The Secret Saga of the Holocaust Avengers

They were a group of young Holocaust survivors who emerged from the death camps and ghettos, each branded by his own terrible saga. They wandered across Europe or languished in DP camps after liberation, consumed by feverish dreams of revenge against the Germans.

Slowly, they found one another. In 1946, about fifty of them formed a secret organization that converted their dreams of revenge into deadly operations against their former tormentors.

The organization called itself “Nakam” (Avengers). Dozens of senior Nazis are thought to have been killed by the group in the immediate post-war years. Some former Gestapo and SS men were found dead in roadside ditches, victims of hit-and-run drivers. Others met their end in car accidents caused by mysterious mechanical failures.

One Gestapo officer was being prepped for a minor operation when kerosene somehow got into his bloodstream, causing a massive stroke.

Nakam did not limit its quest for revenge to individuals. Those smaller operations paled compared to the group’s astounding 1946 plot to murder millions of Germans by infiltrating the waterworks in four German cities and poisoning the water supply.

The plan, which ultimately failed, reached the heart of the Jewish leadership of Haganah in pre-Israel Palestine.

A second large scale operation, which partially succeeded, called for poisoning the Nazi inmates of an Allied POW camp in Stalag 13 near Nuremberg. The camp housed up to 15,000 Nazis, including guards from the death camps and members of the Einsatzgruppen, the killing squads that had murdered millions of Jews in Eastern Europe.

Rumors have long circulated about Nakam’s activities based on accounts in two books about a “Jewish reprisal” organization, but only recently have these startling tales been authenticated.

This came about through the discovery of a series of tapes that record a 1985 meeting, during which a group of Nakam members documented their secret operations over several years and across multiple continents.

The tapes support the general theme of two published accounts of the organization’s activities that, due to their fictionalized style, were not taken seriously. Part of the credibility gap lay in the fact that Nakam’s leader was reputed to be the late Abba Kovner, a well-known Israeli secular figure.

Kovner achieved renown as a WWII partisan leader who fought the Nazis in Lithuania, and was instrumental in bringing Holocaust survivors to Israel through the Bricha movement that circumvented the British blockade. He later went on to become one of Israel’s leading poets.

The Nakam tapes were found in 2016 in the late Kovner’s home by his grandson, who turned them over to the Moreshet Museum. They form the basis of a shocking documentary by Israeli filmmaker Avi Merkado.

 

Agents of Retribution?

The documentary, “The Revenge Plot,” which aired in January 2018, includes interviews with the six remaining members of Nakam, now in their nineties, who verified the tapes’ authenticity.

These include Auschwitz survivor Yehuda Maimon, Joseph Harmatz of Vilna, Simcha Rotem (the last remaining survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) and Chasya Warshavsky.

The documentary includes explanatory comments from Kovner’s son, Michael, and the son of Leopold Vassimen, known as Poldeck, who was the man responsible for financing the poisoning operation.

Who were these fifty or so vigilantes and how did they come to see themselves as agents of retribution on behalf of the Jewish people?

Nakam’s members were a few dozen survivors and partisans, many of whom had fought Nazis in the ghettos and the forests of Nazi-occupied Europe. Their loved ones had been butchered and all that was dear to them, brutally destroyed. They emerged at the war’s end anguished and broken, unable to return to normal everyday life.

Revenge burned in the hearts of these survivors. They had watched as civilization crumbled, as evil and inhumanity reigned –with the help of Jew haters and collaborators. With the war over and parents, rabbis and community leaders all dead, these survivors recognized no moral or religious authority. “Vengeance” became their bible.

Deeply scarred by the war, they gave no thought to the dangerous repercussions their actions might have on their own people.

 

Post-War “Justice”

Part of what drove the “avengers’ was watching the mockery of post-war “justice.” The Nuremberg Trials, empanelled by the Allies to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, ended in the convictions of just 22 men. Eleven were given the death penalty, three were acquitted, three sentenced to life imprisonment and four given prison sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years.

It takes more than 22 people to slaughter 6 million men, women and children. What of the guards who operated and policed the death camps, who clubbed victims into the gas chambers, and administered Zyklon B pellets that choked millions of innocents to death?

What of the Einsatzgruppen who machine-gunned entire communities into burial pits after forcing the Jews to dig their own graves? What of the railway workers and conductors who manned the death trains and gas vans?

What of the doctors in the camps who performed inhuman medical experiments on prisoners? The sadists who drove thousands of prisoners on death marches, whipping and shooting to death all those who could not keep up?

Although 12 subsequent war crimes trials would be held in Nuremberg, by the end of the 1940s, only a few hundred war criminals were sent behind bars. Most Nazis, including cold-blooded mass murderers, melted right back into German society, many resuming the pre-war careers and even receiving retirement pensions.

