As much as anything else, Edith Mayer Cord may have owed her survival during the Holocaust to her facility with languages, said Emily Cord-Duthinh, one of Cord’s two daughters. Cord was fluent in German, French and English and knew reasonable amounts of Italian and Yiddish. She survived the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied France by posing as a native.
“Because of her linguistic ability, she was able to pass as French, even though French was her third language,” said Cord-Duthinh, an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit, who lives in Michigan. “But she spoke French without an accent, and that enabled her to survive in hiding as a French girl.”
Cord died Sept. 21 at 93 after an eight-year battle with cancer. A resident of Columbia since 1984, she was known for speaking and writing about her experiences during the Holocaust.
Cord was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1928. When she was 9, her family immigrated to Italy before fleeing to France as refugees. After France fell to Germany, her father, Schmil Juda Mayer, and older brother, Kurt, were imprisoned as enemies of the state, based on their Jewish identity. Both later died in Auschwitz.
Edith Cord’s mother, Anna Buchholz Mayer, was able to survive the war in the village of Montlaur in Vichy France, said Cord-Duthinh.
Cord lived in Montlaur with her mother for a year. With the support of the Jewish resistance movement, Cord went into hiding in 1943 in a series of boarding schools in southern France. She was 15 at the time.
“She talked a lot about it, basically of the challenge of not being able to talk to anybody,” said Louise Cord, one of Cord’s daughters, who lives in Bethesda. “She had a false name, she had false papers and she constantly lived in fear, particularly the year when she was in hiding, of being discovered.”
In 1944, again with help from the resistance, Edith Cord crossed the Swiss border near Geneva. She spent a year in Switzerland until the end of the war, when she returned to France and reunited with her mother.
Between 1941 and 1945, Cord had essentially received no education, often working as a farmhand in fields or vineyards, Louise Cord explained. However, after the war, with the support of a tutor provided in part by the French government, she was able to pass the French baccalauréat and later acquired the equivalent of a master’s degree in German literature at a university in Toulouse.
After receiving an affidavit from a cousin in America, Cord immigrated to the United States in 1952, said Louise Cord. She met her future husband, Steven Cord, at a picnic organized by the Ethical Society of New York.
“They spent hours talking about how to change the world and make it a better place, something that both of them were committed to doing,” Louise Cord said. “I think they fell in love in the world of ideas.”
They married in 1954.
The couple moved to Indiana, Pa., in 1962, where Cord taught as a professor of French and German at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, creating her own course on German fairy tales.
Cord also had a career as a financial planner. In 2006, she retired as a financial planner to focus on writing. She published her first book, “L’Éducation d’un Enfant Caché,” in 2013, and her second book, “Finding Edith,” in 2019. In addition to her memoirs, she wrote poems, short stories and fables.
Cord became an active speaker at schools and civic groups on the Holocaust and her personal experiences during it. Often, her talks touched on the origins of Nazism and how it began with dividing people into categories of “us” and “them,” said Cord-Duthinh. Cord wanted to spread a message of tolerance, courage and of standing up in the face of difficult circumstances, Louise Cord said.
“She was an inspiration, a force of nature, a source of wisdom and light, and with passion for life,” Louise Cord said.
Edith Cord was preceded in death by her son Daniel and husband Steven. She is survived by her daughters Emily and Louise; daughter-in-law Leigh Hellner; sons-in-law Vuong Duthinh and Philippe Guiot; grandchildren David, Caroline, Julien, Aaron, Ethan, Anna and Shane; extended family and many cherished friends.