Why is the sto­ry of Nakam — the post-Holo­caust attempt to kill six mil­lion Ger­mans — not wide­ly known?

My new book, Nakam: The Holo­caust Sur­vivors Who Sought Full-Scale Revenge, is the first attempt to offer in-depth research, based on an abun­dance of pri­ma­ry sources, that describes and ana­lyzes this true story.

As a schol­ar based out of Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty and Yad Vashem, I came to know this group of avengers when writ­ing the biog­ra­phy of their admired leader, the poet and par­ti­san Abba Kovn­er. Lat­er, I inter­viewed them again, main­ly to hear and under­stand the Nakam affair, and to won­der along­side them how it became so shroud­ed in obscurity. 

Fifty young men and women, all par­ti­sans and under­ground mem­bers, were moti­vat­ed by the atroc­i­ties they had endured and by the con­vic­tion that the Holo­caust was not over once the war end­ed, since mur­der­ous anti­se­mit­ic attacks and killings of sur­vivors con­tin­ued. They decid­ed to take revenge on a scale sim­i­lar to that of the Holo­caust itself — thus mak­ing clear that Jew­ish blood would no longer be shed with impuni­ty — by pour­ing poi­son into the water sys­tems of a few Ger­man cities. Luck­i­ly, this hair-rais­ing plan did not mate­ri­al­ize. The few lead­ers of the Yishuv (the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in pre-state Israel) who learned about it vehe­ment­ly object­ed to the idea of killing uniden­ti­fied peo­ple en mass, and they, much as the major­i­ty of the sur­vivors, decid­ed not to look back­wards, but rather to rebuild the Jew­ish peo­ple, estab­lish an inde­pen­dent state, and look ahead to a per­son­al, com­mu­nal, and nation­al future.

The sto­ry of these men and women, called the Avengers, has been known in gen­er­al and even vague terms since the 1980s, but the spe­cif­ic details, the broad­er con­text, and the rela­tions between them and the author­i­ties of the Yishuv have, until now, gen­er­at­ed myths, leg­ends, and unfound­ed alle­ga­tions rather than truths. Why?

They decid­ed to take revenge on a scale sim­i­lar to that of the Holo­caust itself by pour­ing poi­son into the water sys­tems of a few Ger­man cities. Luck­i­ly, this hair-rais­ing plan did not materialize.

First: Upon reach­ing the Land of Israel, fol­low­ing their fail­ure to act on their plan, the Avengers vowed nev­er to dis­close the full details of their sto­ry, and they main­tained that vow until the mid-1980s, when Kovn­er fell sick with can­cer. They real­ized that the dis­crep­an­cy between their post­war plan and their human­is­tic Jew­ish edu­ca­tion in pre­war youth move­ments could not be eas­i­ly rec­on­ciled by any­one who had not under­gone the hor­rors of the Holo­caust — which actu­al­ly meant three quar­ters of the Yishuv — and they feared being brand­ed as out­right killers who knew no lim­its. I held long, friend­ly con­ver­sa­tions with them, dur­ing which I kept empha­siz­ing that killing six mil­lion souls, many of whom might not have had a hand in harm­ing Jews, is not an accept­able idea. They kept answer­ing that had I under­gone the Holo­caust, had even Jesus had! — we would have joined them wholeheartedly.

Sec­ond: No less than 360,00 sur­vivors arrived in Israel, where they were met with many ques­tions: How did they sur­vive? Was their sto­ry reli­able? The young state had very mea­ger means and could hard­ly pro­vide for its cit­i­zens. Nev­er­the­less, and despite the dif­fi­cult ques­tions, the sur­vivors, who con­sti­tut­ed a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion in the begin­ning of the 1950s, were tak­en care of. But the Avengers still felt that telling their sto­ry in pub­lic might wors­en Israeli society’s image of sur­vivors as angry and venge­ful peo­ple steeped in their sorrow.

Third: Post­war cir­cum­stances enhanced the desire of the Avengers to car­ry out their plan, because the Nurem­berg tri­als did not treat the Holo­caust as a crime in and of itself, because tens of thou­sands of SS pris­on­ers were sent home from the Allied camps unpun­ished, and because Amer­i­ca, need­ing a bar­ri­er against the Sovi­et Union, was assist­ing in the rebuild­ing of Ger­many. In oth­er words, the Holo­caust would be soon sim­ply for­got­ten, and the Avengers saw it as their duty to awak­en pub­lic inter­na­tion­al opin­ion, warn the world against any new anti-Jew­ish plan, and let every­one know that there was no going back to nor­mal life before some jus­tice could be enact­ed — but, they won­dered, is revenge tan­ta­mount to jus­tice? Since this ques­tion was not resolved, nation­al­ly or inter­na­tion­al­ly, the Avengers pre­ferred to keep qui­et, so as not to be con­sid­ered an obsta­cle on the way back to civ­i­lized life.

Years lat­er, from the 1990s onward, after they mar­ried and raised fam­i­lies, and Israeli soci­ety matured and opened its heart to the sur­vivors, they start­ed telling their sto­ry, and even pub­lished it in a reli­able jour­nal. Until the 2020s they were warm­ly admired, and when I invit­ed them to events ded­i­cat­ed to their sto­ry, they were applaud­ed and hailed. Per­haps they received this response because Israeli soci­ety had been too quick to estab­lish ties with Ger­many, and they served as a reminder that Ger­many was not actu­al­ly pun­ished. Or per­haps those meet­ing them real­ized they were per­son­al­i­ties of the high­est stature.

Today only two of them are alive, at 102 and nine­ty-eight years old, and the oth­ers — may they rest in peace.

Dina Porat is Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Mod­ern Jew­ish His­to­ry at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty and for­mer Chief His­to­ri­an of Yad Vashem.