When historian Dina Porat began to research their story, 11 of them were still alive. They opened their diaries and their hearts, and showed her notes, letters, and yellowing papers in Polish, Lithuanian, German, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, some of which they had never shown to anyone. Later they told her everything they could, knowing this was the last opportunity to do so. Today only four are still alive; the youngest is 95 years old.
“They don’t regret the terrible thing they planned to do. They explain that only someone who was in their place could understand them, and they want to receive recognition and appreciation for the attempt, which fortunately was unsuccessful,” says Porat.
In recent years Porat has crisscrossed the country on a mission: to document – for the first time in a complete and comprehensive manner – the activity of Abba Kovner’s group Nakam, “The Avengers,” some 50 young men and women, who planned to murder six million Germans after World War II in revenge for the Holocaust.
As far as they were concerned, there was no need for warnings, arrests or trials. They wanted to take revenge – “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” – as is written in the Bible.
“They felt that the world was morally bankrupt, and only this punishment could settle the account and put it in order,” says Porat. “They believed that the laws practiced at the time did not provide a suitable response to the terrible crimes that were committed,” she says.
Calls for revenge against the Germans were already heard during the Holocaust. Starting in late 1942, when the dimensions of the Holocaust started to become clear, the Hebrew newspapers in Palestine were full of letters and articles demanding “revenge against the war criminals.” The headlines were unambiguous: “The Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community] should not remain silent,” “Every hand in Israel should take revenge,” “We will turn our mourning into the fury of revenge,” “Revenge will surely come,” and more. Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, said later: “I didn’t know a Jew who wasn’t obsessed with revenge.”
Against this backdrop, Kovner’s group began to organize. Its members, who were in their early twenties, emerged from the ghettoes and the forests, the camps and hiding places, each with his own story of tribulations, each with her own family loss. They began to organize in Lublin, the first large Polish city to be liberated at the end of the war. Kovner, the poet and partisan, who was also a gifted speaker, inspired them with his words.
‘They deserved it’
“When I heard about the revenge I was in seventh heaven, because they deserved it,” said Mira (Mirka) Verbin-Shabetzky, in her testimony to Porat, before her death in 2016 at the age of 96. Another member of her group, Tzila (Tesya) Rosenberg, said that Kovner’s words “shouted inside me in an insane tailspin.”
One after the other they told Porat about Kovner’s “hypnotic” ability to express himself and about the fact that he clothed their emotions in words. They added that they were consumed with hatred of the Germans, to the point where there was no need to convince them to sign up for the mission, because they “knew” it was their duty.
Various details about the activity of Kovner’s avengers have been published over the years, but Porat is the first senior historian to research all the written sources in depth, some of which she was the first to see, and meet the last surviving avengers face to face.
They set out in the summer of 1945. The members of the group were equipped with a false identity and forged papers, and were sent to mingle with the Germans. They planned to poison the city water supplies, according to one plan, or to poison loaves of bread that were distributed to German prisoners in POW camps, according to another. Two cities were chosen as targets for revenge: Nuremberg and Munich.
Joseph Harmat (Yulek) was chosen to be in charge of the activity in Nuremberg, one of the symbols of the Nazi regime. “I was grateful to be chosen for this job,” he said before his death in 2017. Working under him was Wilek Shinar, who was hired to work in Nuremberg’s center for distilling drinking water. Porat discovered that he was able to obtain the plans of the water system and in the end even gained control of the main valve.
While the group members were preparing to carry out the mission, Kovner was supposed to provide them with the poison, but he lingered too long during his visit to Palestine. Only in December 1945 did he return to Europe, disguised as a soldier returning from leave. According to his testimony, before boarding the ship friends in the Hagana (the pre-state military force) provided him with poison packaged in tubes of toothpaste and shaving cream. However, on his way back he was detained by the British on the deck, after his forged papers aroused suspicion. The poison, which he was holding, was tossed into the sea.
Plan B: poisoning the bread
After his detention, the aspiring avengers waiting in Europe were determined to act, and switched to Plan B – poisoning the bread of German prisoners of war. The plot was supposed to be carried out simultaneously in the Nuremberg and Dachau detention camps in mid-April 1946.
In advance Leibke Distel, one of the avengers, managed to be hired to work in the Nuremberg bakery that supplied the bread to the captives in the nearby camp. “He first thought to inject poison into the bags of flour in the warehouse, later into the dough mixers, and finally he reached the conclusion, after consulting with the group members, that the poison should be spread on the bottom of the loaves,” writes Porat.
