Ten members of The Avengers, eight men and two women, posing while in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The History of Nakam: Jewish Soldiers who Avenged the Holocaust

The end of World War II (WWII) brought celebrations across the world, but there were those that saw the end of the war didn’t necessarily mean ‘the end’, like the avenging group Nakam. 

As early as 1943, Alan Turing and his cryptologists cracked intercepted German Enigma codes. Their efforts shortened WWII by two years and saved 14 million lives.

This was one of many victories during the war, but it couldn’t bring back the six million Jewish lives lost, a result of the Holocaust. 

Many believed that the trials of the SS soldiers weren’t enough for them to take responsibility for their crimes. They wanted them to serve a harsher punishment for their contribution to the Holocaust.

There were 50 Holocaust survivors who wanted revenge for a greater liberation than the trials could ever bring. These Jewish men and women came together and formed Nakam, the ‘Avengers’ of the Holocaust, and sought to avenge the six million Jewish lives by not only going after Nazis but all Germans.

Their plan was the mass murder of German men, women, and children, regardless of being a Nazi or not. They blamed all Germans for the plight of their people.

Additionally, they aimed their mission of revenge as an international message of warning.

The Beginning of Nakam, 1943

People of Vilnius, Lithuania, trying to get on with their daily lives in the Vilnius ghetto, under Nazi rule.
image source: deathcamps.org

It started in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1943.

There were 8000 Jews in Vilnius when a storm of Nazi soldiers marched through.

During this time, rumors spread about the mass killings and mass graves in the surrounding forests of Vilnius.

A true account was given by Joseph Harmatz, a Holocaust survivor and member of Nakam, from his experience as part of the work detail. His job was to incinerate the bodies in the mass graves.

Years after WWII, he described the horrific scenes he witnessed.

Harmatz: “When you see it with your own eyes, it invades you so deeply that even if you want to break free from it, you can’t break free.”

As more lives were taken, the city became a prison.

The news reached Abba Kovner, an Israeli poet and writer. He then wrote a manifesto targeting Nazi Germany, called ‘Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!’ (translated). This was allegedly the first document to identify the German plan of mass murders.

As the rumors spread and deaths grew, Kovner devised a plan for those willing to follow. Among those fighters was Harmatz, who was equally angered by what he had seen.

They, along with another fighter, Hasia Warshowski, escaped Vilnius through the sewers and battled tough elements to reach their goal.

Kovner: “Jews of Vilnius must not go like lambs for the slaughter. They must fight back.”

The Return to Lithuania, 1944

Ten members of The Avengers, eight men and two women, posing while in Vilnius, Lithuania.
image source: Wikipedia

WWII ended on Saturday, September 2, 1944.

The Allied Forces took over Germany and eliminated the Nazis as they saw fit.

When they returned to Lithuania, Kovner’s Jewish resistance fighters teamed with the Russian Arm.

Despite their efforts to keep strong, for themselves and for each other, none of them was prepared for the news to come.

They discovered that 6700 Jews from Vilnius were killed. Kovner lost his mother; Harmatz lost his brother and father; and Hasia lost her mother, father, and brother.

Soon after, they found out that in Lithuania alone, 100 000 Jews perished under the Nazi regime.

The mass murders, mass graves and the realization of how many innocent lives were taken sparked a collective vengeance among Nakam’s members. This vengeance wasn’t only for the Jews of Lithuania but for all that suffered during WWII.

Kovner and a handful of soldiers knew who to search for as recruits: the survivors that could quickly adapt as the ‘unknown’ while working undercover.

Kovner: “We had chosen a group of people with the qualities and skills capable of handling this operation, which we knew would be high risk.”

Among the new members were Yehuda ‘Poldeck’ Meiman, an escapee of Auschwitz and the Death March, and Simcha ‘Kazik’ Roten, an escapee of the ghetto killings.

While Nakam formed and their plan was in its early phases, another group was making its way through Europe to seek revenge for the Holocaust victims.

