“NO ONE HAS SPOKEN the whole truth about this business, and no one knows everything about it. I don’t envy the person who has to research all the details. I think that by now, with so many stories still circulating, some of us are beginning to believe them, partly because there are so many legends that we’ve told and heard, and they carry all kinds of symbols and ideas.” These are the words of a person who was tasked with keeping a close watch on the Avengers (the Nokmim group) of Abba Kovner. The task was assigned to him by the leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish establishment in the Land of Israel (the official name used by the British Mandate over the land, 1919–48, was Palestina/E.I., Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel).1 Nevertheless, despite such an admonition, a historian who knows that a certain event occurred, and that certain people were involved in it, must ponder whether the event should be ignored on the simple grounds that in light of today’s values, the story may not be understood; because it might, heaven forbid, have harmful effects; because it touches on a topic that Jewish tradition may have prohibited or surrounded with a hundred barricades; or because certain legends and symbols may be damaged in its telling. Or the outcome may be the opposite: convinced that the event did occur, the historian may feel not only that there is no retreat or returning the material to obscurity, but that he or she rather has an obligation to press on, to examine the event, to retell and analyze it, to bring it to public attention. Regarding the Hebrew word for “truth,” from the quotation that opened this introduction, the Midrash notes that it begins with aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet; its middle letter is mem, the middle letter of the alphabet, and its final letter is tav, the last. Thus the search for truth requires a full journey from beginning to end—investigating all the stories, all the symbols, and all the legends.
This book deals with the Nokmim group, which was founded by the poet and partisan Abba Kovner after World War II, when nearly six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and an entire culture was nearly wiped out. Some fifty young women and men decided to take vengeance against the German nation and kill six million of them. The book will concentrate on the Nokmim in particular and not on the various other acts of vengeance carried out primarily by non-Jews against Germans, both before and after the end of the war. In contrast to those acts, the Nokmim wished their revenge to be public and on a scale that, in the view of the planners, would be commensurate with the Holocaust. They wanted vengeance that would stand as the overt response of the victimized nation against the murderers, vengeance to be recounted around the world, visited on millions, vengeance that would strike the Germans in specific but warn the rest of the world that Jewish blood would never again be forfeited as it had throughout history and, above all, during the Holocaust. Kovner’s name for the group was an acronym spelling Din, the Hebrew word for justice, and standing for “The Blood of Israel Remembers.” The name also echoed Dayan, the Hebrew word for a judge, signaling that anyone attempting to kill Jews would now risk judgment and execution.
The question of punishment after the Holocaust, as understood by the Nokmim, had metaphysical aspects touching on the basis of the world’s existence and functioning. The world had reached a dead end in the form of moral bankruptcy, and the punishment would settle the account and return order as is written in our scripture. The Lord commands Moses to take revenge on behalf of the Israelites after their slaughter by the army of Midian: “Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people” (Numbers 31:2). And the Yom Kippur prayers say, “Our Father, our King, avenge before our eyes the spilled blood of Your servants.” The phrase “before our eyes” implies “for all the world to see.”
The vengeance that the Nokmim had in mind, that burned in their very bones and gave them no rest, was intended to repay the Germans in their own coin, duplicating the scope of the disaster that they had wreaked against the Jewish nation: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (as in Exodus 21:24): vengeance with no warning, arrest, or trial; vengeance direct and immediate. In their view, vengeance without trial was the fitting and proper course because the laws prevailing at the time, both in the various countries and internationally, were incapable of responding properly to the terrible deeds that had been committed. Existing law, which had never known crimes on such a scale, had no adequate answer. Therefore, a new law—and a new court of judgment—was required. It was clear to the Nokmim that there would be a long wait before any such legislation would be enacted, and even before it was decided who would pass the legislation, much less conduct the trials. There was no telling who the judges would be, what attitudes they would bring to this unprecedented task, or when they would hand down sentencing (although it would surely be based on their previous experience). The Nokmim had already seen with their own eyes what certain laws were worth and where they were liable to lead—especially in their recollections of Nazi legislation. Moreover, they had no doubt that the presumably non-Jewish judges, convening after the war but without having personally experienced what had happened in those years, would lack understanding. The judges would be unable to envision the situations that the witnesses described to them and therefore incapable of rendering just rulings.
