‘An eye for an eye – a tooth for a tooth’
This phrase originated nearly four thousand years ago as part of King Hammurabi’s codes, a series of rules set out by the Babylonian leader who held the throne between 1792 BC and 1750 BC.
It’s a phrase that was later incorporated into the bible and has become an idiomatic expression in English, though most languages, cultures and religions have their own variations. The meaning is fairly simple, a person should be punished according to their offence – justice or revenge – depending on how you want to interpret it.
Our story today revolves around just this moral conundrum. A wildly ambitious revenge plot seen as justice for one of the most heinous events in human history, the Holocaust. The word Nakam means revenge in Hebrew and this was the name given to the plan devised by 50 Jewish Holocaust survivors to kill six million Germans in retaliation for what had happened during World War II.
If there was ever a revenge plot that at least sounded remotely justified, it may have been this. The events that took place between 1941 and 1945 – and even further back depending on how you want to label things – were on a scale of horror previously unheard of. Nothing like the Holocaust had happened before, or since.
Some will no doubt point to the carnage within the Soviet Union and China during the 20th Century, and while both cases saw higher numbers die, neither came close to the same kind of industrial slaughter that saw the Nazis attempt to wipe a group of people from the face of the earth.
Roughly two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population was killed during the Holocaust, accounting for around 6 million men, women and children. Some in death camps with purpose-built gas chambers, others simply herded into great pits out in the forest and shot, while many starved or succumbed to disease that frequently swept the ghettos and later the camps.
From 1945, allied forces streaming towards Germany began encountering concentration camps and word of what had happened began to spread. Now, there had been rumours for some time and it’s a contentious debate regarding just how much allied governments knew before their soldiers began uncovering these hellish camps. The Red Cross even visited one in 1944, but the Theresienstadt concentration camp that they were shown was very much a spruced up, sanitized version. The Nazis kept the horrors of Auschwitz, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen well under wraps.
As the Second World War drew to a close, a demand for justice saw a series of trials held in the German city of Nuremberg. The first dealt with 24 of the highest-ranking Nazis still alive that could be found, while a further 12 trials saw the total number of defendants rise to 199, with 161 convicted, and 37 sentenced to death.
But those numbers are simply incomparable to the number six million.
The fire of revenge began burning even before the conclusion of World War II. There are tales of rogue squads from the Jewish Brigade, a unit drawn exclusively from Palestine at the time, hunting down and executing German officers who had returned home to try and blend in as the allies advanced. There are no definitive numbers surrounding this, but some historians believe around 100 men were killed in this way.
Then there were the Jewish partisans, many of whom had fought the Nazis clandestinely, but now began to strike out with greater confidence. Again, it’s impossible to say how often this happened, but as the war ended, Nazi officers who had melted back into civilian life were prime targets. A late-night knock on the door would lead to the bewildered German being bundled into a waiting car never to be seen again.
But these too were fairly small-scale, especially compared to the horror that had been meted out to the Jewish people during the war. For some, revenge wasn’t about killing the odd ex-Nazi but delivering a shattering hammer blow reprisal of spectacular, horrifying proportions. A plan that wouldn’t be limited to the men who carried out the killings, but one that would include their families too. An eye for an eye.
The man today considered one of the greatest poets of modern Israel, Abba Kovner, was born in 1918 in the city of Ashmyany in modern-day Belarus.
At the outbreak of war, the young Kovner was living in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, a small country occupied first by the Soviet Union, then by the Nazis after Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with Stalin and sent his troops barreling eastward.
No sooner had the Nazis arrived, the Jewish population in Vilnius were forced into the Vilna ghetto situated in the old Jewish quarter in the centre of the city. In 1942, a pamphlet and manifesto began circulating the ghetto urging Jewish resistance with the now-famous words, “Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!”
The rallying call written by Kovner had only a minimal effect, but did help with the establishment of the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (FPO) – the United Partisan Organization – one of the first resistance groups to be established within a Nazi-controlled ghetto and Kovner, the charismatic, brooding man with a knack for words became one of its leaders. Their actions within the ghetto were small and usually followed by draconian Nazi retribution, a factor that eventually led much of the population to turn against the partisans.
Throughout 1942 and 1943, thousands of Jews were shipped out of the Vilna ghetto, usually to their immediate deaths and the ghetto was formally liquidated in September 1943. With the trucks loaded with people rumbling overhead, Kovner and three others crept through the sewers to escape, emerging on the outskirts of the city covered in faeces. There was a fierce driving rain that night and it didn’t take long for the excrement to wash away. They were free, but each knew they had said goodbye to family members for the final time.
Nokmim – Avengers
Until the arrival of Soviet forces in 1944, Kovner and his small band of partisans, then known as the Nokmim (Avengers) remained in the forest surrounding Vilnius, fighting a guerilla war against the Nazis and those who had chosen to align themselves with them. It’s thought they formed one section of a larger partisan group under Soviet leadership.
