They called themselves Nokmim, Hebrew for ‘Avengers’. Dissatisfied with the outcome of the 1945 Nuremberg trials, with millions of Nazi war criminals still roaming around freely, they took up arms and formed a merciless militia.
Nazi war crimes shaped a strong resistance spirit that did not die in the wake of WW2. At the heart of Eastern woods, behind the barbwires of extermination camps, secluded in familiar ghettos, their former victims waited patiently to get their revenge. Obviously, the 1945 trials could not hope to assimilate the many criminals who took part in the Holocaust — many had already fled or killed themselves. Less than two hundred Nazis were tried during the Nuremberg trials. There was room for improvement.
Eager to fix what they considered a judiciary failure, a mysterious groupuscule (some historians believe it originated from a band of survivors in Bucarest) decided to hunt down their former persecutors. They called themselves Nokmim, ‘Avengers’ in Hebrew. They then targeted the few countries where, it was rumored, several Nazis had fled: Spain, South America, Canada, and some spots in Europe that people falsely considered as ‘denazified’.
‘The Jews are coming’
Who were they? Some Nokmim were former members of wartime Resistance movements; others emerged from Vilnius or Warsaw ghettos, or straight from concentration camps, with the desire to avenge themselves. “I did not know a single Jew who wasn’t obsessed with the idea of revenge,” would later comment Yitzhak Zuckerman, who played a major role in the insurrection of Warsaw. It is also believed that part of their armed forces was made up Allied soldiers, especially the Jewish Brigade, a British military division. Their overall objective was clear enough: make Germany pay for its war crimes… “We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt!” warned Abba Kovner, leader of about fifty Nokmim partisans. The time had come.
From an outside perspective, it was hard to tell Nokmim divisions were on the move. Because their deeds did not cause much stir — that is, other than miscellaneous news items showing up on local papers. Car crashes, suspicious suicides, medical complications wiped out former Nazis (a former Gestapo officer on a drip received kerosene into his blood), and one could hardly link the shady brigade to those deaths. How many deaths, anyway? Hundred and fifty? Three hundred? Nobody knew, and to this day, nobody knows. The fact remains that during the summer of 1945, giving up their discreet and silent strategy, some Avengers drove through Germany in a truck on which the warning “Die Juden kommen” (The Jews are coming) was painted black… This was the work of the Nakam, a seditious branch of the Nokmim, wishing to go one step further in avenging Nazi wartime crimes. But one step further could well mean crossing the line from revenge to cold-blooded murder…
Plan A: 6,000,000 Germans
As Nokmim‘s victims kept on feeding newspapers’ minor news headlines, a new idea — a more radical one — sprouted in the brain of the Nakam division: the poisoning of water channels supplying German metropolises. The cities of Munich, Berlin, Hamburg, Weimar and Nuremberg were especially targeted. And who other to lead the initiative than Abba Kovner, the man who sought revenge so fiercely? The latter followed the vengeful punchline of the Old Testament — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: he aimed at killing six million Germans, no less, to repair for the losses of the Holocaust.
But what drove those men? What made them switch from their original plan, targeting Nazi criminals, toward eliminating German citizens — men, women and children alike? It’s hard to understand. The Jewish people have weathered centuries of hate and oppression, but for the most part it was no motive for murder. Until Kovner stepped in. “The act should be shocking, he famously said. The Germans should know that after Auschwitz there can be no return to normality.”
After having successfully received two deliveries of poison — smartly concealed in toothpaste tubes –, Kovner headed back from Alexandria to Europe in December 1945 with his deadly luggage. But there was a hiccup; a few minutes before disembarking in Toulon (France), Kovner’s name was called into ship’s loudspeaker. Concerned, the latter threw the poison overboard — and he did well, since shortly thereafter, he was arrested by British authorities! Had he been betrayed by some of his own accomplices who, eager to secure the autonomy of what would soon become Israel, were worried such a terrorist act could nullify their efforts? It is likely. However, since no evidence could be found (nobody thought about dredging the Mediterranean), Kovner only spent a few weeks in jail before being released.
Plan B: Arsenic-flavored bread
Since ‘Plan A’ could not deliver (authorities were too watchful for the Nakam to move on with the poisoning project), Kovner and his men scaled down their mass-murder ambitions. Their new aim: eliminating SS prisoners of war detained in Germany. In April 1946, one militiaman was successfully hired as a baker apprentice in a bakery that supplied one of those prisons in Nuremberg. Smearing no less than 3,000 bread loaves with a mix of arsenic and glue, the young man and his accomplices eventually poisoned several hundreds of prisoners… but no one apparently succumbed to those heartburns.
Following the poisoning attempt, which again did not meet the ‘success’ Kovner had wished for, the Avengers resigned themselves to stop the head-on fight, and rather wisely moved on to a more diplomatic agenda. Abba Kovner, an ambivalent character of both patriotism and blind fury, withdrew from European affairs and pursued his fight from Israel. The new country was founded in 1947, and the inevitable cohabitation it triggered keeps entailing hate and death to this day.
- Rich Cohen, The Avengers: A Jewish War Story, New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
- Dina Porat, The Fall of a Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner, Stanford University Press, 2010.
- Jonathan Freedland, “The Jewish avengers who survived death camps and tracked down their tormentors”, The Guardian, 26 juillet 2008.
- Melody Barron, “Abba Kovner and the Jewish Avengers”, The Times of Israel, 11 avril 2018.
- Daniel Rennie, “How Nakam And Abba Kovner Tried To Kill 6 Million Germans After WW2”, All That’s Interesting, 31 janvier 2018.