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The Auschwitz Avengers: inside the Holocaust revenge plot to kill six million Germans January 24, 2018

Of all the stories that have been told of the Holocaust and its horrors, perhaps this is one you won’t have heard. At the close of the Second World War, dozens of survivors plotted a titanic act of revenge: the mass murder of six million Germans.

It was 1945 and Europe’s Jewish population had been tortured and decimated. Abba Kovner, who later became one of Israel’s eminent poets, united 50 survivors who had cheated death in ghettos and concentration camps, and called them Nakam, or the Avengers.

Determined not to let the Holocaust pass without retribution – only a tiny fraction of those complicit in the greatest crime in human history were ever tried or punished – the Avengers concocted an astonishing plan to poison the water supply in Munich, Nuremberg, Hamburg and Frankfurt.

The little-known tale of revenge and betrayal, which threatened the lives of innocent civilians and implicates Israel’s first leaders, is told for the first time this week in my documentary Holocaust: The Revenge Plot.

“Though it may have been unprecedented, our act as a group was not a personal vendetta,” Kovner said himself, in never-before-heard tapes he recorded before his death, in the late Eighties. They were unearthed when his grandson moved to his house and passed it on to The Moreshet museum. It was astonishing to listen to them decades later, and hear Kovner explain the desire for revenge that news of the Holocaust brought: “It was something horrible and new, [to] try and get even with the Germans in an unconventional act of vengeance and make them pay for the six million Jews.”

He’s right: it was a horrible plan, to poison the water supply of four German cities, thereby killing millions of citizens indiscriminately in one go. But it was also a response to a magnitude of extermination that extends beyond the bounds of comprehension.

I have spoken to many Holocaust survivors and take particular interest in their stories, given my work as a tutor in Representation of History in Films at the Open University of Israel. But it was only when a student asked me if there were any Israeli films, like Inglorious Basterds, which tackled the idea of Jewish revenge that – while hunting for an answer – I stumbled upon this astonishing plot.

Having watched as family and friends were killed, many Holocaust survivors sought solace in reaching the Holy Land, where they could build a new life. Some vowed to never return to Europe, others chose to bury the memories. Survival had been so difficult that very few had a desire to fight back. Simcha Rotem, nicknamed Kazik, is one of the six surviving members of the 50 Avengers who chose to seek revenge.

The last surviving member of the Jewish Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto, Rotem, now 93, told me a story of the poverty and death he witnessed there, that will never leave me.

On one evening, like any other in the ghetto, Rotem had heard a baby crying as he walked down the street. The baby was cradled in its mother’s arms, the pair sitting on the floor. Rotem told me he moved towards them and saw the mother was dead.

He looked me straight in the eyes; I could feel how angry he was, even after more than 75 years. “What do you do?” he asked. A tense silence formed around my loss for words. “You don’t know? Okay good, it’s better you don’t know.”

Rotem ran from the tearful, orphaned baby; after the interview I buried my head in my hands and sobbed. His question haunts the documentary. How do you respond to such unconscionable malice?

Rotem, Kovner and other vengeful survivors who met in Bucharest, Romania, en route to Palestine at the end of the war decided to form the Avengers and plan the eye-for-an-eye attack; a plot that went to the heart of the nascent Israeli state.

Kovner first sought the poison from Chaim Weizmann, a biochemist who would become Israel’s first president. According to the tapes I found, Weizmann referred Kovner to another chemist, Ephraim Katzir, who allegedly helped make the substance – and went on to become Israel’s fourth president in 1973.

Despite being educated about the Holocaust, I was astonished to learn of the scheme: the story has been largely left out of the history books in Israel and abroad. This is partly because vengeance is a tricky thing to talk about, and moral boundaries are not always clear cut as one would like, in particular when relating to unprecedented events such as the Holocaust.

But revenge is a primal emotion and we should discuss it. That isn’t to say I condone the Avengers, but I can understand Kovner’s burning desire, once the scale of the concentration camps became clear, to make the perpetrators pay.

The plan has also remained secret because it failed. British military police intercepted Kovner’s journey back to Europe and – though he managed to dispose of the poison before he was captured – he was jailed for four months, first in Toluene, France, and later in Alexandria, Egypt.

The Avengers had been betrayed. The remainders abandoned the mass murder plan and decided to move to Plan B: poisoning SS officers who were imprisoned in Nuremberg and Dachau, infiltrating the prisons’ bakeries and lacing the bread with arsenic.

Only the Nuremberg operation succeeded.  On April 23, 1946, the New York Times reported 2,283 German prisoners of war had been poisoned and were sick, 207 of whom were hospitalised. It’s not clear how many SS officers died. One Avenger, Joseph Harmatz, claimed 300 to 400 perished; the Associated Press in 2016 said there were no known deaths.

Although they felt disappointment, in many ways, the casualties were immaterial to the Avengers. The Holocaust couldn’t pass without a response from the Jewish people. Even a failed attempt at revenge meant they could now live with their consciences.

The members have been afraid to talk about their actions ever since, for fear that they would be misunderstood and branded terrorists. I hope that’s not the case. In reality, I don’t think they would have committed mass murder, it was more wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, I want viewers to ask themselves what they would have done, in their place. I tried to be impartial and raise the question without judgement, because it’s such a unique moment in time. I still don’t know how I would have acted in their position; but I do have empathy for them.

The filmmaking process has shown me Kovner was an intelligent, philosophical man who I wish I could have met.

No charges were ever brought against the Avengers and, following Kovner’s brief spell in prison, they decided they should focus on building new lives for themselves in Israel. Most of them had been left completely alone in the world; now, at least, they had one another.

To this day, the final six survivors, now in their 90s, act like family and are in touch daily. They know everything about one another. Each Avenger will be haunted forever by their experiences, but they’re not depressed. They raised families and kept living. That’s not to say they have forgiven or forgotten, how could they? But life goes on.

Holocaust: The Revenge Plot is on Channel 4 at 9pm on January 27, Holocaust Memorial Day

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