After the Holocaust, a group of young Jews decided to enact revenge on the Germans. They called themselves The Avengers. Their plan? An equivalent punishment
An Eye for an Eye - Yad Vashem Podcast
Nate Nelson: "Your righteous blood will forever be a stain on Hitler's Germany. Rest in Peace. We, the surviving remnants, will avenge your blood - our blood."
These words were written in Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew by survivors of the city of Rovno at the remains of the murder site of the city's Jews.
Calls for revenge could be heard as early as late 1942, when the dimensions of the Holocaust were becoming apparent. These continued after liberation - when many survivors spoke about the desire and need to take revenge. Did such revenge ever come to fruition? Who, exactly, was to the target of revenge? Did most survivors take this path? What dilemmas were involved? And who were the avengers?
I'm Nate Nelson. Welcome to "On the Holocaust" from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. In today's episode, Professor Dina Porat, Yad Vashem's chief historian and the Head of the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University - on the avengers.
Nelson: Greetings Professor Porat, thank you for sitting with me. We're going to be discussing the avengers here, but first: on which historical sources did you base your research?
Dr. Porat: there were - and there still are - here in Israel, rumors, stories, legends, accusations, whatever, regarding the story of this group, this particular group, of avengers: the group, of about fifty, who wanted to kill six million Germans. I wanted to go deep down into the sources and find the story as it really was, which is of course - the slogan of a historian: "as it really was."
The sources are, first of all, the testimonies of the members of the group. There were fifty, but thirty-five were active and you could find the testimonies. They held at home, for many years and didn’t release them until I came, until they saw there is a serious effort: diaries; letters; correspondence; memoirs - in Yiddish, in Lithuanian, in German, in Hebrew - so I had their testimonies and I had their material. A very important point was that Vitka Kovner-Kempner, the life companion of Abba Kovner - the lead poet and partisan charismatic leader - the living spirit of this group, when I came to her and told her, after having written his biography, some twenty years ago, and I told her, "I would like to write on the group," she just went and took from his closet – from his archive – a file with all the documents that pertained [to] the revenge group, gave it to me in hand and said, "Here, take it." That was a very important source, second source. And then I collected the testimonies of all those who were in touch with them: from the "Hagana" - which is the military branch of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in pre-state Israel, between the two wars - the Hagana, the Palmach – [another] military unit - the leaders of the Yishuv, other survivors. I had a host of testimonies. I also had material that was in the archive for many years and wasn’t exposed, and this material is mainly about the attitude of the Yishuv, the Zionist leaders, towards this group and towards their plans.
I also would like to thank [the] Associated Press. And why is that? Because they helped me, I helped them interview the avengers, and they helped me get the minutes of the American investigation of their deeds in Germany. Which was also a very important source.
Nelson: What characterizes the avengers as a group?
Dr. Porat: There is an interesting point here because they had - they still have - what I would call a "collective biography." It's not only an individual biography of each of them, which of course everyone has, but a collective one - which means that they were the outcome, the best outcome of the Jewish educational systems, between the two world wars. They had a Jewish education - Zionist education. They spoke Hebrew. They spoke Yiddish. They went to Jewish high schools - not all of them but most of them. They were members of youth movements before the war. During the war they were either partisans, or ghetto fighters, or were caught as ghetto fighters and sent to camps but managed to become members of another underground in the camps, or to run away during the death marches. They were activists, young men and women. Some of the women were legendary partisans. Vitka got a medal, "Hero of the Soviet Union"; this is something that very few got. And so they were - as they were regarded by others - the crème de la crème of the Jewish public between the wars.
But then this group, with so much values and morality etcetera etcetera, wanted to kill six million people. And certainly among these six million could have been, god forbid, women and children, and men, who did not take part in the Holocaust; knew about it perhaps, but didn’t take part in it. So indeed this is a diabolic plan, no doubt. But the main reason for this plan, this wish, was of course the Holocaust itself. What the Germans did to the Jews - in what manners, in which cruelty etc. we know the story - this is of course the main reason. But after the war, and after the Holocaust "as if" ended, there were postwar reasons. One was that they felt that they have to fulfill a will; that there is a will, a testament that was left by Jews who were killed, and wanted their blood to be avenged, and wrote in the last letters, in the last words, when they threw a boy from the train, the only survivor from the whole family, and said, "You will take revenge for us." Sometimes there were, in quite a number of places on the walls, where Jews were imprisoned before [they were] taken to death, people wrote with blood, "Yidden, nemen nekume!" – "Jews, take revenge!" And they felt that there is a testament here that should be followed and fulfilled. Secondly, they felt that the world is going on as it did before, as if nothing happened, as if no gigantic crime had been perpetrated. The Nuremberg trials started October 1945 - there was no representation for the Jewish people in the Nurnberg trials. We did not have a state. There was no representation. America tried to rebuild Germany. First there was the Morgenthau Plan which was more severe towards Germany, then came the Marshall Plan - because the Americans saw the cold war coming. They wanted Germany rebuilt as a barrier against the Soviets. OK, so - where is punishment? Where is some justice in this crazy world? They wanted a revenge on a scale that will tell the world at large that no such crime is possible to go unpunished. So it was punishment that they wanted, but also a warning. They wanted the deed to serve as a warning because they said that the war was over but the Holocaust was not. Jews who came back to see whether the house is still there, someone from the family came back to Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Poland - were killed. The houses were already taken, the property was taken. "What are you coming… Who asked you to come back? Who wants you?" In Poland alone, between - the estimation[s] move from 1,000 to 1,500 people killed after the war. So, with such murders and antisemitism still going on, they felt that a warning should be issued so that no one will decide that the Holocaust can continue. Because it was so easy to kill the Jews and to take the property. They were also very much afraid of Stalin, who still was very much alive - he passed away in 1953 - and with good reasons. So for these reasons these was their goals.