“When I close my eyes and think of what was,” said Kovner, “I ask myself: Was that reality a reality?”2 Many survivors, including the Nokmim, had little interest in the later search for an official and systematic definition of the Holocaust, although they knew well that over the years many researchers and thinkers concerned themselves with defining the nature of the Holocaust and in delineating “that reality.” Still, let us try our hand:
The Holocaust was an unprecedented event in human history that included the methodical murder—by bullets, gas chambers, and unsurvivable conditions—of nearly six million Jews: men, women, and children. Thousands of Jewish communities, with their material and spiritual treasures, were eradicated by Nazi Germany and its accomplices. Between the Nazi Party’s ascension to power in 1933 and the surrender of Germany in May 1945, the Germans and their collaborators murdered several million more people from across various cultures and sectors. However, the Holocaust visited on the Jews differs from other genocides in history because of the unique stance of the Nazis regarding Jews. The uniqueness of the Holocaust lies in its generality (the desire to murder every single Jew), in its borderlessness (targeting Jews everywhere), in a racial, antisemitic ideology that was totally divorced from reality, in the absence of pretext in the form of already established conflict between Jews and Germans, in the industrialization of murder, and in the depiction of the Jewish people as the symbol of absolute evil.3
For many survivors, including the Nokmim, the traumatic event was a lengthy span of years during which their lives were reduced to rubble. It was a personal existential disaster, resulting in the loss of family, home, community, town, and property. Life as it had been was replaced by forced relocation, torture, hunger, physical exhaustion, and disease. Surviving from moment to moment was a struggle involving impossible choices, and, most of all, it left behind the worst of gnawing feelings—humiliation—caused by the sharp transition from being recognized as a person, with all the characteristics of a self-reliant identity, to being a hunted creature, dispossessed and above all helpless, unable to rescue your most beloved, being thrown aside and tossed about with senseless cruelty by forces and processes susceptible to neither understanding nor influence. The humiliation was both personal and national, wreaked by the attempt to stigmatize everyone who belonged to a supposedly unclean and dangerous race. Finding the strength to respond was very difficult. Later, Kovner would repeatedly stress in his speeches that what happened before the genocide, what laid the groundwork for it, was worse than death. When you understand the scope of the Holocaust, he said during his first days in the Land of Israel, “you will know the numbers destroyed, but you still will have no grasp of the fathomless depths of what came before [ . . . ].The horror was in the life that preceded the death, in the humiliation of a people as we were witness to how the nation and the individual are turned to dust, how all sacredness is smashed and crumbled.”4
The constant humiliation and helplessness drove the blaze of passion for revenge. It was intended to pay back the vandals, robbers, and murderers, to prove that they could be defeated, that helplessness was not incurable, that the Nokmim, in levying punishment upon them, were not only their equals but their superiors. It is impossible to understand that passion, which burned in the hearts of both Jews and non-Jews, without understanding what the Germans wreaked during the Holocaust and the war. This understanding is critical, even if it is painful to read full, accurate accounts of the Holocaust and to analyze its evolvement—indeed, recent decades have seen a trending away from grisly descriptions of evil and merciless cruelty in favor of penning descriptions and creating artworks that are easier to digest. The horrors of the World War are fading and blurring in global memory as well. Because they are drifting away from the terrible reality, they are being conceived as cinematic entertainment and escapist reading.5 It is impossible to deeply understand the feelings of those who lived then, Jewish and non-Jewish, without considering that their souls were branded with the images of a baby whose head was repeatedly pounded against a wall, of human beings buried alive, of entire towns and villages being torched along with their inhabitants, of brothers and friends who turned to walking skeletons—all while being helpless to prevent any of it.
