Lona Cohen

A hero to some, betrayer to many

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On a train ride from Albuquerque to New York City, in August 1945, a Russian spy averted detection by handing the stolen plans she had wrapped in a newspaper to a military officer for safekeeping while she fumbled with her luggage and purse.

When the search of her luggage was over, the officer, never the wiser, handed the newspaper and stolen plans back to her. Had he stopped to check the papers, he would have discovered that he was holding the Manhattan Project's plans for the atomic bomb.

The spy, Lona Cohen, continued on to New York and delivered the documents to her handlers. Known by the code name "Leslie," she was one-half of "Dachniki" ("Vacationers" in Russian). Her husband, Morris Cohen, code name "Luis," was her partner. The couple, also known as Helen and Peter Kroger, would later be arrested in England, where posing as antiquarian booksellers they worked as radio operators for a KGB spy ring in the London suburb of Ruislip.

But long before her days as a spy or even as a member of the Communist Party, Lona Cohen lived in Adams, where she attended Renfrew Elementary School and later, St. Stanislaus Kostka School, according to the October 1983 Adams Historical Society Newsletter. Born Leontina "Lona" Petka, on Jan. 11, 1913, she was one of six daughters of Wladyslaw and Mary Petka, Polish immigrants who met and married in Adams. The family lived on Bellevue Avenue for a time, before purchasing a tenement on Albert Street.

"They were a typical Polish family," Eugene Michalenko, historical society president, told The Eagle in a 2005 interview. He noted that unlike Susan B. Anthony, who was also born in town, Cohen wasn't remembered by townsfolk in the same way, if at all.

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"As intriguing as all this is, she still betrayed her country," he said.

The family moved to Connecticut in 1923, eventually settling in Norwich. According to numerous reports, Lona ran away in 1928. Little is known about her whereabouts during that time, but she later appears in the 1940 U.S. Census working as a "baby nurse," for Joseph and Ethel Weinstein on West End Avenue in New York City. She tells the census worker that she works 60 hours a week and that her highest level of education was the eighth grade.

Petka is believed to have joined the Communist Party around 1935, just prior to meeting Morris Cohen in 1938. The couple married in Norwich on July 13, 1941. When Morris Cohen was drafted during World War II, Lona took up his courier work. In 1951, when friends and fellow spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were arrested by the FBI, the Soviets helped the Cohens make their way to Mexico. The couple disappeared, but according to the book, "The Sword and the Shield," they were in Russia undergoing training in coding and decoding. In 1954, they re-emerged in England as a New Zealand couple known as the Krogers.

In 1960, British Intelligence broke the KGB spy ring run by the Krogers (Cohens). British police found a 74-foot antenna with a transmitter capable of reaching Moscow in the attic of the Kroger's house. The couple was arrested and tried. They were sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 1969, the Krogers/Cohens were released to the Soviet Union in exchange for Gerald Brook, a British school teacher held by the Soviet Union for smuggling anti-Soviet literature into the country. The Cohens were awarded the Order of the Red Star upon their arrival in Russia and began teaching at the KGB training academy.

Lona Cohen died of cancer in 1992. Morris Cohen followed his wife in 1995. In 2005, former Eagle reporter Christopher Marcisz reported the couple was buried in Moscow, where their black marble tombstone bears their etched likenesses along with a ribbon marking them as "Heroes of the Russian Federation."

— Jennifer Huberdeau, The Berkshire Eagle


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