Edith M. Cord was a young girl when she began a six-year journey escaping Nazi pursuers and after the end of World War II emigrated to the United States where she had careers as a college professor and writer, died of cancer Sept. 21 at her Columbia home. She was 93.
The former Edith Mayer, daughter of Schmil Juda Mayer, who worked in retail clothing sales, and his wife, Anna Buchholtz Mayer, a homemaker, was born in Vienna, Austria.
As the shadow of Nazism fell across Austria in 1936, the family of four fled to Italy, and two years later after Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini became allies, the Mayers were on the move again, from Genoa to France, because Italy had passed the same anti-Jewish laws that were similar to the Nuremberg laws.
“I was 10 1/2. The four of us sat in the back of the bus terrified. The conductor, I’m sure he knew we were Jewish,” Ms. Cord explained in a 1987 Evening Sun interview. But he didn’t say a word. Sometimes your life hangs on a thread like that.”
Unable to receive a visa, they entered France illegally in April 1939, settling in Nice after being granted political asylum. Their fears subsided until June 1940 when France surrendered to Germany, and were heightened a month later, when early one morning two French police officers knocked on their door.
Her father and brother were arrested as enemy aliens and given 30 minutes to pack. They were sent to Les Milles, a camp near Marseille. She would never see them again.
They were released in 1940 and rearrested and sent to the Gurs internment camp in the Pyrenees in southwestern France, and after making their way through several other camps, were finally sent to Auschwitz during the summer of 1942.
In Sept. 1942, a telegram arrived from her father and brother: “Destination unknown. God bless you. Goodbye.”
Five years would pass before she learned that they had perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
For a time, she and her mother remained in Nice, until once again, the rise of antisemitism forced them to move to a small village in Vichy where mother and daughter did farm work, until the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps, forced Ms. Cord to go underground and into hiding.
In July 1943, and with the help of the Jewish underground rescue network and La Sixieme, an outgrowth of Jewish scouts, Ms. Cord, 15, who was now separated from her mother, was given a new identity with false ID papers.
She was now Elise Maillet who was born in northern France to nonpracticing Catholic parents, and her father was now a German POW.
On the run, she finally found refuge in a convent school.
“I did everything they did. I repeated the ‘Our Fathers’ and the ‘Hail Marys’ with the best of them but it [a convent education] had no effect on me,” she said in The Evening Sun interview. “I was busy trying to stay alive. I was busy trying to remember my lies. Just trying to concentrate on my name took all my energies.”
Food was scarce and daily rations consisted of a tiny square of cream cheese that was accompanied by small portions of turnips, carrots or rutabagas. She fell ill with diphtheria and then scarlet fever while festered sores crept over her body.
“At that point, I had hit rock bottom. I’d given up the will to live and the will to fight,” she said in the interview.
In October 1943, she wrote a letter to her mother on toilet paper.
“I said we’re all going to die anyway, so I’d like to come home. At the time, Roosevelt was saying there were so many ships and so many bombs on the way. But I kept thinking; ‘We’ll never last that long.’ And we didn’t. Most of us didn’t.”
She left the convent school and continued her perambulations across southern France, a journey that took her to a French boarding school, then onto a school for the mentally ill, and then one for farm girls, keenly aware that she was probably being pursued by the Nazis and continually looking over her shoulder.
“The necessity to lie becomes a tremendous burden,” she said in the interview. “You get to the point where you’re ready to explode.”
At Christmas 1943, she was hiding with a group of 80 Jewish children at an old French army camp in Florac where they danced the hora to ward off the bitter cold and keep warm.
With the help of the Jewish underground, in the spring of 1944, Ms. Cord was among a group of 30 Jewish refugee children who were going to escape to neutral Switzerland. A long train ride transported them to the border and then a perilous crossing of open fields while German airplanes flew over head and then through deep, dark woods.
A terrified 5-year-old boy, who was the youngest member of the refugees, began to cry as tree branches hit his face. The guides threatened to leave him behind until the other refugees formed a wedge in order to protect the boy’s face, who did not cry until they safely made their way into Switzerland.
At long last, six years on the run had ended for Ms. Cord. Her ordeal was over.
“We all threw ourselves on the ground. We kissed the ground. We embraced. Freedom!” she told The Evening Sun. “Everyday seems like a century when you are hiding, all your thoughts, all of your energies are focused on one thing: staying alive.”
She worked as a nanny in Switzerland and when the end of the war came, she returned to France where she was reunited with her mother.
She earned her baccalaureate in philosophy and a licence ès lettres from the University of Toulouse. In 1952, she moved to New York where she met and fell in love with Steven B. Cord whom she married in 1954.
The couple moved to Indiana, Pennsylvania, where they joined the faculty of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where her husband was a history professor and she taught French and German from 1962 to 1979.
While in Pennsylvania, they became active in civil rights and established a committee that offered scholarships to local Black students. They also organized a Speakers Bureau whose mission was to create a dialogue around topics of race and social inclusion.
After leaving the university, she became a certified financial planner and securities broker, and retired in 2006 to concentrate on writing. Her first book, “L’Education d’un Enfant Cache,” was published in 2013, and her second book, “Finding Edith: Surviving the Holocaust in Plain Sight,” was published in 2019. In addition to her memoirs, she was a prolific writer of poems, short stories and fables.
She enjoyed speaking at schools, universities and civic groups where she spoke of her wartime travails and of the lessons she learned about rising above difficult situations, transcending hatred, finding meaning and showing tolerance.
In 2019, she spoke before a rapt group of students at Oklahoma Road Middle School in Carroll County.
“Bad guys can’t be appeased. they will take as much from you as they can from you,” she said, as reported by the Carroll County Times. “It doesn’t start with death camps and machine guns. It starts with ideas. We think of ideas as flimsy or unimportant, but that is the basis of our lives.
“Germany took the wrong fork in the road,” she told the students, “By glorifying ethnicity. Which is how they came up with the phrase, ‘blood and soil,’ which we heard recently in Charlottesville.”
She added: “My goal is not to pour my heart out and elicit sympathy, I’ve dealt with this past and I would just as soon go and do something else. But I think there’s such terrible lessons to be learned and I don’t want us to repeat the same mistakes.”
“My mother was a woman of great strength. Some don’t like to talk about what happened in those years and hide it,” said a daughter, Louise Judith Cord of Bethesda.
“My mother talked about it, did not hide it, nor did she dwell on it. She went through huge soul searching and had an intense desire to learn more and make something of herself, and she had the ability to keep going,” she said. “She was always seeking answers to big questions.”
A resident of Columbia since 1984, Ms. Cord was not a member of a congregation.
“She believed in the afterlife and loved celebrating the Jewish holidays,” her daughter said. “She always felt very Jewish.”
Her son, Daniel Cord, died in 2012, and her husband in 2020.
Services were held Sept. 23 at Columbia Memorial Park in Clarksville.
She is survived by another daughter, Emily Duthinh Cord of Clarkston, Michigan; and seven grandchildren.