Nelson: So now that we know who they were, and what their plans were, what actually happened when they intended to carry out those plans?
Dr. Porat: As we said they were looking for a means, a way, to kill six million, and decided that poison that would be thrown into the water systems of big German cities would be the best way. For that purpose they more or less crystalized on the roads of Europe coming down to the south with thousands of survivors whom they were leading - they led not only the revenge, they led the escape out of Europe - they brought these thousands to the Jewish Brigade - that was a unit with in the British army stationed in northern Italy - gave them the responsibility for these thousands, went to Germany, were separated to small groups to look in which cities you can make it. The leader, Abba Kovner, took a ship - with false papers of course - a British ship to the Land of Israel, to get support from the leadership of the Yishuv, and to get poison. He didn't get any support, at any minute, from any leader of the Yishuv who came to know about it, for the killing of six million. That was out of the question for the Yishuv, for all reasons - ethically, morally, politically. They wanted to take care of the survivors, bring them to the Land of Israel, and to have a state. To start killing millions under the very nose of the British and the Americans - who would support you? Perhaps they would have said that we are not worthy to have a state after such a deed.
Kovner understood right away that this plan is not accepted. He didn’t tell his comrades who were in groups in Germany, working and looking for the right places, and he devised one more plan - plan B: to poison - hurt, kill, whatever - soldiers and officers of the SS who were prisoners of war in American and British camps in Germany - that was divided, you know, among the Soviets, French, American[s], British. And this was accepted in the Yishuv – "To kill SS people? Of course. In the Nurnberg trials they were declared a criminal organization. They were certainly among [those] responsible for the Holocaust."
Nelson: And by what means was he going to do this?
Dr. Porat: He got poison. He got it from two brothers who were then students in the Hebrew University. He got the poison, and at a certain point tried to go back to his friends, his comrades with the poison. But he went back - again on a British ship, again with false papers; not [very] good papers - and the British were careful not to have anyone infiltrate under their very nose who was not a British soldier, and they caught him and three others. When he was caught and arrested, he threw the poison down into the Mediterranean. He was arrested, and he is now out of the picture.
Here we have the group still in Germany. They, some of them, were already working as workers, employees, employed in the water systems of two major German cities - Hamburg and Nuremberg. And they were waiting for the poison. Had the poison come, they were already with their hand – they had their hand on how to manage the water system. But the poison didn’t come. And not only did the poison not come, those leaders of the Yishuv who understood that they are up to kill[ing] six million, had their eye on them and their hand, and were inspecting them.
And so they started the other plan. The other plan, to kill - to poison - the SS soldiers and officers, by another poison. One of them was a chemist. He concocted another one, very good poison again, and they glued it to three thousand loaves of bread, in a bakery - again, they worked hard to become employees in the bakery - a bakery that was serving bread to these prisoners of war. They had - as is told you, I had the American minutes - after this gluing of the bread, they hoped very much – three thousands loaves, cut it to four, could be served to twelve thousand prisoners. And so it was.
But none of them died! Because they weren’t such expert on poison. They didn’t know how to mix it and glue it and work with it. the Americans saw immediately that something is wrong with the prisoners. They were feeling bad, there was like a general plague in the camp. Took them all to hospitals to be treated, and the stomachs washed and no one died. But still even if no one died, they were very happy. They did something - at least there was an attempt, a proper attempt. So one can say that they failed, because no German was really killed during these two major attempts. But it was attempted.
Nelson: What were the members of the group thinking, given the results of the poison attempts?
