Commentary: On the 97th Anniversary of women's suffrage in the U.S., two 97-year-olds, speaking on consecutive nights, reminded us – more with their lives than their words – of the importance of standing up against intolerance and hatred.
Sunday, lifelong resident J. Paul Taylor spoke. He embodies ethnic mixing: his Scotch-Irish father and Mexican mother raised a fine young man who taught generations of kids. Then, at 66, he started a nearly two-decade career as the Conscience of the Legislature. He's always stood up for tolerance, equality, and freedom. He still does.
Monday . . . Imagine a Jewish French girl living near the German border during World War II. She and her family suffer much as France surrenders and Germans occupy her town – and the rest of France collaborates with the Nazis. She trains as a nurse. Risking their lives, she and her family hide refugees, and help them navigate the European version of the Underground Railway.
When France is liberated, she joins the French Army, at 24. A captain learns she speaks and reads German fluently. She has blonde hair and blue eyes. She ends up in Intelligence, volunteering for repeated missions across the border into Germany. (Only women can do this: posing as a male German would fail, since any young male would be in the army.)
Sounds like a movie. Not something you go into the Rio Grande Theater to hear the heroine describe.
Marthe Cohn's book, Behind Enemy Lines tells a hell of a story. Not without humor. As when she describes waiting with an older French guide for nightfall, so that she can cross when the German sentries won't see her. He tells her a lot about his wife and family, then, with a strange smile, says, “'You may die tonight. Why don't we have a bit of fun?” But, she tells us more than 70 years later, “that wasn't on my agenda.”
Across the border, she mingles with Germans as a German nurse seeking her lost fiance, a German soldier. She learns much about German troop movements, information that saves lives and helps shorten the war. When she's offered a chance to go home, she declines. Her mission will only end when there's an Armistice. She asks only for a bicycle, having walked many miles.
She falls in with some Germans. One SS officer boasts of his atrocities and brags that he can smell a Jew from a mile away. When he suddenly faints, she nurses him back to health. Grateful, he invites her to visit him at the Siegfried Line. Several weeks later, she tries, but some German soldiers tell her that the entire area west of Freiberg has been evacuated – and ambushes await the Allies in the Black Forest. She manages to get this critical information into Allied hands. (Fortunately, the first tank that shows up is French, since she has not yet learned English.) “That is what they gave me all those medals for,” she tells us, gesturing at the long table on stage.
With occasional help from her husband, she tells us her story. She speaks with charm and wit, and a surprising command of the English vernacular, referring to “mom-and-pop stores,” and of soldiers “taking me for a bimbo,” and using such words as “newcomer,” “rickety,” and entailed.” (She learned English after the war.)
Marthe was pretty then. She's magnificent now. Like J. Paul, she speaks with humility and grace.
Both articulate a message still painfully clear: if we do not each do what we can against hatred and injustice, the fight could be lost.