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The Strange Tale of the Holocaust Avengers

“Revenge, the sweetest morsel to the mouth that ever was cooked in hell.”

-Walter Scott, The Heart of Mid-Lothian.

Humans as a species have a deeply ingrained sense of how much we have been wronged and the desire to repay that back. We have an instinctive desire for some balance and fairness in things, a perhaps misplaced faith in the idea that if I leave you alone you leave me alone, and if you wrong me so shall you be wronged. It seems to be an indelible part of our being, and it is why revenge has become such a much talked about point of ethical debate within our society. While it is only natural to want to strike back at those who have done us wrong, one great moral dilemma is just at what point is it too much and is it even right at all? Is there a point at which revenge crosses some unseen boundary to go from a balancing of right and wrong to go teetering off into the darkness of the human soul? One case that certainly stimulates such discussion and debate occurred in the wake of one of the greatest stains upon human history, when a group of determined individuals sought to counter violence with equal violence, taking an eye for an eye to a new level.

In addition to all of the bloody fighting going on, World War II saw carried out perhaps the greatest single atrocity in human history. The Holocaust enacted against the Jewish people by Nazi Germany and its allies was a horrific orgy of death and injustice, with around a total of 6 million Jews mercilessly killed in concentration camps and countless others separated from loved ones and their lives destroyed. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the survivors found themselves lost and in tatters, adrift in a haze and unable to truly ever adjust to normal life after the waking nightmare they had lived through. For many they were left in such inner turmoil and their lives so hollowed out and turned inside out that death was almost preferable, and the one word that was whispered among the dazed and shocked population was “revenge.” Most people were angry, seething with hate towards the Nazis and screaming for blood, but for most these were merely morbid and dark fantasies they were impotent to do anything about, instead going about trying to rebuild and find some semblance of normalcy, leaving those grim urges within the confines of the backs of their mind. Yet, for a rag tag group of bedraggled Holocaust survivors this was more than just fantasy, and they meant to actually do something about it.

Prisoners at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp

In the aftermath of the holocaust, one of the most frustrating and infuriating things for the Jewish was just how little was being done to bring any of their tormentors to any true justice. For all of the murder and mayhem that had been inflicted upon the Jewish, very few were actually answering for any of it, and many who actually were arrested for their part were never formally charged or punished, sometimes walking away without any trial at all. It was a slap to the face for many, that this grave injustice could be so completely brushed away with only a tiny fraction of the villains held accountable. In fact, from an original wanted list of 13 million Nazi leaders, concentration camp personnel, and others involved in the genocide, just around 300 ever faced any serious charges or punishment. This situation spurred on outrage, and there were some attempts to subvert the normal process of justice. For instance, the Mossad would later carry out assassinations, and there were some scattered vigilantes, but nothing as well-organized or dead set on focused revenge as a group that would form in 1945, who would call themselves the “Nakam,” also called the “Nokmim,” literally “avengers.”

The operation was the brainchild of a Jewish Hebrew Yiddish poet, writer, activist, and partisan leader by the name of Abba Kovner, who had taken part in the Jewish uprising in the Vilna ghetto and became obsessed with revenge after a visit to the sites of several concentration camps and talking with Holocaust survivors. The charming and persuasive Kovner felt that the normal avenues of justice were not enough, that the plight of the Jewish people had been forgotten, and so his plan was simple. He wanted to kill Germans, as many as possible. Kovner went about recruiting a motley crew of about 50 Holocaust survivors, men mostly in their 20s and with the same desire for revenge etched within their minds, and their fervent beliefs were quite extreme, to say the least. They believed that the only way to make sure that the horrors of another Holocaust did not loom over their people again, was to exact a similar horrific death toll upon the Germans as had been carried out on them, 6 million Germans to be exact, which Kovner called “a nation for a nation.” Kovner believed that only an act of catastrophic retribution on the same magnitude of the Holocaust itself would shock the world into acting and end what Kovner saw as “the moral bankruptcy” of the world at large in relation to the Holocaust. He would say, “The act should be shocking. The Germans should know that after Auschwitz there can be no return to normality.”

