spy who never came home

The widow of Israel's most famous spy tells Jake Wallis Simons of her hopes that after 56 years she will finally be able to bury the husband who still inhabits her dreams


Eli Cohen 'The Spy' wife Nadia speaks to Jake at her home in Tel Aviv about the Netflix series 'The Spy' about her husband Eli who spied on Syria for Israel in the 60's. Nadia holds a wedding picture of her and Eli Simon Ashton 07739026321

The ghost of Israel’s most celebrated spy has been disturbed a number of times. In 2018, the watch that he wore undercover in Syria was tracked down by Mossad and returned to his widow, Nadia.

The following year, she had to cope with a Netflix dramatisation of his life, with Sacha Baron Cohen in the lead role. And last week, Russian TV released previously unseen footage of the secret agent undercover in Damascus. This was followed by fevered reports that his body may be on its way home, as part of a deal brokered by Moscow.

Eli Cohen, who was born in Egypt to a Syrian Jewish family before making aliyah at the age of 33, rose to become the Jewish state’s best-known and most effective Mossad agent. After being recruited in 1960 and infiltrated into Syria, the native Arabic-speaker climbed so high in the echelons of government that he became chief adviser to the Ministry of Defence, gathering intelligence that helped Israel to victory in the Six Day War.

Cohen’s astonishing undercover career lasted for four years. Despite being away from home for months at a time, he fathered three children, Sophie, Irit and Shai. But in 1965, he was unmasked while making a covert radio transmission. He was interrogated, tortured and hanged. As a grim warning, his body was left suspended for several hours in Marja Square in central Damascus. He was 40 years old.

Nadia, now in her 86th year, has never remarried. For more than five decades, she has endured the repeated heartache of her husband’s death being dragged into the public eye. Speaking on the phone this week, she said that amid the sudden prospect of the repatriation of her husband’s remains, she was preparing once again to reopen old wounds. She was exhausted and couldn’t speak for long. Before lockdown, however, sitting with her in the sitting-room of her airy house in Herzliya, I saw that despite the years of absence, her memories of her husband were as fresh as they were in the 60s.

“I still dream about him all the time,” she said, looking out of the window at the big carob tree in her garden. “I also used to dream about him when he was in Syria. In my dreams, he is undercover and happy in his role, or he is meeting Ben-Gurion and giving a lecture, and everyone is saying how proud they are of him.”

The Iraqi-born psychiatric nurse married as a new oleh at the age of 24. Her new husband was 11 years older than her. “He was a modest and courteous young man… who talked little but acted big. He was not interested in money or wealth. But he took a mysterious new job, and one day he disappeared from our lives.

“For three intensive years, he was rarely at home. The kids didn’t get to know him. He was always in Syria. I had only my dreams.”

Cohen was drawn to espionage from an early age. He had been involved with Israeli covert operations even before leaving Egypt, but after making aliyah, took a humdrum job as a clerk. When he was recruited by Mossad — who initially rejected him — he was recognised as the most talented operator the spy chiefs had ever known.

Within a year, the agency had taken advantage of Cohen’s Syrian heritage to construct a new identity for him: Kamel Amin Thaabet, a flamboyant businessman willing to fund the Ba’ath party. He was introduced into the Syrian expatriate community in Argentina to cement his cover. Then he moved to Syria.

Cohen grew more distant from his family, seeing them only every few months, but after his death he became a household name in Israel. Streets and buildings were named after him, and ceremonies honouring his memory are held every year.

None of this makes it any easier for those he left behind. Nadia told me how she was still haunted by the last time she saw him, in 1965, at their small apartment in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv (which today is marked by a plaque). “I was pregnant with my second son,” she said.

“When Eli came back that last time, he was in such a terrible state, like the walking dead. Normally, he could return from Syria the happiest man alive, confident, as if it was easy for him. But that last time, it was as if he was already dead.”