In January 1945, Marshal Georgy K. Zhukov, the acclaimed and decorated Soviet military leader, declared in an order of the day: “Woe to the land of the murderers. We will get our terrible revenge for everything.”6 In his book Year Zero: A History of 1945, historian Ian Buruma devotes a long and comprehensive chapter to the grim deeds of vengeance carried out in many countries that year. He tells of the Soviet soldiers who fulfilled Zhukov’s order assiduously, as the loss and destruction suffered in the Soviet Union was beyond understanding. More than eight million Soviet soldiers were killed. Of the five and a half million soldiers who were imprisoned by the Germans, more than three million were murdered using the cruelest of methods. The Germans also abused the civilian population, having created a delusional hierarchy of races and ranking the Slavs as an inferior race near the bottom. Following not only hunger, scorched earth, extended siege, and humiliation but also the murder of sixteen million civilians, Zhukov’s formula for revenge was clear: the Red Army soldiers were explicitly instructed to inflict the harshest cruelty immediately upon entering German territory. Road signs at the border commanded in Russian: “Soldier, you are now in Germany. Take revenge against the Hitlerites!”7 And indeed the acts of looting, of murder, and especially of incessant brutal rape by Soviet soldiers—until, after some weeks, the order came to cease the rampage—were seared into the memory of Europe, and especially Germany, for years.8
But not only the Soviets took revenge. Buruma describes a concentration camp for German prisoners in Czechoslovakia in 1945 where an inscription above the main gate read, “Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth.” The Czech officers treated their prisoners the way the Germans treated concentration camp inmates, and worse. Czech president Edvard Benes declared, “Fate will be three times as harsh and bitter for the Germans; we will destroy them!”; subsequently, three million Germans were deported by the Czechs from the Sudetenland, with some thirty thousand dying during the travails of that deportation.9 In Poland, similar camps were set up for some two hundred thousand Germans, and roughly thirty thousand died there. A book about these camps entitled An Eye for an Eye, raises the question of what role Jews, placed in charge of Polish camps by the Communist regime, played in the acts of vengeance that occurred there and in other severe acts of violence.10 In at least one camp, thousands of Germans were murdered, including hundreds of children.11
American foot soldiers and officers, “shocked by the visual evidence of German depravity,” according to Buruma, stood by as liberated prisoners at Dachau cruelly lynched one SS guard after another. After seeing the corpses of prisoners ready for burning at the front of the crematorium, an American officer had three hundred German guards executed by gunfire.12 Nonetheless, even among the administrators of the American zone in conquered Germany, as among the Soviets, there were those who had second thoughts. The Americans began implementing the Morgenthau Plan, which represented a policy of punishing Germany for the collective malfeasance of the German people and aimed to prevent the country from starting a third world war by destroying its industry and de-Nazifying its society. But those plans were difficult to carry out, and there was concern that as a result Germany could become an economic burden on the United States.13
“It is difficult to imagine how a war of such shocking brutality could conclude without brutal revenge,” writes historian Antony Beevor at the end of his monumental book The Second World War. He too describes a number of cruel acts of vengeance, as does historian Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands. Ethnic cleansing proceeded at full tilt, as Stalin had desired from the start, and troops of the First and Second Armies of Poland forced Germans from their homes, herded them across the Oder River, loaded them onto cattle cars, and looted the property left behind. Of the more than two million Germans in eastern Prussia, for example, fewer than two hundred thousand remained, and six hundred thousand were sent to the Soviet Union for forced labor. Women marched toward Germany, sometimes for hundreds of miles, with babes in arms.14 More description could be added regarding the hair-raising deeds of vengeance carried out in many countries, particularly on German soil, as well as the deportations and ethnic cleansing. There were Greek, Ukrainian, Slovak, French, Italian, Hungarian, and other citizens who, after being freed from the camps, refused to return home until they enacted their revenge.15
