Nakam: The Holo­caust Sur­vivors Who Sought Full-Scale Revenge

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By – January 23, 2023

In the after­math of the Holo­caust, sur­vivors of all ages, abil­i­ties, nation­al­i­ties, and eth­nic­i­ties had to some­how come to terms with the enor­mous trau­ma they had suf­fered before they could ful­ly rebuild their lives. But for a small and deter­mined group of young men and women, that first step toward heal­ing was revenge.

Nakam is the chill­ing true sto­ry of the fifty men and women who joined togeth­er as a sort of under­ground army to avenge the six mil­lion Jews mur­dered by the Nazis.

The year was 1945. A small para­mil­i­tary group of Holo­caust sur­vivors, many of whom had fought in par­ti­san mili­tias in the forests of Ukraine and Lithua­nia, sim­ply could not return to every­day life as if noth­ing had hap­pened — as if the social order had not been breached to the high­est degree. They had lit­tle faith in the Nurem­berg tri­als to bring about jus­tice, for they con­sid­ered every cit­i­zen of Ger­many equal­ly com­plic­it in the crimes, and thus equal­ly deserv­ing of pun­ish­ment. So they devised a plan to poi­son and kill six mil­lion Germans.

Their leader, Abba Kovn­er, was a charis­mat­ic poet and resis­tance fight­er. He, like them, was a Holo­caust sur­vivor with a burn­ing desire for revenge on Ger­many. He became a mes­sian­ic fig­ure; and while he was smart, dri­ven, and coura­geous, he could not oper­ate in a vac­u­um. He had to nav­i­gate the forces around him, includ­ing the more mod­er­ate Yishuv — the admin­is­tra­tors of Israel — and the Haganah, the Zion­ist mil­i­tary leaders.

The group of avengers, called Nakam (Hebrew for vengeance”), had to solve a seri­ous eth­i­cal dilem­ma before they could ful­fill their mis­sion. Should they ded­i­cate them­selves to res­cu­ing sur­vivors, forg­ing a path toward health, safe­ty, and the con­struc­tion of a polit­i­cal home­land? Or should they focus on the past and retal­i­ate, sac­ri­fic­ing everything?

Dina Porat is an Israeli his­to­ri­an, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Mod­ern Jew­ish His­to­ry at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty, and the for­mer chief his­to­ri­an at Yad Vashem. Her writ­ing is schol­ar­ly yet acces­si­ble, ten­der yet bold. It draws on hith­er­to unstud­ied archival sources and in-depth inter­views with the sur­viv­ing avengers them­selves. Trans­lat­ed by Mark L. Levin­son as part of the pres­ti­gious Stan­ford Stud­ies in Jew­ish His­to­ry and Cul­ture series, Nakam deliv­ers new insights about war, trau­ma, heal­ing, and the ethics of revenge.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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