In 1625 the British philosopher Francis Bacon defined vengeance as “a kind of wild justice.” “The more man’s nature runs to [vengeance],” he wrote, “the more ought law to weed it out.” But some types of vengeance were more acceptable than others, and Bacon clarified that “the most tolerable sort of revenge is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy.”
Though World War II’s industrialized brutality would have been unimaginable to Bacon, and is still unimaginable to us nearly a century later, Nazi Germany’s genocidal march across Europe surely falls into the category of “those wrongs which there is no law to remedy.” The destruction of the thousand-year-old civilization of European Judaism, abetted by the support and indifference of an entire society, is a crime for which no legal system can offer adequate restitution. What forms of revenge, then—what forms of “wild justice”—are more or less “tolerable” responses?
This is no theoretical question. After the war concluded, some individuals harmed by Germans took matters into their own hands. One vengeful Polish militiaman who was barely out of his teens oversaw the murder of thousands of German civilians and prisoners of war, including as many as 800 children. As historian Dina Porat writes, “There were Greek, Ukrainian, Slovak, French, Italian, Hungarian, and other citizens who, after being freed from the camps, refused to return home until they enacted their revenge.”
But until the publication of Porat’s recent book, Nakam: The Holocaust Survivors Who Sought Full-Scale Revenge, translated from the Hebrew by Mark L. Levinson, relatively little has been written about the organized attempts of Jews to avenge the Holocaust. Nakam, whose title is the Hebrew word for vengeance, tells the story of a group of survivors and partisan fighters who remained in Europe after the war’s end, formed a clandestine group they called the Nokmim (Avengers), and, in response to the genocide of Europe’s Jews, attempted to kill 6 million German citizens—men, women, and children—by poisoning the water supplies of major German cities and by delivering arsenic-laced bread to German prisoners of war.
The story runs contrary to the still-too-prevalent notion that the Holocaust’s victims went passively to their deaths. The Avengers consisted of 50 Jews who had fought as partisans against their Nazi occupiers and who, after Germany lost the war, committed themselves to wreaking vengeance for the murders of their family and friends, and the destruction of their civilization.
The singer-songwriter Daniel Kahn has outlined this story in his song “Six Million Germans/Nakam,” and Rich Cohen’s 2000 book The Avengers: A Jewish War Story is a compelling, novelistic account of the group’s leaders and their relationships, focused on their armed resistance during the war. Porat’s Nakam, as the first book to comprehensively describe the Avengers’ postwar operations, and to analyze the voluminous, often contradictory materials portraying the group’s associations with the Zionist leaders who would soon run the state of Israel, will likely stand as the definitive book on this complex and disturbing chapter of modern Jewish history.
It is impossible to imagine entirely the trauma and despair that motivated these Avengers. After the horrors they had witnessed and endured under Germany’s genocidal occupation, they were united by a certainty that the world as a meaningful, coherent place had ended forever, as had the possibility of constructing a new life in the ashes of the old. They described themselves occasionally as zombielike creatures, no longer human, animated only by the drive for revenge. As the Avenger Poldek Wasserman, who later changed his name to Yehuda Maimon, put it: “Instead of suicide, after you arrived home and found that no one was left and the scope of the disaster was unbearable, came vengeance. Vengeance was a kind of suicide, because afterward there would certainly be no sense staying alive.”
Abba Kovner, the leader of the Avengers, a partisan commander from Lithuania who would become one of Israel’s most lauded poets, also framed the group’s plot as a suicidal response to a world that had become unlivable. He reflected, decades later: “I will not claim that our thinking was far from deranged in those days. … Maybe worse than deranged. A terrifying idea, made wholly from despair and carrying a sort of suicide within it.”
Deranged and terrifying though this idea was, the Avengers shared a total commitment to their goal of revenge. They were motivated not only by their suicidal rage, grief, and despair but also by the fear that, despite Germany’s defeat, the Holocaust was not over, and the idea that they had to act boldly in order to prevent the last vestiges of European Judaism from being wiped out forever. It is easy to assume that the Allied victory meant the end of antisemitic violence in Europe. But even after the war, as Porat writes, “gangs of former Nazis, together with criminal elements and wartime collaborators, continued killing Jews … and banded together as if their mandate had never ended.”
Many Jews returned to their hometowns only to be murdered by their erstwhile neighbors. In the Lithuanian city of Eišiškės, five survivors were killed by anonymous assailants; their bodies were placed with a handwritten note that read, “This will be the fate of all Jews left alive.” Rumors swirled throughout Europe of a clandestine German special forces organization known as the Werewolf Unit, whose mission was to continue fighting for Nazism after the war. The Avengers believed that only mass, retaliatory violence would make Europe’s violent antisemites think twice about spilling more Jewish blood.