Sadly we know very little about the activities of this group, with the one exception being the dark episode that occurred in the village of Koniuchy that has come to be known as the Koniuchy massacre. The village had formed an armed self-defence force with the encouragement of the German-sponsored Lithuanian Auxiliary Police and stood in opposition to the partisans who were frequently accused of theft. What exactly happened and who exactly took part remains far from clear, but the partisan log mentions an attack on the village which killed at least 38 civilians – and specifically mentioned the inclusion of Jewish partisans, including the Nokmim.
This is an incident that has never been fully investigated. When Lithuania did begin looking into it in 2006, it was met with outraged cries of anti-Semitism and even victim-blaming and many refused to corroborate. Even today, the events of 29th January 1944, are bitterly contested, but it’s clear that every group operating in the area, from the Nazis to the partisans, committed atrocities. It was far from black and white at this point.
A Plan Forms
After the liberation by the Red Army, Kovner and his group made their way to Bucharest, one of the stopping points for Jews fleeing to Palestine. There they met survivors from Auschwitz and other concentration camps who painted the horrific picture that the Avengers had managed to escape from, but that had consumed their loved ones. For many, the idea of revenge was all-consuming.
In one fiery, passionate speech, Kovner was said to declare that the only way that Jewish people could be at peace, would be if six million Germans were killed in retaliation for the Holocaust. The idea might sound difficult to comprehend, maybe even uncomfortable to our modern, comfortable lives, but then again, none of us saw Auschwitz and none of us lost our entire families through this barbaric cruelty.
Those listening that night responded with intense enthusiasm, the great revenge plan had been agreed upon. Now, the 50 or so Avengers just needed to find the best way of doing it.
How do you kill six million people? I know the German had done it just a few years earlier, but the world was now at peace and despite denials, the allies were eager to extradite themselves from the responsibility of the tangled mess that was the tens of thousands of German soldiers held in several camps. As I mentioned earlier, nearly 200 Nazis faced trial in Nuremberg, but the vast majority of those being held would never face any kind of prosecution. The numbers were just too high and the process would have taken decades to complete.
The Avengers weren’t to know this yet, but even so, they felt their mandate deserved to stretch much further than just the blooded hands – they wanted to kill the loved ones of those responsible for the Holocaust.
They settled on water. By poisoning the water supply of several German cities, the Avengers felt they had the best possible chance of killing millions of people. And it made sense, German cities lay in ruin with their electricity and water supplies a complete mess. If they could infiltrate the waterworks, then release some poison in just the right places, the effects could be catastrophic.
Teams were dispatched to four German cities, though Nuremberg is the only one we’re entirely sure about, to investigate whether such a plan was feasible and if possible to gain access to the waterworks. Meanwhile, Kovner travelled to Palestine hoping to procure some poison – easier said than done. Shortly after arriving in the land that would soon become Israel, Kovner was detained by Mossad agents and questioned for three days, in which he even reportedly asked them to supply him poison for a smaller-scale attack. They refused and Kovner was released soon after.
His search for a suitable poison was frustrating and a few months after his arrival, he instructed those back in Europe to begin laying the groundwork for Plan B – more on that to come. But shortly after he was introduced to Ephraim and Aharon Katzir, chemists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who were able to connect him with the head of chemical storage at the university who was willing to supply him with the poison.
In Nuremberg, the stage was now set. Through a series of bribes, the Avengers had managed to place one of their men within the waterworks and had also obtained a detailed copy of the water system. It was now simply a case of waiting for the poison to arrive and then unleashing their vengeful hell.
In December 1945, Kovner made his way to Alexandria in Egypt, with the poison carefully concealed within toothpaste tubes in his bag. The papers he was carrying identified him as a Jewish Brigade soldier on leave and now returning to Europe. As he stood on the deck of the ship shortly before its departure to Toulouse, no doubt Kovner felt his vast revenge plot was now within tantalising sight, but as the public address system crackled into life, his was one of three names to be called.
His response was to immediately hurl the poison over the side and into the water below before walking off the ship where he was promptly arrested. Plan A had failed.
But all was not lost. The group’s plan to kill millions of Germans had come unstuck, but Plan B had already been loosely outlined. This was to be a significantly smaller attack and many members of the Avengers were effectively disbanded at this point with the promise that plan A would eventually resurface.
For those who remained, their attention turned from the wider German population to the group that had masterminded the Holocaust, the once dreaded SS. Hitler’s paramilitary organisation took Nazism to a whole new level and was broadly responsible for carrying out the Final Solution.
At the end of the war, the allies allowed most Wehrmacht soldiers to be discharged and return home, but the ideological nutcases that formed the SS were quite another story. Tens of thousands of SS officers and prominent Nazis were held in camps, ironically the very extermination camps they had herded their enemies into to be killed. If there were any moral qualms over the mass attack that would have killed indiscriminately, Plan B targeted the very rotten core responsible for mass murder.
The group focused their attention on two camps, in Dachau and Nuremberg, the last of which now held up to 15,000 Nazis. Again, poison was deemed the obvious choice, but how to administer it was complex. Scouts were dispatched to the camps to determine the most efficient and safest way of poisoning thousands of men in a single sweep.