Granted, non-Jews vented their emotions on a large scale through acts of vengeance directed against the Germans, but as Buruma tells it, “while vengeance was being taken all over Europe [ . . . ] the people who had suffered most showed extraordinary restraint.” However, this generalization is not completely accurate. Jews in the Red Army and in partisan militias joined with their comrades in arms to commit acts of revenge, particularly the murder of collaborators—individuals and groups identified among the Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Poles—which they undertook immediately upon emerging from forests and other hiding places while the Soviets were advancing westward. In Rovno, for example, those who emerged from the forests swore upon the mass grave of the city’s Jews that their blood would be avenged. To that end, the justice-seekers dedicated themselves to bringing hundreds of collaborators to trial from among the Ukrainian population: they prepared solid cases against them and ultimately had six hundred of those defendants executed.16 Even Jews who had not served in the armies organized death squads comprising individual disparate Jews, to carry out executions of their own. They wandered from place to place and carried out executions. Obtaining weapons was no problem in the days of disorder that followed the end of wartime.17
Jewish revenge groups were founded in not only Eastern Europe but also Central Europe. Nasza Grupa, a group of Zionist Youth members from Będzin, Poland, aimed to exact vengeance in Germany. Emil Brigg, later a hero in Israel’s War of Independence, recounted: “We had nothing to lose [ . . . ]. We wanted only revenge. Young men and women burning for vengeance, with nothing in their world but a mighty urge to kill Germans and to destroy whoever was collaborating with Germans.”18 Some members of Nasza Grupa, who had volunteered for the Red Army, succeeded in acts of vengeance, but not as much as they had wished: not as Jews, and not as representatives of the entire Jewish nation against the entire German nation. One of them, Manos Diamant, visited Auschwitz as soon as the war ended, and he saw this command written on one of the walls of the torture chambers: “Jews, take vengeance!” These words guided his future. He and Alex Gatmon, a fellow member of the group, headed a squad in Austria that executed those who had been found guilty. Most of the members felt as if they were judges without robes, judges of a special kind who together delivered and immediately carried out their sentences. They bound and gagged suspects, held a few minutes of trial proceedings for each, and read an indictment. They prosecuted murderers who had been active in the ghettos and concentration camps—those who had killed with their own hands and could be reliably identified, in the group’s opinion, by at least two witnesses. “No court of true justice in the world would have handed down a different verdict if he confessed on his own without being interrogated,” said Diamant. These killers were mostly, but not always, SS troops. The group then killed the suspect. They made a practice of leaving a note on the murderer’s body so that the world would know that this was vengeance by Jews; they concentrated primarily on eliminating war criminals who had been released by the Allied nations’ judges, a particularly galling lack of justice: “We had been sure that all Europe would be swept up in a wave of vengeance,” Diamant recounted.19
Near the end of 1945, Asher Ben-Natan arrived in Vienna. He was among the leaders of the Bricha—a clandestine exodus of survivors out of Europe and bound for Palestine—through Austria and Italy. In later years, he would serve as Israel’s first ambassador to Germany. Members of Nasza Grupa, including Gatmon and Diamant, joined him as activists in the Bricha, and they became a self-styled documentation center, compiling a long, detailed list of the war criminals they discovered. “My instructions were clear,” Ben-Natan wrote, referring to instructions from the Zionist leadership of the Yishuv. “We aren’t judges, and we are not to personally harm the criminals but to turn them over to the allied or Austrian authorities for punishment.”20 But he noted the severity of such punishment: in those days, in several countries, war criminals delivered to the authorities were typically either sentenced to death or given long prison terms, most often in Siberia. For that reason, Ben-Natan instructed the Nasza Grupa members not to continue their previous methods of revenge.