From the survivors’ vantage point, it was intolerable that so few were punished. Even the perpetrators who were incarcerated had it easy. Unlike their victims, they did not have to fear starvation, torture and violent death. By comparison, these degenerates were living lives of luxury.

But the war was over and the world wanted to move on. The United States was interested in absorbing Western Germany into a new alliance against the Soviet bloc. To this end, US officials recruited dozens of former Nazis into American espionage and intelligence units, turning a blind eye to their ugly past.

Most survivors had neither the energy for, nor interest in vengeance. Whatever strength they could muster was channeled into rebuilding their shattered lives. Most fixed their hopes on  immigrating to Eretz Yisroel or the United States. They couldn’t wait to leave the blood-soaked lands of Europe.

Some tortured spirits, however, could find no peace. Unable to still the turbulence within, they became fixated with striking back at Germans and Germany. And strike they did.

 

Partisan Leader Turned Avenger

Nakam took shape under the leadership Abba Kovner who had commanded the FPO underground in Vilna, uniting several resistance groups under one banner.

At its peak in the ghetto, FPO and its aligned groups numbered about 300. As the Nazis surrounded and liquidated the ghetto in September 1943, the partisans fled through the sewers to the forests outside Vilna where they joined other partisan groups under Soviet sponsorship.

Kovner and a nucleus of his group managed to survive until the Red Army drove the Nazis out of Vilna in July 1944.

With 95 per cent of Vilna’s Jews annihilated, the city was a ghost town. Kovner and his comrades could not bear to remain there. They regrouped in Bucharest, Rumania, where they went to work for the Bricha movement, the underground effort that smuggled Holocaust survivors into Israel in defiance of the British who ruled Palestine at the time.

Ardent Zionists, Kovner and his comrades were urged to join the new immigrants, but felt they could not yet leave Europe. They had other business to take care of first.

Forty five years later, the tapes from Kibbutz Ein Hachoresh where Kovner lived from 1947 until his death, describe what that “business” was. After falling ill and fearing his days were numbered, Kovner had gathered his old comrades together a final time. He felt it was important to document for posterity on taped recordings what the members of Nakam had done in the immediate post-war years, and why.

Recalling the impetus for the group’s creation, he describes a 1945 Pesach gathering in Bucharest, Rumania, where he addressed a gathering of survivors. There, he invoked the final verse in Tehillim 94; Vayoshev aleihem es onom, uvero’osom yatzmiseim, “He will repay them for their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness.”

This massive strike, Kovner had asserted, was the retribution the Germans deserved for annihilating the Jews of Europe. If the IMT (international military tribunal conducting war crimes trials) could or would not execute justice, the Jews themselves should mete out punishment.

[An advocate for the communist-friendly Hashomer Hatzair movement that scorned religious beliefs, Kovner saw no contradiction in citing a posuk to legitimize his position.]

“Our actions as a group were not a personal vendetta,” Kovner is heard justifying himself on the late 1980s recording. “It was intended to make the Germans pay for their murder of six million Jews.”

Citing the plot to poison the water supply of Nuremberg, Hamburg, Munich and Berlin, Joseph Harmatz, the former Nakam agent in charge of special operations, acknowledged, “Our aim was to kill six million Germans, one for every Jew they slaughtered.”

As other members testify on tape, members of the team managed to infiltrate the water works of these four cities. Joseph Harmatz recalled having spent many days and nights studying blueprints of the cities’ waterworks, seeking a method of shutting off the supply to American residential areas so that only Germans would be struck.

Finally, all arrangements were in place. All they needed was the poison.

 

Zionist Leadership Alerted

At this point, Kovner hesitated. He decided to seek the blessing of the Zionist leadership in Eretz Yisroel for the massive strike against Germany they were about to launch. He also needed assistance in securing the appropriate amount and type of poison.

According to testimony on the tapes, Ben Gurion, the first leader Kovner approached, directed him to Chaim Weizmann, a biochemist who would become Israel’s first president. The group’s claim is that Weizmann and Ephraim Katzir (who became Israel’s fourth president in 1973), were not only aware of Nakam’s plot but facilitated the acquisition of the required poison.

This charge has been hotly disputed by historians, who point out that Weizmann was not in the country at the time. In any case, the plan imploded. British military police arrested Kovner at sea– though he managed to hurl the poison overboard before they reached him. He was jailed for four months, first in Toluene, France, and later in Alexandria, Egypt, and finally released.

The Avengers had been betrayed. Some historians believe this was the work of senior Zionist leaders who were horrified by the poison plot, viewing Kovner as a loose cannon whose dangerous ideas could torpedo international support for a Jewish state. The leaders may have feigned support of the plan in front of Kovner, while secretly tipping off the British before he could return to Europe.

