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