Distel gradually rose through the ranks until he was placed in the bread warehouse and learned how to arrange the loaves for delivery. There he discovered that the black bread was for the German captives, while the American staff received the better, more expensive white bread.
The poison was smuggled to them from a different source. “When the poison arrived we raised a toast,” said Verbin-Shabetzky in her testimony. Distel smuggled the poison to the bakery in bottles stashed under a raincoat. In the bakery he hid them under the wooden floor. At night, after the other workers had left the bakery, the bottles were removed from beneath the floor boards. At the same time other members of the group emerged from the large bread baskets, where they had been hiding and started spreading poison on the loaves with brushes. In the midst of the work, when they had poisoned 3,000 loaves, they paused to kiss each other in joy.
The AP New Agency reported a few days later that 2,000 people had suffered from stomach poisoning, with some in serious condition. However, to the regret of the avengers, none of them died. In 2016, on the 70th anniversary of the affair, the documents of an American investigation committee that was appointed at the time were opened to the public. Porat found that the U.S. authorities had failed to discover who the perpetrators were, but the report said the poison was of high quality and could have killed tens of thousands of people. So what happened along the way? Porat relies on the testimony of the avengers, who found “a failure in the chemical compound.”
Meanwhile, other activists, headed by Simcha Rotem (Kazhik), one of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, planned to poison the loaves of bread in the Dachau concentration camp, where Germans were also detained after the war. After months of preparation, they managed to become friendly with Poles who were in charge of the local bakery. Kazik even managed to get the bakery manager drunk, steal the keys from him, duplicate them and return them while he was still drunk. But while they were waiting for the poison in order to spread it on the loaves of bread, the activists were suddenly informed by a messenger that the activity had been called off.
Could the failure and cancellation have been deliberate, after senior officials – perhaps even Kovner himself – realized that they had gone too far? The sources provide no answer. However, it’s not certain that the answer is important.
Porat welcomes the failure of the plan, because of the tremendous damage it could have caused the Jewish people. As a historian, it was difficult for her to reconcile the disparity between the personalities of the avengers – members of the youth movements who had received a Jewish and Zionist education – and the horrifying act they planned to execute.
She asked one of the avengers who had poisoned the loaves, “How can a nice person like you think about such an act, in which innocent women and children would also have certainly been killed.” She says that he replied: “If you had been there with me, at the end of the war, you wouldn’t talk that way.” Another, Yehuda (Poldak) Meimon, said “it’s what they deserved.”
A nationalist response
After the meetings with the avengers she understood, she says, that the revenge they planned was supposed to be, as they saw it, “an overt and nationalist response by a nation that was murdered against a nation that murdered, a revenge that would be publicized all over the world, which would harm millions.” Revenge that would constitute a general warning to all the other nations of the world that “Jewish blood will not be forsaken again.”
“To our regret, the group did not succeed in completing the mission it took upon itself,” wrote several members of the avengers. “But even its establishment and its desire to take revenge against the Germans and to harm them – is an act of great importance.”
In addition to Kovner’s 50 people, whose activity is documented in the new study, several dozen other Jews were involved in acts of revenge against the Germans. While Kovner’s avengers “wanted to act openly and on a huge scale,” others acted clandestinely, choosing individual targets, she says.
Some of the avengers eventually became senior officials in the Israeli defense establishment, such as Chaim Laskov, Meir Zorea, Shimon Avidan and Yisrael Carmi. After the founding of the state, acts of revenge were carried out against former Nazis by members of the Mossad as well. It’s difficult to impossible to determine how many Germans and collaborators were murdered in these acts of revenge.
"We can assume, based on the existing documentation and the overall context of that post-war period, that there were 1,000 to 1,500 at most,” says Porat, who works both at Tel Aviv University and as the chief historian of the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum. “There were from 200 to 250 Jews responsible for those deaths, people who “refused to accept the possibility that the idea of revenge would exist only as an emotion and an aspiration,” says Porat.
Her study about Kovner’s avengers was recently published in Hebrew in the book “Li Nakam Veshilem” (“Vengeance and retribution are mine”); the name is taken from the Book of Psalms. Porat says that “the purpose of the title is to say that revenge doesn’t come through the hands of human beings, but through the hands of God.”
Although the study and the book recount the Jews’ aspiration to take revenge against the Germans, Porat notes that “most Jews chose the positive path – rather than the path of revenge. By building the country, starting communities and families.” She views this as a credit to the Jewish people. “Despite everything that was done to them, the vast majority chose life.”