Cohn, Marianne (1921–1944)

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Cohn, Marianne (1921–1944)

German-Jewish hero of the French resistance movement who smuggled Jewish children to safety in Switzerland. Born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1921; killed by a French militia unit on July 8, 1944.

Born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1921, Marianne Cohn fled the Nazi regime with her parents in 1935, and after a brief stay in Spain they were able to settle in France. Feeling accepted in France but also determined to maintain her Jewish identity, Marianne became a member of the Eclaireurs Israélites de France (French Jewish Scouts; EIF), a pluralist and traditionalist Jewish scouting organization founded by Robert Gamzon in 1923. In the ranks of the EIF, Jewish consciousness was fostered through hiking, friendship, and the study of Jewish history and traditions. Marianne and her family were interned for some months after the start of war in the notorious Gurs camp but were eventually released. Realizing the danger of being captured by the German forces, the Cohn family found refuge in the Maison EIF, located in the southern town of Moissac. Here Marianne and her mother cared for children while her father taught a course in accounting.

After the full impact of the German occupation began to be felt in the final months of 1940, Cohn's contacts were to prove invaluable for both her own survival and that of thousands of Jewish children. In the summer of 1942, the Vichy regime that governed the southern zone of France not occupied by German forces issued a decree expelling foreignborn Jews. Already an active member of the French Jewish resistance movement, Cohn now dedicated herself to the rescue of endangered Jewish children. Determined that no more refugees enter their country, Swiss officials declared that those individuals fleeing occupied France "only" because of racial reasons—i.e., Jews—would not be considered as political refugees and thus would be denied sanctuary. In practice, however, some Swiss border officials defied official directives by admitting certain categories of refugees, the great majority of which were Jews on the run. These included parents with children under the age of 6, unaccompanied children up to the age of 16, as well as ill and infirm adults. Using various stratagems, women and men like Marianne Cohn were able to evade German and French Fascist police to bring Jewish children to the Swiss border and safety.

Working tirelessly as a member of the underground section of EIF known as Sixième, and now using "Marianne Colin" as her conspiratorial name, Cohn was in her early 20s and successfully carrying out many missions before her luck finally ran out in the late spring of 1944. On May 31, having come to within 200 meters of the Swiss frontier, Marianne and her group of 28 children ranging from age 4 to 15 were arrested. Along with 11 of the older girls and boys, Cohn was imprisoned in the nearby town of Annemasse. When word of the arrest reached Jean Deffaugt, the town's mayor and a secret member of the resistance, he bravely went to the local Gestapo officials and vociferously registered his outrage at the arrest of the young woman and her group of children. Remarkably, the Germans—possibly impressed by Deffaugt's advocacy for the imprisoned Jews or perhaps also convinced that the war was lost and it might be prudent to distance themselves from atrocities—agreed to let the younger children remain at liberty in a local youth shelter.

Hoping to save Cohn's life, Deffaugt and members of her resistance unit worked out an escape plan for her. When she was told of the plan, however, she vehemently refused to participate, arguing that, if she escaped, the children still in German custody would pay for her freedom with their lives. Cohn's parents and sister had been able to escape the Nazi dragnet and were living in hiding in a French Alpine village. On July 1, 1944, Marianne Cohn wrote a letter to her father for his birthday, reassuring him that it would be the last time she was not with him to celebrate; at the same time she apologized to him for all of the anxiety her underground work had caused her family to endure. A week later, on July 8, French militia took Cohn and five other resistance prisoners to an isolated spot in Ville-la-Grande outside of Annemasse, murdering them with axes and leaving their mutilated bodies to be discovered more than a month later after the area had been liberated.

The children Cohn was attempting to rescue when they were captured in May survived. Her decision to remain in prison without doubt served to extend their lives. Of equal importance was continuing courageous intervention on their behalf by Mayor Deffaugt. On July 22, two weeks after Cohn's death, Deffaugt responded to the local Gestapo chief's demand for the 28 children with an effective combination of pleas for mercy, threats of bloody reprisals by the armed resistance, and promises of postwar protection (which did in fact take place when the Nazi official was allowed to escape to Switzerland). The Gestapo chief handed over the children to Deffaugt, and they were not sent to Lyon, where they would have fallen into the hands of the dreaded Klaus Barbie and immediately been shipped off to Auschwitz. Marianne Cohn did not die in vain, and her last mission was a total success. While under torture in prison, she wrote defiantly, "Tomorrow I will Betray, Not Today," a moving poem that survived her and continues to radiate much of her humanity and courage:

"Tomorrow I will betray, not today
Tear out my nails today,
I will not betray

You do not know the limits of my courage
I know them
You are five rough hands with rings
You have hobnailed boots on your feet
Today I have nothing to say
Tomorrow I will betray
I need the night to decide
I need at least one night
To deny, to abjure, to betray"

Jean Deffaugt preserved the story of Marianne Cohn's defiance for posterity. He was honored in 1968 in Jerusalem by being named one of the "Just among the Peoples" and having a tree planted in his honor at Yad Vashem.


Courtois, Stephane, Denis Peschanski, and Adam Rayski. L'Affice Rouge: Immigranten und Juden in der französischen Résistance. Edited by Ahlrich Meyer, translated by Tom Wehmer. "Schwarze Risse," 1994.

Hammel, Frédéric Chimon. Souviens-toi d'Amelek: Témoignage sur la lutte des Juifs en France (1938–1944). Paris: CLKH, 1982.

Latour, Anny. The Jewish Resistance in France (1940–1944). Translated by Irene R. Ilton. NY: Holocaust Library, 1981.

Lustiger, Arno. Zum Kampf auf Leben und Tod! Das Buch vom Widerstand der Juden 1933–1945. Cologne: Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 1994.

Paldiel, Mordecai. The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1993.

Paucker, Arnold. "Resistance of German and Austrian Jews to the Nazi Regime 1933–1945," Leo Baeck Institute Year Book. Vol. 40. London: Secker and Warburg, 1995, pp. 3–20.

Zuccotti, Susan. The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews. NY: Basic Books, 1993.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia