Nakam: The Holocaust Survivors who Sought Full-Scale Revenge
By Dina Porat, translated by Mark L. Levinson, Published by Stanford University Press 2023, pp. 365
Nakam is the Hebrew for ‘revenge’ — and the fifty men and women who planned mass poisonings of Germans in the immediate aftermath of World War II were the Nokmim, the Avengers.
They were a secretive group in Israel, survivors of the Holocaust, who refused to divulge any hard facts about their activities. Dina Porat, a professor of Modern Jewish History at Tel Aviv University has researched this subterranean story in meticulous (and, it should be said, reverential) detail. As Porat herself admits, not every question has an answer or an interpretation. Even today, some of the surviving Nokmim, well into their nineties, remain tight-lipped — not out of fear or regret, but because the outside would simply not understand.
Acts of vengeance after 1945 were certainly not uncommon, both within the Allied forces and liberated camp inmates. The bestiality of the Nazis had plumbed unfathomable depths and many could think of nothing but vengeance. Marshal Zhukov told his Red Army soldiers to take ‘a brutal revenge against the Hitlerites’. Porat records that 150,000 — 200,000 ‘Russian babes’ had been born after mass rapes.
Jewish partisans, emerging from the forests and the surviving ghetto fighters, discovered that there was no one left. Their families and friends were gone. On returning home, they found squatters who asked quizzically: ‘Are you still alive?’ There were pogroms in Kielce, Radom, Częstochowa and Łódź which Soviet forces did not attempt to prevent or to punish the perpetrators.
Abba Kovner, a leader of the Marxist-Zionist movement, Hashomer Hatzair before the war and a Jewish resistance fighter in the Vilna ghetto, gave voice to this feeling of desolation, guilt and aimlessness, felt by many who had survived. They were being pulled in different directions: leave the graveyard of Europe and go illegally to Mandatory Palestine or remain and practice ‘horror in return for horror’. Some did both, helping survivors to leave Eastern Europe though a clandestine emigration while planning mass murder.
This was the shape of bitter debate within the 5,000 strong Jewish Brigade, a unit of British forces under the commander of Brigadier Levi Benjamin. Many members had been born in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Some did not accept the official line of ‘Yes, to rescue, no to vengeance’.
Anger was further fuelled by the belief that Jews were not represented as a national entity especially during the Nuremburg trials, staffed by judges who, the Nokmim argued could never comprehend what they had been through. Under Kovner’s leadership, two plans were formulated. The first was to find employment at water purification plants in Hamburg, Nuremberg, or Munich — and use their positions to poison millions. One diversion from the plan at Nuremberg was to ensure that the lethal water was diverted to reach only Germans and not the British and Americans and their families.
Porat examines the assumption that Kovner was able to secure poison from the Katchalsky brothers, both eminent scientists, in Mandatory Palestine, and that they were abetted by several prominent figures. One brother, Ephraim, became president of Israel during the 1970s. Sailing from Alexandria to France, Kovner was arrested by military police at Toulon and seemingly dumped the poison overboard.
A second plan involved poisoning loaves at a Nuremberg bakery in April 1946 by smearing the underside of cheap ‘dark bread’ with arsenic oxide. The arsenic paste however was only partially soluble and difficult to apply. While many Germans fell ill and had their stomachs pumped, it remains unclear how many, if any, died. Porat suggests that the Americans may have covered up the incident to prevent international outrage; even with classified documents released in 2016, the outcome of this episode is unclear. Analysis of the bucket which held the lethal compound suggests that, had the plane been successful, 100,000 people could have been killed.
In the end, attempts at retaliation came to nothing for a plethora of reasons. The mass poisonings could not be implemented practically, the growing belief to ‘choose life’ and a future, as well as an aversion to killing potential innocents. Many feared descending to the level of the Nazis. For others, it proved morally difficult to move beyond words.
But the desire for revenge is fathomable, especially when we understand how the Nokmim saw the Holocaust. Dina Porat quotes from the writings by Itzhak Katznelson, exterminated at Auschwitz in 1944: ‘German children who have not yet killed a Jew are raised to do so, educated to it, dedicated to it by murderous parents and murderous teachers.’ For the Nokmim, every single German was complicit.
History Today February 2023