While traveling across Europe in 1945 and 1946, often under forged documents or with the help of the Jewish Brigade of the British military, the Avengers settled on two ways to accomplish their goals. Plan A, the indiscriminate murder of 6 million Germans, involved infiltrating and poisoning the municipal water systems of major German cities. Plan B, the mass execution of SS and Gestapo veterans, took a similar shape, with a plot to deliver poisoned bread to Allied POW camps. But how to procure the necessary poison? In August 1945, Abba Kovner set sail for the Jewish community of Palestine, then under British colonial administration, to find the support the Avengers would need.
In her discussion of Kovner’s Palestine trip, Porat addresses and resolves one of the most controversial and uncertain aspects of the story: the involvement of Palestine’s Jewish political and military leaders in the Avengers’ operations. She shows that Kovner willfully misled the highest leaders of Palestine’s Jewish community, in insisting that the Avengers planned only to target war criminals. Convinced by his dishonest assurances, they supported the Avengers’ operations. With the understanding that the poison would be used to kill SS veterans, and not German civilians, the scientists Ephraim Katzir—who would later become Israel’s fourth president—and his brother Aharon provided Kovner with a quantity of arsenic sufficient to kill over 10 million people.
Despite his claims, however, Kovner intended to use this poison to fulfill the mission of killing German men, women, and children. As he reflected, years later, “I lied with a clear conscience. Not for a moment, even until now, have I had any doubt that Plan A was correct and was a necessity.” And while he was lying to the men who would soon run the state of Israel, an Avenger named Willek Shenar, a Polish Jew who was his family’s sole survivor, began working under a false identity at the water purification plant that served Nuremberg and formed a detailed plan to pump poison across the city.
On Dec. 14, 1945, Kovner set sail for France from Alexandria, Egypt, identifying himself as a discharged British soldier. He carried a bag that held 12 powdered milk cans filled with arsenic, which he would bring to Nuremberg. But as his ship neared Toulon, France, a detachment of British military police came aboard, looking for him and four other men traveling from Palestine on false documents. In a panic, Kovner threw the bag of arsenic into the sea.
When Kovner’s comrades in Europe learned of his arrest, and of the loss of the poison, they switched their energies to Plan B. Using arsenic they had acquired from contacts in the former French Resistance, Avengers poisoned thousands of loaves of bread bound for the Langwasser POW camp, which was under the administration of the United States. Some 2,000 SS veterans became ill, and hundreds were hospitalized, but none died. Two and a half months later, all the Avengers were settling into Palestine, having failed to accomplish even a fraction of the spectacular, violent revenge they were desperate for.
Much of Porat’s book recounting this story consists of detailed arguments describing the Avengers’ precise logistical preparations for their plans and the complex, often tense, relationships between this militant group and Palestine’s Jewish leaders; these will likely be of interest only to specialists in modern Jewish and European history. But the book’s concluding sections, which survey the Avengers’ more recent reflections on their plot to kill 6 million Germans, are harrowing, especially when Porat suspends her scholarly objectivity in order to show their psychic scars.
She describes an interview she conducted in 2010 with the aging Avenger Idek Friedman. The interview is almost over, when
suddenly and without warning, Idek disregards the present time. He sits tensely forward, his eyes fixed on a point above the shelves, and from his throat comes a howl: “Why?! Why?! Why was the operation stopped?! Father and Mother will never forgive me for not doing anything! Mama, Papa, I did nothing! They stripped them and shot them. I went home, and the place was empty. We were seven children. My uncle had ten. We should have tried again and again!” His howling seems endless.
Against that endless howling, rational ideas about justice and recompense seem utterly devoid of meaning.
By Dina Porat. Stanford University Press.
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Many of the Avengers came to think differently about Plan A as time passed. Simcha Rotem described it in retrospect as “an utterly lunatic idea” and suggested that the guilt of murdering so many children would have driven him to suicide; Vitka Kempner-Kovner, an Avenger who later married Abba Kovner, described their attempted mass murder as “a Satanic concept” and “a destructive ideology.”
But others maintained their righteousness. As Avenger Yitzhak Avidan said in 1995, “If Jesus had been through the Holocaust, he would have helped to found the Nokmim. And if Kovner hadn’t gone off to Palestine, they would have gone through with Plan A. No doubt about it. The comrades remained clean morally while doing foul, dirty work. They tried to do what God, if not imaginary, should have done.”
In Porat’s account, the Avengers were paradoxes: Each of them was committed to humanistic values, and at the same time, each was so brutalized by the genocide they had endured that they were desperate to visit that same brutality on millions of people. Beyond the scope and detail of the book’s historical analysis, Porat’s brilliance lies in her ability to present these contradictions and complexities without reducing them to a single-faceted narrative or moral judgment. For traumatized survivors, a genocide can have no satisfying resolution, and in its portrayal of the Holocaust’s aftermath, Nakam is a disturbing and deeply human story of the pursuit of “wild justice” when no justice is possible.