Many of those who left for Israel returned to Europe in 1949 because they disagreed with Ben-Natan’s course of operations and had decided to renew the acts of vengeance, but despite punctilious preparations and great effort, they failed to achieve their goal. Some of the group’s members persisted until the Israeli embassy was opened in Vienna. In 1950 they received an order to cease their activities, an order they obeyed because they were already Israeli passport-holders. However, from that point until their deaths, they expressed disappointment in the leadership of the newborn country for not adequately investing time and effort into the matter and for preventing them from carrying out what they believed was called for.21
There were survivors who spent months finding the killers of their loved ones and enacting deadly revenge; still other survivors took revenge, whenever conditions permitted, on whomever they came across. For example, four young men who had been freed from the Landsberg/Kaufering concentration camp, near Munich, stole British jeeps and drove into a neighboring town, where they mounted a pogrom of their own for four or five hours, punching and beating. Soldiers of the Jewish Brigade who arrived at the scene “stood there stunned. They couldn’t agree with this [and sent us away]. We broke everything around—we broke windows, we hit children and old people too. The hatred inside us was terrible, a heavy burden of rage.” It is difficult to determine how many such incidents occurred, with survivors taking action either independently or with a few comrades; there has not yet been a study on this individual vengeance. 22
Aside from one chapter, devoted partly to acts of vengeance by the Jewish Brigade (a five-thousand-strong Eretz-Israeli volunteer unit within the ranks of the British army who fought against Nazi Germany), this book will not detail the above matters: not the acts of vengeance by non-Jews, partisan militias, Jewish soldiers in Eastern Europe, spontaneously self-organized groups, individuals at their own initiative, or even concentration camp survivors. It will not inquire whether the survivors, who had passed through seven departments of hell, summoned their strength to initiate or join in on these acts of vengeance. But although none of those stories will be discussed here, they do testify to the scope of the desire for vengeance that prevailed among Jews and non-Jews across Europe during the war and for some years afterward. In other words, Kovner and his group were not alone in their desire for revenge. On the contrary, they gave expression to a feeling common to many—even if, indeed, it remained a mere wish for most Jews. Only occasionally was this translated into action—and those rare events have faded from memory over the years.
The Nokmim took their name from the Hebrew word for vengeance, nakam, which relates—as virtually any Hebrew dictionary will explain—to retribution for a foul deed, to retaliation, to the principle of measure for measure, an eye for an eye, a harm for a harm. The avenger nurses a grudge, gives the inflictors of harm, of hatred, and of harassment their due in return, deals defeat in return for suffering defeat, wreaks vengeance, responds to the evildoer according to the evil, fights back and maintains the feud, claims recompense for humiliation, is zealous for justice that has yet to be done, and (according to one dictionary) takes or exacts revenge for the people of Israel, envisions vengeance, or stands as a witness to the harm that befalls the enemy. Punishment too, and particularly the principle of reward and punishment, are mentioned in this context, but briefly and at a remove—as a separate issue, and especially as presenting the possibility of compensating the wronged party financially, as suggested in the interpretation of the “eye for an eye” commandment of Exodus (21:24). Dictionary definitions of nakam are accompanied by a variety of examples from the scripture. These examples span the entire Jewish canon and its extensions, from Genesis 4:15 (“Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold”); to Hebrew poet laurate Chaim Nachman Bialik’s “On the Slaughter” (“Cursed be he who says: ‘Avenge!’ / [ . . . ] For the blood of a small child, / The vengeance has not yet been devised by Satan”).23 Dictionary definitions in other languages are not dissimilar from those in Hebrew. Aside from the basic definition common to them all, certain aspects are often emphasized, particularly those linked with the emotions accompanying vengeance—“the fury of vengeance,” as Bialik called it. Vengeance is born of fury; it spares no one and satisfies the vengeful urge, according to an English-language dictionary. Another dictionary notes that vengeance is carried out, with great power and finality, on an extreme scale. A Spanish-language dictionary too attests to strength, violence, and disproportion. Vengeance becomes sinful when it strays from the norms of justice because anger is tinged with envy, pride, hatred, ambition, and cruelty, according to a French Catholic dictionary. And a German-language dictionary notes that whether or not it is justified, vengeance—unlike punishment—is always the result of personal decisions and judgment.24
