Neta Cohen: Young woman saved by Football

Aug 9, 2020

Life Stories

Neta Cohen


Neta Cohen was born in 1920, brought up in a well-to-do Jewish family in Skopje, North Macedonia (then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia). Neta fell in love with Aleksandar Mladenov, a railway worker who was also a popular footballer with the local team, FC Gragianski (later renamed FC Macedonia). But Aleksandar was an Orthodox Christian and Neta’s father refused to give permission for her to marry him.  They got married anyway. Neta was completely cut off from her family.

Surviving the Holocaust

Neta Cohen took new Christian names as Maria Mladenovska. She had two sons. Then, in 1941, Yugoslavia was occupied by Nazi Germany and its Bulgarian ally. In 1943, thousands of Macedonian Jews, including all Neta’s family, were deported to the death camp at Treblinka. Neta/Maria only survived because she was safely hidden by her husband, his family, and his team. Her two sons had Christian names and were not included in the lists of Jews to be rounded up. FC Macedonia also had a Jewish coach, Ilies Spitz; the football team kept him safe from deportation, too.

After the War

Neta/Maria survived the war to live a long life as wife, mother and grandmother, though always saddened by what happened to her family and the whole Jewish community she had known in her youth. In 2013, a Macedonian film The Third Half told Neta Koen’s story, mixing true events with some dramatized changes and additions.

Thinking points

Educators could look at the life story of Neta Cohen and work with young people to consider this remarkable story and perspective on the role of football and the complexity of relationships in times of persecution.

Neta’s family and neighbours were among the 7144 Macedonian Jews deported to the Treblinka death camp in March 1943. Neta and her two sons were hidden and saved by her husband’s family and football club, along with the team’s Jewish coach. What may have been the role of football in this local community?

Other questions might look further into the specific history of the Holocaust in this region. The 2019 IHRA Teaching Guidelines can be easily accessed for this purpose.

Find out more

In 1995, Neta Koen (Maria Mladenovska) recorded the story of her survival and later life experiences for the United States Holocaust Memorial Collections, and also retold the later as the women who inspired “The Third Half”. This video (using a testimony from the USC Shoah Foundation archive) helps to learn about Neta’s everyday life growing up in the Jewish community, her experience during the razzia’s (warning: the video contains graphic images).


Neta Cohen, Family archive, retrieved via Holocaust Fund of the Jews from Macedonia

Neta Cohen, Family archive, retrieved via Holocaust Fund of the Jews from Macedonia.

Life Story

A Jewish woman who fell in love with a footballer and escaped the Holocaust.


Article Tags:   diversity  |   ethnicity  |   Holocaust  |   World War 2

LIFE STORIES  To discover now

Eddy Hamel: New York, Amsterdam, Auschwitz

Eddy Hamel: New York, Amsterdam, Auschwitz

Eddy Hamel was the first Jewish player, and the first American, to play for Ajax Amsterdam, but his life ended in tragedy at Auschwitz. His story is one the Holocaust and migration.

Do you wanna know more?



Browse our collection of stories about football history and inclusion. With the history of football being made up of millions of stories, of individuals and communities, of movements and processes, we offer stories that can inspire our cultural conversations today.


Get to know untold stories where individuals are making history with football. When faced with insurmountable challenges, individuals past and present can use football as a cultural force to foster positive change in society. We honour these individuals and tell their ‘untold’ stories in short videos.

Educational Resources

Explore our innovative educational resources that use football’s history, heritage and legacy to engage young people. The resources include ready-made lesson plans and historical source collections for school history education as well as toolkit with activities for non-formal settings.

Trending Stories



In the wake of the 2015 migration peak, activists and volunteers across Europe have been involved in supporting refugees, sometimes with the simple act of offering space and friendship to participate in football through grassroots clubs to help newcomers integrate.

The Match when Tito Died

The Match when Tito Died

On May 4th 1980 Yugoslav communist leader and lifelong president Marshal Tito passed away while the country was watching the game between Hajduk Split and Red Star Belgrade. Ten years later, another game siding a Croatian club against a Serbian club on May 13th 1990, had the country on the brink of collapse.

LATEST POST  You may also be interested in

A long journey

A long journey

Retelling the history of the women’s football in Northern Ireland offers us a view on how the game came, went and is here to stay.

April in Football

April in Football

What moments in football history have we highlighted in the last month? How do they provide us with historical mirrors to the present?

Class war on the football pitch

Class war on the football pitch

Football StoriesOn this day, International Workers’ Day, also known as Labour Day or May Day, is celebrated in many countries around the world to honour and remember the struggle and fight for rights for the working class and workers. During the latter half of the...

Share This