 

Attack On SS Inmates in Nuremberg

Although Kovner’s arrest was a setback for Nakam, the group rebounded and set about implementing Tochnit Bet, Plan B. The groundwork for poisoning the SS officers imprisoned in Nuremberg had already been laid by local commander Joseph Harmatz.

He and his comrades had discovered that bread for the detainees was supplied by a single bakery, and they arranged for one of their younger members, Leibke Distal, to get a job there as a trainee. The plan was to poison a huge supply of loaves with arsenic. The operation was planned for a weekend when the bakery, just outside the camp, would be understaffed.

“It would have to be on a Saturday night because the black bread planned for delivery on Sunday would be eaten only by the Germans,” Harmatz recalled. The American guards had white bread on Sundays.

Using an artist’s brush, Harmatz painted 3,000 loaves of bread with a mixture of arsenic and glue.

“We had worked out how many people would eat it because we knew each loaf was cut into four pieces and each prisoner would get a quarter of a loaf. That means 3,000 loaves, good for 12,000 people.”

The plan went off without a hitch, and Nakam members fled over the border to Czechoslovakia, making their way to Eretz Yisroel shortly afterwards. On April 23, 1946, the following article appeared in The New York Times.

“Poison Plot: Arsenic Bottles Found by U.S. Agents in Nuremberg Bakery

Nuremberg, Germany, April 22 (AP)–United States Army authorities said tonight that additional German prisoners of war have been stricken with arsenic poisoning, bringing to 2,283 the number taken ill in a mysterious plot against 15,000 former Nazi Elite Guard men confined in a camp near Nuremberg.”

 

Enough Arsenic to Kill 60,000

It was never clear just how many people were killed in the attack. The Times article said no one died, but other papers reported that the poisoned loaves had killed thousands of German inmates. Harmatz claims the fatalities numbered over a hundred, but that fearing public uproar, authorities had hushed up the facts. No one was ever apprehended for the attack.

Declassified files show that the amount of arsenic used should have resulted in a massive number of deaths. One report stated that each loaf of bread contained 0.2 grams of arsenic which should have been fatal to anyone eating it.

According to the AP, who requested the declassified files through the Freedom of Information Act, one of the memoranda, dated 1946, stated, “Three empty hot water bottles and a burlap bag containing four full hot water bottles were recovered. An analysis of the contents revealed that they contained enough arsenic mixed with glue and water to kill approximately 60,000 persons.”

The incident faded from the headlines but was not forgotten. In “America’s Achilles’ Heel,” a 1998 book about chemical terrorism, writers Falkenrath, Newman and Thayer claim that “the most lethal chemical poisoning ever, outside of the Nazi gas chambers, appears to be the arsenic poisoning of several thousand captive German SS soldiers in April 1946 by a Jewish reprisal organization.”

The number of casualties, whether zero or a thousand, may never be known. But for the members of Nakam, it was not about numbers. It was about their answer to their slaughtered people.

In countless places where Jews had been murdered during the war, cries of “Avenge us! Remember us!” had rent the air. In concentration camps and on gas chambers walls, “Nekomoh!” in Hebrew letters had been scratched in blood.

Long after the war was over, a ragged band of broken souls and fanatics had answered the cries for revenge. To their dying day, many had no regrets. Other participants, however, looked back with misgiving.

“Today it sounds crazy, even to me,” admitted former Nakam member Chasya Warshavsky, in her nineties, in an interview with the documentary makers of The Revenge Plot. “But back then, yes, we were crazy.”

 

He Never Forgave Himself

At the center of the group of Holocaust avengers stood the haunted and enigmatic partisan fighter, Abba Kovner. A glimpse behind his mystique came after the 1961 Eichmann trial in Israel, where Kovner offered gripping testimony about the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto.

An article he wrote afterward, “A Dam Has Burst,” described how the trial brought to the surface a flood of wartime memories that were traumatic for many survivors. In a letter to a friend, he revealed how the dam had burst for him, personally.

Kovner related that in the Vilna ghetto’s dying days, with rumors of an imminent Nazi onslaught against the few thousand still alive there (out of an original 75,000), his mother had come to him for help, seeking to join him and his fellow partisans in their hideout.

“She came and asked me what to do… how could she save herself. I had no answer. I did not think our position was a place where people would survive,” Kovner wrote, meaning he did not offer his mother shelter as he expected to die fighting with the other partisans. “Soon after, she was caught by the Germans,” his letter continued. He never saw her again.

Kovner’s daughter, Shlomit, named after her grandmother, says that her father never forgave himself for not taking in his mother, no matter how much danger this may have posed – to her or to the fighters. In the end, a handful did survive, including Kovner, his brother as well as fellow partisan Vitka Kempner who married Kovner.