The famous scholar and thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote a detailed analysis of how the Bible speaks of vengeance (nakam)—the term appears in various forms some eighty times in the Biblical text—and he drew a number of conclusions about the concept in general. He dwells on expressions that include the word “blood” and that refer to deeds of revenge in response to murder. Such a deed, he writes, not only settles the account between the avenger and the murderer but also upholds the law, which is an objective principle: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6). However, the word “nakam” connotes not just the act of retribution but also the subjective fulfillment of the urge to avenge, an urge that awakens outbursts of destructive emotion and cruelty; in scripture, nakam is contextually related to such concepts as rage, wrath, and ferocious zeal. It implies excessive cruelty, evil, and uncalled-for hatred (in Hebrew, sinat hinam). The results of real or threatened vengeance in the Bible may be harm to the individual, community, or entire nation, involving destruction and death-dealing ruin even to the point of extinction for nations and kingdoms, sometimes without distinguishing between innocent and guilty. Revenge can exhibit retribution that extends beyond a reasonable response to a single occurrence or to a continuing situation that causes the avenger suffering or humiliation, or causes distinct harm to someone close. Accordingly, vengeance is forbidden between individuals and certainly between Jews: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people” (Leviticus 19:18). In contrast, vengeance of the nation against its enemies, particularly in wartime, is called for, as is divine vengeance.
The Jealous God avenges the blood of the faithful. “May God avenge their blood” is a phrase repeatedly spoken, and abbreviated in writing, after the names of unavenged victims. In the Bible, such vengeance is always presented favorably, whereas vengeance against another suggests blameworthiness. How is it that this behavior can be questionable among the people, and even forbidden to them, but be invoked in praise for the Creator? Leibowitz pondered the question and answered: Divine vengeance against the enemies of the nation, as presented in scripture, is generally future vengeance, not yet realized. It is part of a vision of apocalyptic salvation, the dawn of redemption, to be led by God in full majesty and awesomeness. The faithful nation prays to God and expects God to fight its battles and inflict its revenge, to expunge its humiliation as tantamount to a humiliation of God.25
It would take many studies to properly cover all the contexts in which Jewish sources mention vengeance, because it connects with every aspect of the relationship between individuals and between the community and its God. This is not the place for such a discussion, but the words of Leibowitz could serve as a suitable foundation for one—both because they expand and clarify the dictionary definition of vengeance and because Abba Kovner, the leader of the Nokmim, was immersed in Jewish sources and studied them throughout his life, citing them in his conversation and in his works. Kovner and his comrades, who were essentially secular Zionists, were filled with a sense of mission that included answerability to the Jewish people and their history. That history was the point of reference for their activities and must be the point of reference for understanding them as young people who grew up in a Jewish educational system before the war. The words of Leibowitz also raise the same issues that the Nokmim struggled with and that they tried to answer, such as the obligation to enact revenge to restore order, determining reasonable retribution, facing the possibility that innocent people will be harmed, and accepting the duty imposed on them by the Holocaust—predicaments that stand at the heart of our topic.
3. My definition—D.P.
6. J-6, p. 79.
7. J-6, p. 79.
8. J-10, pp. 14, 48–87.
9. J-6, p. 95.
10. J-21. A severely criticized account.
11. J-6, p. 94.
12. J-6, p. 76.
13. J-10, pp. 41, 174.
14. J-2, pp. 768–69; J-24, pp. 316–18.
15. Conversation with Szita Szabolcs, August 10, 2012.
16. F-24, p. 11; B-1f.
17. H-2; K-3.
19. D-4; I-5, pp. 65–84.
20. F-4, pp. 69–73.
21. E-9; F-4, pp. 69–73.
22. D-3; J-15, p. 7.