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.