"The House Manager thinks I'm a lost woman, which means either Montluc [prison] or Compiègne [concentration camp]… The more the situation improves, the more I fear for them [for the children]… that's why something must be done exclusively for them."
Underground activist Marianne Cohn wrote these words in her last letter from prison in Annemasse to fellow resistance activist Emmanuel Racine. Marianne was murdered. Emmanuel survived.
Marianne Cohn, daughter of Dr. Alfred and Gerta (Radt) Cohn, was born in 1922 in Mannheim, Germany, and moved to Berlin with her family. After the Nazis' rise to power, they fled to Spain, and from there moved to France.
In France, Marianne became active in the Jewish Scouts movement (EIF), and in 1942, she also joined the Zionist youth movement (MJS). In 1943, she was living in Grenoble. When underground activists including Mila Racine were arrested in the course of smuggling a group of children into Switzerland, Marianne was asked to take Mila's place. She was given false papers under the name of Marie Colin, and succeeded in bringing several groups of children over the border into Switzerland. On 31 May 1944, Marianne was caught by a German patrol while travelling in a truck with 28 children aged 4-15. Marianne claimed that they were on their way to a holiday resort in the area, but this claim was refuted and she and the children were sent to prison in the Pax hotel in Annemasse, one section of which had been converted into a Gestapo jail. Jean Deffaugt, Mayor of Annemasse, managed to free the younger children, and made it possible for Marianne and the 11 older children to work in the town, but each night they had to return to prison. In the letters she sent from prison, Marianne expressed hope for her ultimate fate and great concern for the children's lives.
One of the 28 children, then ten-year-old Renée Koenig (Bornstein), who was incarcerated in the Prison du Pax together with her brother and sister, recalls:
"She [Marianne] dazzled us youngsters with her smile and reassured us… Every day, Marianne herself was taken away for questioning, returning each evening with a red and swollen face, having been subjected to hot and cold baths, amongst other forms of torture. Her face became more deformed as time went on… Marianne never faltered or relented. She had the opportunity to leave us, to save her own life, and to reveal our true identity, but she did neither."
Marianne's friends in the underground made a plan to rescue her, but she feared for the children's lives, and rejected all rescue attempts. On 8 July 1944, Marianne was taken from the prison, tortured and brutally murdered by French militiamen. Her body was discovered after the war. All 28 children who were caught together with Marianne survived in Annemasse. In 1966, Mayor Jean Deffaugt was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
Marianne's parents and her sister, Lisa Souris, survived.
In 1977, John Henry Richter submitted a Page of Testimony to Yad Vashem in memory of his cousin Marianne Cohn. In 2016, Daniella Wechsler-Racine, daughter of Emmanuel Racine, donated letters from Marianne and photographs of her to Yad Vashem for posterity, as part of the national "Gathering the Fragments" project.
My dear Mola,
It's a weird feeling knowing you are here [in Annemasse]. If you want, try and come to see us tomorrow morning, M. will explain everything to you.
My feeling about the situation: they are just waiting for instructions in order to send the children to Dr…. [A possible reference to the Drancy camp]
The House Manager [of the Pax hotel in Annemasse] thinks I'm a lost woman, which means either Montluc [prison] or Compiègne [concentration camp]. For me, that would be much longer than… the more the situation improves, the more I fear for them [for the children]… that's why something must be done exclusively for them.
They didn't say anything to me about the letter. The driver told me. They are not interrogating me anymore. They are trying to keep me away from the children.
I didn't get a visit or a prayer book.
Unlike what I wrote to you, it would seem that the investigation regarding Marianne went alright.
Bringing food to the children is forbidden. Three days ago they made a terrible scene about butter. I can receive anything I want. Apart from that, everything is fine. We are working quite hard, and the little ones enjoy it. Hospital is out of the question, and anyway, there is no point.
Special thanks for the soap, which came at the right moment. And for everything else….
In friendship to you all.
Until we meet again?
p.s. No one apart from the children knows about the existence of Marianne.