In truth, the net was closing on Kamel Amin Thaabet. Cohen knew that he would almost certainly be exposed if he returned. But with the Syrians gearing up for war, his handlers believed he was so valuable that he had to return to the field, whatever the risks. Nadia believes that Mossad had threatened her husband with exile, shame and impoverishment unless he complied.

“He was in a disturbed state of mind,” she recalled. “He had arguments with his whole family. They saw him differently than they had before. Most of the arguments were not with me, but I saw him at home with no energy and red eyes. Suddenly, he would speak in a different way. I saw him crying in the corner, and he began to change his tone with me.

“He kept saying, ‘don’t take life so seriously. You’re here today and gone tomorrow. Let the kids play, don’t be so strict with the cleaning. Nothing matters’. It was like he was giving up.”

On the final day, a driver came to take the spy back to his alternative life. “Usually I wouldn’t cry when we said goodbye,” Nadia said. “I wanted to show him I was OK. But I cried that time. I knew I would never see him again. I can see him in front of my eyes now. He was helpless. He knew.”

But that was not the last communication she received from the love of her life. After his execution, she received his final letter. “Do what you must, don’t deprive the children of a father,” he wrote. “I give you my blessing. I beg you, my dear Nadia, do not spend your life weeping for what has passed.”

Nadia had known that her husband was living a dangerous life. His job was a closely-guarded secret — he told her he was buying military equipment for the government —but over the years, she had picked up the signs.

“We spoke Arabic at home, and on one occasion, while he was washing the dishes, he started speaking in Syrian slang.

“Every country has different Arabic slang, and he started using the Syrian dialect. He became Syrian. His mother was in the kitchen, and she said, ‘do you notice how well my son speaks like a Syrian?’ She laughed and thought he was a genius. But I saw him freeze while he was washing the dishes. And I knew.”

There were other clues, too. Shady men would appear on the doorstep and leave packages for him. Cohen had set up an export business sending ornate wooden boxes overseas; one day she opened one of the parcels and found a box inside.

“I explored it and found that it was not a normal box,” she said. “There were many secret compartments that could be used for hiding things.”

With her suspicions growing, she decided to open a letter addressed to her husband, she said. She was shocked to discover that it contained a blank piece of paper.

“I had been told not to open his mail, but I did,” she said. “The letterhead was from an address in Damascus, but there was nothing written on the paper. I confessed that I had opened it, and he just turned the conversation to something else.

“He wouldn’t speak about it. Looking back, I think it may have been invisible ink.”

The latest suggestions that Cohen’s body may be returned to Israel have left his widow reeling. The rollercoaster began last week, when the Rai Al-Youm Arabic news website reported that Russian troops were exhuming graves in the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, following “unremitting pressure” from Israeli officials.

At first, she reacted defensively. “This isn’t confirmation that is what will really happen,” she told Israel’s Channel 13 News.

“There is joy and there is sorrow and there is fear, and I wonder, why only now?”

A few days later, however — with the strain beginning to show — she begged the Russians to put an end to her 56 years of agony.

“I want to believe that we’re not getting our hopes up for nothing,” she told the Israeli outlet Ynet. “I ask the Russians for help. Use your capabilities to bring him back to be buried in Israel.”

But the years of heartache have burnished the widow’s steely core, which was fashioned in her turbulent childhood in the wartime Middle East. When I asked her about it, she saw her story through the prism of her husband. “Eli wanted to give to the country. That’s why he joined the Mossad,” she told me.

“He wanted to help. It was in his blood to help. When we were in Arab countries — I came from Iraq, for instance — we suffered a lot. When I was a child, they burned the houses of Jews as the Nazis became powerful. They would mark the Jewish houses.

“In 1940, when I was five, I remember an Arab official with a notepad marking the Jewish houses with chalk crosses, but not those of the Muslims and Christians.

“Eli spoke several languages, and he was very clever and talented. He knew what he had to do. He was already in touch with Mossad when he was in Egypt, even before he made aliyah. He had a sense that he had to save the country.”


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