resistance, or working quietly for one side or the other. Marthe Cohn herself noted that at the end of the war, she seemed to be in a "hotbed of spies," where no one trusted anyone and everyone seemed to be trying to get useful information from everyone else.
The book was a page turner and couldn't have been more interesting if it were a fictitious spy thriller! Of course, often the true stories trump fiction. After reading the book, our discussion brought the book to life, not so much by revisiting the facts presented in the book but via the sharing of personal experiences that was inspired by reading the book and attending the meeting.
Usually, I try to express some of the thoughts our readers had about the book. This time, I will summarize a few of the comments from our group's personal memories. Rutger was 8 years old when the Gestapo came into his home and took his father, who had started a Dutch organization to help people keep their faith during the war. Luckily, he lived and was freed after 4 years (I think that was what Rutger said.) Jennifer's parents decided to leave Germany to get away from the war. The way she seemed to put it was that people didn't know exactly what was going on, but they knew it was bad. Jennifer's parents put their new furniture in a cart and walked to Czechoslovakia. When they arrived, Hitler had also arrived, so they turned around and walked back. Some of Jennifer's relatives fought in the German army, but only because they would have been killed if they had objected. After the war, the repercussions reached far and wide. Pam's mother in Round Rock lost friends and felt somewhat shunned because she had a German surname. More of us shared stories of our elders' reactions to the war.
Please note that if I ever share anything online that you said at book discussion but that you don't want to be printed online, let me know and I will take it off the blog!
In closing, other books and a movie that was mentioned that might be interesting to those who particularly enjoyed this book and discussion were The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass (Dennis, I read the book but the group didn't read it for discussion); books by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Armageddon, by Leon Uris; Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay; and the movie Hanna's War. An as yet unpublished book by Erik Larson (Isaac's Storm) may also be of interest, as it's called In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.
Addendum: I found Marthe Cohn on Facebook! I sent her a message including a copy of the above blog entry. She sent a reply, and I then asked her whether it would be OK to publish it. She said it would. So here is her response to my message and her reading of the above blog entry:
Hello Claudia: I just read your Blog with great interest. I seldom open my Facebook site as I am still awfully busy at my age and still travel extensively. I prefer to communicate by e-mail at: which I check several times /day. If your group or you would like to ask me questions, I would answer them. The best way is to send me the questions by e-mail and then call me for the discusssion (no charge). I have done it for other book clubs which are not rich enough to invite me to their book club meetings (I am often invited). I am very glad you sent your Blog to my site, I have so little time to update it. By the way, my book was first published in 2002 (hardback version) in English and 2005 in French by PLon (see my site on Wikipedia, Google and Amazon). The publisher never organized a signing tour, the press agent was totally incompetent -she later lost her job, not because of me- Through the years, I have given several hundred conferences in the US and in Europe (even at the Sorbonne in Paris and in a mansion in Potsdam, Germany, last December & January). Thank you for your interest in my story of so long ago. Marthe Cohn

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