At the Langwasser internment camp outside Nuremberg, which had formerly been Stalag XIII-D under the Germans, initial reports weren’t promising. The American run camp brought in all of its food via U.S suppliers and an attack of this magnitude seemed unlikely within the well-guarded prison. But there was a glimmer of hope. They noticed that the only food that was made locally was the bread. If they could find a way of placing somebody inside the bakery that provided the bread who could then smuggle in poison that could be painted onto the freshly baked loaves ready for the next day, it just might work. They found a similar situation at the camp in Dachau and the group set in motion an absurdly complex plan, but their only hope.
At the Nakam headquarters in Paris, a man by the name of Yitzhak Ratner was given the daunting task of finding a poisonous mixture that was both odourless and that would have a delayed reaction. It also needed to be sticky in such a way that it could be painted onto the underside of the loaves, while still being invisible. After toiling through many options, Ratner settled on a mixture of arsenic, glue and other additives. Just to be sure, they tested it on a group of cats – and sadly, that was the end of those cats. The Avengers had their poison.
The group was also hard at work placing their own members within the two camps, either as drivers of storehouse operatives and at the two bakeries supplying the bread. This seems to have been done remarkably easily and the pieces for Plan B began falling quickly into place.
But there was one final problem. The food brought into the camps wasn’t just consumed by the prisoners as it also fed the American guards. Killing scores of Americans while trying to get at the SS officers was out of the question and again, the plan hung in the balance.
However, this was resolved with a remarkable stroke of luck. Sources within the camp reported that on Sundays, only the prisoners ate the local bread – known as ‘black bread’ – because the American soldiers were treated to some better quality ‘white bread.’ The attack would therefore need to be carried out on a Saturday night and with preparations reaching their climax, the Avengers set a date.
The Time For Revenge
Just as everything seemed to be coming nicely together for both the Nuremberg and Dachau operations, disaster struck. The Americans had uncovered the plan at Dachau, although how much was actually known has never been revealed. On 11th April 1946, just days before the planned poisoning, the Dachau operation was aborted. Discussions over whether to proceed at Nuremberg took place, and despite some very real fears that their entire plan had been uncovered, it was given the go-ahead.
However, by this point, most of the poison was already inside the bakery in Nuremberg, smuggled inside hot water bottles then stashed below the floorboards. As you would have it, on 13th April, there was a strike at the bakery which meant that only three Avengers of the planned six could sneak into the building at night. Nevertheless, they set about the task quickly and spent the entire night painting the underside of the loaves. As dawn approached, 3,000 separate loaves had been laced with arsenic, not quite the 14,000 that had been planned, but with one loaf typically divided between four prisoners, the results would still be deadly.
The small group immediately left Nuremberg and headed first for Czechoslovakia then on to Italy and finally France where they would eventually board a ship for Palestine.
Rachel Glicksman, a young Avenger, was given the task of approaching the camp the following day to assess the numbers killed. She was explicitly told that she was on her own, if she was caught, the group would disavow all knowledge of her.
What must have been going through the mind of the young woman as she approached the Langwasser internment camp is difficult to imagine. How would she be able to assess the dead? Would the scene be so chaotic that she could simply slip through? As she approached, she saw a large number of women crowded around the camp gates, wives and girlfriends of those inside who had been informed that something had happened. Glicksman pushed through the crowd to the front where she witnessed a ghastly scene. In the camp, men were vomiting or staggering helplessly. Prison guards were rushing back and forth with stretchers, clearly unsure of what had happened and exactly what to do. Glicksman saw numerous lifeless bodies, it was enough for her, she turned and fled the scene.
It’s not exactly clear what happened next. Reports the following day told of nearly 2,500 cases of poisoning in the camp with 207 hospitalized and seriously ill. But no deaths. Was it possible that so much arsenic could be administered and not a single fatality?
A later report into the poisoning by the U.S government stated that there had been enough arsenic in the camp to kill roughly 60,000 people, how nobody had died was a complete mystery. Perhaps the mixture had been spread too thinly or maybe the effects occurred quicker than expected and many had simply stopped eating the bread.
However, not everybody was convinced. Theories of a cover-up quickly spread and historians have claimed that maybe 100 men died in the camp that morning or shortly after. Their theory was that the U.S authorities suppressed the incident to prevent a mass panic from breaking out in the Langwasser and other camps.
Krovner, who had spent two months in jail in Egypt and whose arrest still remained a complete mystery, sent word from Palestine that all revenge missions should now come to a close and that all members of the Avengers must now make their way to the promised land where they would build their own country – a nation that would never again be targeted in such a way. The creation and strengthening of Israel must now take precedent over revenge.
The failure of the two plots remained a thorn in the side of many of the Avengers. A documentary released just a few years ago included interviews with the surviving members. While some declared shock that they could ever have acted in such a way, others remained resolute, still convinced that their terrible revenge plot was not only justified but in some way needed to bring a sense of peace.
An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.