35 years later, during the Lanzmann interviews in preparation for the epic documentary, “Shoah,” a subdued Kovner returns to this epoch. The haunted look in his eyes says more than words can convey. Turning his face away from the camera as he is pressed to recount his memoires, the former partisan fighter relives the terrifying period when the Vilna ghetto was slowly being liquidated.

In heavily accented Hebrew, it all spills forth…terrifying memories of hiding in a convent close enough to the ghetto to hear the Germans rounding up victims, close enough to witness the horrific “Night of Provocation” in which thousands of Jews were pulled out of their homes and massacred. He was 22 years old, seething with grief, awash with guilt for saving himself when his family was being slaughtered.

Kovner reminisced to Lanzmann how during the dark, desolate days of hiding, “we would celebrate Shabbat and chagim. We, who were not religious, took comfort from Jewish traditions….”

 

Moment of Truth

The Nazis prevented desperate uprisings in the ghettos by spreading the lie that selections were for the purpose of sending ghetto residents to labor camps, where if they were productive, they would remain alive.

These lies kept people clinging to hope, even as the ghetto was steadily decimated. From the original 75,000, the population shrank to 25,000. In spite of continuing deportations, people refused to believe that their husbands, wives, parents and siblings had been killed.

In the Lanzmann interviews, Kovner recalls how, after urging a priest at the convent to ascertain the actual destiny of the deportees, he learned the shattering truth.

This moment became the catalyst for Kovner’s launching of the FPO, an underground resistance movement that sought to acquire arms, train members in the use of weapons and ready themselves for the fast approaching day when the ghetto would face total destruction.

At a Vilna ghetto soup kitchen in January 1942, Kovner exhorted people to recognize the Nazis’ true aims—extermination of every single Jew in Europe. “No one who has left Vilna through the ghetto gates has ever returned. Brothers! Don’t let the murderers deceive you!” he exclaimed. “All those taken from us have been shot. All roads out of the ghetto lead to Ponary—and Ponary is death!”

 

Vilna Ghetto Rejects Kovner

Kovner’s efforts to rally fellow Jews to stage an uprising like that of the Warsaw Ghetto were in vain. The Vilna population, in whose name the FPO claimed to be fighting, adamantly opposed any attempt at resistance.

They chose to believe Judenrat leader Jacob Gens, who saw the underground as reckless youths who were endangering all their lives. Gens was hated for his policy of accommodating the Nazis and actively assisting in the deportations. He claimed he didn’t know where the Jews were being taken and that by making concessions to the Germans, he was protecting the rest of the ghetto from liquidation.

This illusion fell apart when the Nazis embarked on the final stage of the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto in the fall of 1943. Shortly before this aktion commenced, Jacob Gens, his usefulness over, was summoned to Gestapo headquarters and shot.

As the ghetto was brutally liquidated and the Germans captured a large portion of FPO fighters, the idea of resistance—which had sustained these young Jews during two years of witnessing the slow motion annihilation around them —fell to pieces.

“Suddenly we understood that after all our training and preparation, we were still helpless like all the other Jews, no different,” reflected Vitka Kempner, almost 50 years later. (Tablet, 2009).

 

Dogged By Allegations

Despite his post-war celebrity status in Israel as a partisan fighter, Kovner was a controversial figure. For years he was dogged by whispered allegations about his war-time conduct. It was rumored that he had been loyal only to members of FPO, his own partisan group, and refused to disclose to others the secret exit to the ghetto (sewer openings) which he and his comrades used to escape the Nazis.

Unlike other Jewish partisan leaders, notably Tuvia Bielsky and Shlomo Zorin, who took in all Jews, including women, children and the elderly (of which 2000 survived), Kovner was said to have turned many Jews away. It was alleged that he refused admission to members of other partisan groups and barred anyone untrained in weapons and ammunitions.

Such individuals, he said, were liabilities to themselves and to the group. They would quickly fall into German hands and be tortured until they betrayed the partisans’ identities and hideouts.

 

Deathbed Wish

Although he was politically aligned with the anti-religious left, nostalgia for his religious roots seemed to resurface in Kovner’s later years when he was stricken with throat cancer. As his disease progressed and his illness was pronounced terminal, he asked his son, Michael, to say kaddish for him after he died.

Michael had been raised in an environment that had little respect for religion, and Kovner apparently doubted his wish would be fully honored. He turned to an old friend, a survivor of the Vilna ghetto and an observant Jew and made the same deathbed request of him. (Porat, The Fall of a Sparrow, 2000.)

Kovner passed away on Rosh Hashana, shortly before his 70th birthday.

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The writer thanks Prof. Esther Farbstein of Israel for generously giving of her time to share historical insights into the period.