Widow of Israeli spy Eli Cohen: ‘When he was caught, something died within me’

Widow of Israeli spy Eli Cohen: ‘When he was caught, something died within me’

Nadia Cohen, wife of revered Mossad agent portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen in Netflix drama The Spy, fears she 'may never live to see his grave'

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

Nadia, widow of revered Israeli spy, Eli Cohen
Nadia, widow of revered Israeli spy, Eli Cohen

More than 50 years may have passed, but Nadia Cohen still vividly recalls the haunting moment her husband, Eli, was abruptly unveiled as an Israeli spy, much to the shock of the high-ranking Syrian officials he befriended while working undercover.

“When he was caught, something within me instantly died,” she tells me. “At our last farewell, we both knew it would probably be the last time. In our hearts we felt we would not see each other again.”

We speak ahead of Nadia’s appearance last Wednesday in front of a packed audience at Ner Orre Community Centre, organised as part of Mill Hill United Synagogue’s Israel Engagement programme, set up by Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet and Orli Lang just over a year ago.

For her latest appearance in London, the now 84-year-old widow of one of Israel’s most revered agents wants to address her feelings about the recent Netflix drama and how it compares to the real Eli Cohen she knew and loved.

When The Spy launched in September, Nadia was initially lukewarm towards the drama starring Sacha Baron Cohen as her late husband, an Arabic-speaking immigrant recruited by Mossad to work as an undercover agent in Syria during the early 1960s.

Infiltrating the highest echelons of the Syrian regime, Cohen was able to pass on sensitive military and political information to Israel before he was exposed, interrogated, tortured and sentenced to death by hanging, having been found guilty of espionage.

Nadia and Eli Cohen pictured in the 1960s

The 41-year-old was brutally hanged in Marjeh Square in Damascus in front of a crowd of 10,000 people, in May 1965 – and despite his last request to have his body returned to Israel, the Syrian authorities have to this day never disclosed the whereabouts of his remains.

Israel credits the information he provided in helping the country to victory during the Six Day War in 1967.

Three months on since she first saw The Spy, I ask her how she now feels about the drama which was written and directed by Homeland creator Gideon Raff.

“It portrayed Eli as a true hero – which he was – but obviously it’s a more Hollywood version, so it doesn’t specifically or accurately describe Eli’s character.

“I knew him as a clever man with an exceptional capability of receiving information, always smiling, but serious, very down to earth and simple, keen on helping others and giving. It was very pleasant being married to him,” she affirms.

She does concede however that The Spy has done much to reignite interest in the story and “made a lot of waves regarding Eli’s activities in Syria.”

Hadar Ratzon Rotem as Nadia and Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli in Netflix drama, The Spy

Of the latter, I ask Nadia if she had ever suspected her husband was a spy and indeed at what point over his four years away from home, save for a handful of visits back to Israel, she might have suspected there was more to his cover story of working abroad.

Unknown to her, during that time Eli was posing as a Syrian textile businessman named Kamal Amin Thabet.

“When I met Eli, I didn’t know he was in the Mossad,” says Nadia, who married Eli in 1959. “But I didn’t believe he was a businessman either, because it was not in his character. He didn’t like money, he liked the simple life.

“Somewhere in the middle I started suspecting something, because he began to change. It was not the Eli I knew, the way he talked, even his dialect in Arabic changed. Usually he didn’t like Arabic cinema, but suddenly he started liking it, because it was part of his cover to be up-to-date with that culture.”

In November 1964, Eli returned to Israel to see the birth of his third child and during his visit, asked Mossad to terminate his assignment, as he feared his cover would soon be blown. But he was told to return to Syria one last time.

Nadia tells me she instinctively felt there was something wrong. “I realised he was in a dire situation,” she reveals. “I felt a great change in him. I saw a lot of fear. He was very depressed and desperate, but I didn’t realised this would put an end to our life together.”

Just weeks later, Eli was caught by Syrian officials. At that moment, “something within me instantly died,” says Nadia. “I functioned like a robot. I fed the kids, dressed them, sent them to school, but there was no living spirit within me.”

For the last 54 years, Nadia has tirelessly campaigned for Eli’s body to be returned to Israel for proper burial.

“I have a lot of sadness,” she tells me. “It hurts me a lot, because I’m starting to think maybe I won’t be able to see his grave in my lifetime.”

Last year however, Nadia received a glimmer of hope when Eli’s wristwatch was recovered by Mossad during a secret operation.

Today, the watch rests within a framed plaque featuring the insignia of Mossad and a picture of Eli, and has pride of place in her home.

“I felt his light again when I received that watch,” she smiles.

As her lifelong campaign to return Eli’s body to Israel continues, I ask Nadia what she would like people to remember most about her hero husband.

“That he was a Zionist, a true patriot and loved his people,” says Nadia proudly. “That he put himself in harm’s way to secure the future of the Jewish people.”

Sacha Baron Cohen (second from right) stars as Mossad agent Eli Cohen in The Spy
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