Unending Agony for Legendary Spy Eli Cohen and His Widow

Yuval Azoulay
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Yuval Azoulay

Nadia Cohen has not raised the white flag, after 45 years of struggling to see the remains of her husband - legendary spy Eli Cohen - come to Israel. She is completely alone on the battlefield but still determined and shocked at the very question whether she is ready to surrender. The politicians no longer come. Even the number of media people who ask about her is dwindling.

She understands the media. "There's no lack of things to deal with here; what's going on with our youth, the political situation, the peace process. You deal with the news, not with what happened 50 years ago," she says with some resignation

Long ago, hundreds of journalists would come to ask her more or less the same questions, which she grew very skilled at answering. At 74, she is skilled, sincere and agonized. All that she asks is to be buried by his side, in Israel, and then "I can close my eyes forever. I don't want to bequeath this suffering to my children. They have suffered enough."

On May 18, it will be 45 years since Eli Cohen was hung in Damascus. Does one grow thick-skinned? Not Nadia Cohen. She says she still misses him as only a lover can. "All these years, I remained faithful to him. I want him, here and now, because I've reached the age that I deserve tranquillity. I don't want to go to my death longing for my Eli to rest in the soil of the land that he loved and for which he gave his life. I hope, pray, that he will be returned home by the time I die."

The circumstances of the last time Cohen was sent on a secret mission to the corridors of Syrian power in Damascus still fill her with anger at her husband's Mossad handlers. On his last furlough, she says, the light had gone out of his eyes, his shoulders slumped, his face revealed his distress. "He felt burned out and he refused to return. We were at home; we lived in Bat Yam, with three babies. Our youngest, Shai, was 21 days old. Eli was with the babies, running after them, and his handlers were running after him, begging him to go back. When they weren't with him, they were talking to him on the phone. They persuaded him, and I do not forgive them for that. They were blind. They refused to give up the golden goose. But it was enough for me to see the suffering in his eyes."

A new bond with Dagan's Mossad

Over the years, her relationship with the Mossad and that of her children, Sophie Ben-Dor, Irit Peleg and Shai Cohen, unraveled. That is, until Meir Dagan took over as chief. "Suddenly something changed there toward us. If I wanted something, I called, they put me through to him immediately. For the past five years, they have held a ceremony [for Eli] at Mossad headquarters at Glilot. All his friends from the brigade come, and Eli's spirit is always hovering. We can feel it," she says.

Of Dagan, Cohen says that "he opens doors and windows for us because of the Zionism in his heart, because of his great affection for people who love this country. And we love this country greatly. I am so glad our grandchildren are here; that they didn't give in to the big money and high-tech abroad. Real love of country.

It hurts Cohen that the politicians seem to have forgotten her. They meet with world leaders, she says, they could get a message to Damascus that she is still alive, waiting for a humanitarian gesture.

A few years ago, a senior Syrian official said Eli Cohen had no grave; that a neighborhood had been built over it. Nadia and the children agonized, but they did not believe it. "There is a body; it's buried somewhere secret, and at some stage, they'll find it. I'm sure of it. Meanwhile, they torturing us. The Syrians have become addicted to my pleas and my sadness."

Nadia Cohen remembers when Hafez Assad's eldest son, Bashar, was born. She called her children and her four grandchildren to her home in Herzliya and had them photographed together. She sent the photograph, with a warm letter of congratulations, to the young father. "I wished that he would raise his son in joy and peace. I even asked his forgiveness for Eli's actions. It didn't move anything. They're taking revenge on him, not letting the circle of our lives come to a close. They condemned him to the gallows and us to suffering," Cohen's widow says.