Abba Kovner

The Nakam started off small. They would hunt down former SS officers and other Nazi personnel who they had marked for death and carry out assassinations with whatever was at their disposal. Hit and runs, hangings, gunshots, knives, orchestrated accidents, and even one case in which a former Nazi high-ranking officer was found dead in his hospital bed after having been injected with kerosene, and many of these deaths were staged to look like suicides. The Nakam would use forged papers, fake identities, and disguises as policemen or medical personnel to help them with their infiltrations, and they were not above traveling around to other countries in order to carry out their extrajudicial death sentences, including Spain, Latin America, and Canada, but this was all very slow-going, slapdash, disorganized, and not making the impact Kovner had hoped for. They had killed perhaps a few dozen in this fashion, which was not making a dent in their target of 6 million dead Germans. They needed a decisive, horrific loss of life in one fell swoop, and so what they called “Plan A” was born.

The idea behind Nakam’s Plan A was in essence fairly simple, basically boiling down to poisoning the water supply of a major German city to kill as many as possible. They scoped out four potential targets for their dark plans, Hamburg, Nuremberg, Frankfurt and Munich, eventually settling on Nuremburg. With the target acquired, they went about procuring the poison they would need and infiltrating the Nuremburg municipal water supply. A man by the name of Joseph Harmatzwas was charged with the infiltration using a fake identity, and Kovner himself went about travelling to Mandatory Palestine, the new Jewish state-in-waiting, in order to procure the poison, but they would end up hitting obstacles. Although Harmatzwas was able to use bribes to install an engineer named Willek Schwerzreich within the municipal water company and gain access to plans for the water system and control of the main water valve, Kovner had some stumbles. Kovner was able to finally get some poison after initial difficulties, including being detained by the Mossad for questioning, which was hidden in tubes of toothpaste. However, while journeying back home he was detained by British officials who were suspicious of his faked identification papers that marked him as a part of the Jewish Brigade returning from leave, and in a panic he threw his whole haul of poison overboard. Kovner was forced to return without any poison, which was probably for the best because people within his own organization were having some misgivings about slaughtering potentially hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians including women and children. However, there were far fewer problems with killing those who had been directly involved with the Holocaust, and so their Plan B was launched.

Kovner with the Nakam

Plan B was a bit more modest in scope, seeking to poison the bread of the some 50,000 SS officers who were being held at prisoner of war camps in Nuremburg and Munich. They went about procuring arsenic locally and then infiltrated bakeries in the region that supplied the prison camps, eventually poisoning about 3,000 loaves of bread being sent out to the Langwasser internment camp. However, while around 2,000 German prisoners of war fell horribly ill, it seems that few to none of them actually died, which is curious because later an investigation would estimate that there had been enough arsenic stashed at the bakery to kill approximately 60,000 people, making it a miracle that there was not more death. One idea is that the arsenic had been spread too thinly, while another is that the prisoners somehow sensed that something was not quite right and did not eat enough. It is a mystery, but the failure was instrumental to making sure similar plots did not go forward at other prisoner camps, and that was the end of Plan B.

Rather ironically, all of this was partially bankrolled by buying £5 notes forged by Jewish prisoners in concentration camps, and selling them on the Italian black market, adding insult to injury, but alas it did not achieve what the Nakam had been looking for. The remaining members mostly just disbanded after that, with the promise of mobilizing again if ever called for it, although some cells remained active all the way into the 1950s, forming various breakaway groups. Most returned to Israel between 1950 and 1952, with many bitter that their acts of revenge had ultimately not succeeded, never admitting remorse and until their dying days convinced that the Germans deserved what was coming to them. Over the years they grew old and died, until by 2019 only 4 surviving members were known to exist, still committed to what they had done, unrepentant, and insisting that what they had done was “an act of great importance.” None of them have ever been charged with any wrongdoing. As for Kovner himself, he would become very active in the new nation of Israel after it declared independence in 1947. He would become a captain in the Givati Brigade and be very active during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. He was controversial even within his own nation, a firebrand extremist who called the enemy “dogs” and “vipers” and stirred controversy in his new homeland, which saw him as a spreader of horrific propaganda. He would in his later years continue his activism, although he never took a political role, and would die in 1987 from cancer, leaving behind quite the legacy.

The story of the Nakam has gone on to be published numerous times, has been the focus of a compelling documentary called Holocaust: The Revenge Plot, and leaves us with much to ponder. While there are certainly those who will understand what they were trying to accomplish in light of the atrocities they knew, there are just as many who no doubt lament it. How far is too far when it comes to revenge? Is there a point we reach when it just turns into a cycle of violence upon violence? Is there any way to condone what these undoubtedly brave and determined men were trying to achieve or were they just as much monsters as the ones they sought to punish? It is an age old debate that will probably go on until the end of time, and in the meantime the story of the Holocaust Avengers serves as a curious historical oddity, and perhaps a lesson in some sense of the cost of following the path of fury.