Dr. Porat: When I wrote the biography of Abba Kovner, which was published in 2000, during the time I met a lot of them. Because some of them were with him in the ghetto and in the forests. So I came to know them personally. I visited their homes, I invited them to my home - Israeli habit is to visit and to be visited - and I asked them that question. And in the final chapter of my book, I bring the opinion of each one of them. I asked them, "OK, what do you think today? Should you have carried this plan out? Or are you happy that it wasn’t?" OK, this is personal. Some of them, even two of the ladies - very militant ladies, who used to be partisans – said, "Ha! Of course they should have been killed. We are absolutely sorry until today that they weren't killed, that they didn’t get what they deserved; that the German people as a whole went unpunished. Ok, some were hung in Nuremberg. So what?" After the war, you know that the Allies opened the prisoner's camps after a while - they couldn’t handle so many, they couldn’t feed so many. They opened the gates said " 'Yalla,' [Hebrew slang for "go!" – trans.] go home." Until the Seventies Germany was run, the ministers, the municipalities, by ex-members of the Nazi party! So they said, "Of course," - the avengers, some of them said – "of course we should have done that. And it’s a pity we didn't. We should not have asked what the Yishuv thinks, or Ben-Gurion thinks [head of the pre-state Yishuv – trans.]," But others say, "Thank god we didn’t succeed! What could have happened? How would the Jewish people have been looked at, had we killed six million people? They would have said that we do not deserve to have a state at all. What could I have told my children and my grandchildren, if I had – [that is,] if I was not caught and executed?" So some of them are very happy. And when I tell them - we became good friends as I told you - when I say, "Killing six million people - that’s a crazy idea!" some of them say "had you, God forbid, had undergone the Holocaust, and be[en] with us in th[ose] days after the war, when we were destitute and desperate, and lost everything, you wouldn’t think that it was a crazy idea. It was the right idea. It was the right idea - we are happy it didn’t materialize." So you see there are others who takes both sides – "It was a good… definitely a necessary idea - but thank God."
And therefore my book is called, "Vengeance and Recompense Are Mine." Why is that? Because God says - and it goes all along the Bible - that it's only up to God to take revenge; or when he orders someone, or charges him or her with the mission. But when you look at the Bible, and there is a good analysis of the place of revenge in the Bible – it's only God. People cannot take the law in their hands; people cannot kill, otherwise it's endless. I kill someone from you family you kill back, etc. I think in their hearts, they are happy it didn’t materialize. No doubt.
Nelson: You know, with everything you just said it's remarkable to me that this story took so long to be told.
Dr. Porat: They were quiet. They swore to be quiet and not to tell their story. And they didn’t tell it until the 1980s. They said something in the 1960s, but not in their full name, very few of them. They didn’t want to tell their story because they were afraid that it would not be understood. And people in the Land of Israel, and then Israel, which is a place of building, of looking to the future, will not understand this obsession with punishing for the past. Because we understand going on. And I think that perhaps Kovner, when he was on this ship coming back with the poison and he was arrested - he could have given the poison to some other soldiers from the Land of Israel who were with him on the ship and [told] them to bring it to Germany, but he didn’t. He threw it into the Mediterranean - I think because he, when coming back after a few months [or a] year, he was imbued with this spirit of doing, of going forward. When Ben-Gurion met – David Ben-Gurion – he met the person who replaced Kovner when Kovner went from Europe to get the poison, and he told him about the plan to kill six million. And Ben-Gurion looked at him and said - they were speaking Yiddish - acted very sympathetic towards him, very warmly, but he said, "Listen. If the death of six million Germans will not bring me back my six million Jews, I'm not interested." And that’s exactly the gist of it. He, and the survivors and the leadership - were not interested in revenge but in building new families, new life, new communities, building up a state, living among Jews, fighting – when during the war you were helpless and couldn’t fight. This is was they opted for.
Nelson: Can you give me an example of an opportunity for the Jewish people at revenge after the Holocaust, which was not utilized?
Dr Porat: In the French zone of Germany, I found it in the archives, a French officer and his soldiers located themselves in a German village, OK? And the German village was fine and the peasants were fine, everything was OK. And then they discovered that not far away there is a camp of Jewish survivors - D.P. camp; displaced persons camp - and one day he took some trucks, went to the Jews, put them on the trucks brought them to the German village, distributed pistols among them, and said, "Go ahead - kill the Germans and take their homes." And they looked at him and said, "Listen, sir. With all due respect, we don’t know them. These are not the people who killed our family. The people who killed our family were Slovaks and Romanian and Hungarian and Polish and Lithuanian and Ukrainians. These - we don’t know them. Perhaps they lived here during the war and didn’t do anything to us." And the French officer said, "You are crazy. Had we – the French – been, God forbid, in your place, we would have killed them on the spot. Look at how you look. You are destitute, you are thin, you are skeletons. Look at them!", said "sorry, really sorry," went up the trucks and went back to their camps.
Nelson: I would like to thank Professor Dina Porat for revealing to us the attitude among some Holocaust survivors after the war, and their attempts at taking revenge. I'm Nate Nelson, thank you for listening.