The Jewish Brigade

A group of English soldiers from British-occupied Palestine, The Jewish Brigade, were the only military group to serve in the British Army and with the Allied Forces as an independent, national Jewish military formation.

These soldiers never saw or experience the Holocaust, including the camps and ghetto killings. They’d soon understand why they were fighting to liberate those who did.

Holocaust survivors were making their way through Italy for a better life and, by chance, came across the Jewish Brigade.

The survivors told the Brigade their experiences in the vamps and of the people responsible.

After hearing the stories, The Brigade made it their mission to find the SS soldiers that went into hiding across Europe.

Once they found the SS soldiers, The Brigade took them into the forest, bound them, and made them admit their crimes.

Although the exact total remains unknown, The Jewish Brigade may have killed more than 100 soldiers.

Nakam Assembled, 1945

The members of Nakam are seen around a table with their weapons, with their leader, Abba Kovner, explaining their plan.
image source: allthingsinteresting.com

In July 1945, Kovner met with The Jewish Brigade and asked for their assistance in their plan to kill six million Germans. The Brigade refused to take part in a mass killing and stated that their target was war criminals, those directly responsible.

Many Holocaust survivors, in addition to Kovner, saw the horrific sites for the first time, from the Ponary Massacre that took 100 000 Polish and Russian Jews to the extinction camps.

The liberation from Nazi rule couldn’t make up for the unforgivable acts they committed. Many spoke of revenge but a few chose to act on it.

Then, 50 Holocaust survivors came together to complete Nakam’s formation.

One of their fears was the appearance of a different form of the enemy. Part of their plan was for their mission to be an international message of warning to all of what would happen should any harm Jewish lives as the Nazis did.

Paris, France became the Nakam Headquarters with Pasha Reichman, Kovner’s second-in-command, directing members as per Kovner’s instructions.

Nakam spread throughout Europe, seeking new members and awaiting orders.

Poldeck was stationed in Milan and oversaw the money used for Nakam’s daily expenses. The money used was forged bank notes sold on the Italian black market. The irony is that the Nazis forced Holocaust victims to forge the notes, an attempt to undermine the British economy, and those same notes funded Nakam.

The groups moved on to the major ruined cities of Germany for their plan: Kazik oversaw the group in Munich, Harmatz oversaw Nuremberg and Hasia oversaw Hamburg.

Harmatz: “The Gentiles will forever know, and so will history, that this act is an act of vengeance of the Jewish people.”

Plan A: Attacking the Water Supply

Nakam infiltrated the waterworks in five ruined German cities: Nuremberg, Wiemer, Hamburg, Munich, and Frankfurt. They studied them and how they pumped water into German homes through pipes.

The weapon of choice was said to be as unconventional, cruel, and inhuman as Nazi Germany’s actions: poison.

Kovner traveled to Tel Aviv, Israel, where he met future President Chaim Weizman of Israel. Kovner stated that Weizman approved of the plan.

From there, Kovner worked with biophysicist, the next future President Ephraim Katzir of Israel, who worked with Weizman.

Although Weizman may have agreed to help Kovner, it’s noted that he wasn’t aware that the poison was to kill millions.

Poldeck confirmed with Katzir’s brother, who assisted Katzir, that they had made the poison.

Kovner headed to Germany on a British convoy ship, disguised as a British soldier. The poison was in the cargo bay in condensed milk cans.

Kovner planned to travel to Alexandria, Egypt, and from there, to Toulon, France.

It remains a mystery to this day as to who was responsible, but Kovner’s identity was given away. Many suspicions pointed to a Jewish leader that didn’t agree with Nakam’s plan.

As a result, Kovner threw the poison-filled condensed milk cans into the ocean and was imprisoned in Cairo, Egypt for a few months before he could return to Israel.

Plan A ended before it could begin.

Plan B: Infiltrating the Allied POW Camps

Before his arrest, Kovner laid out a second plan. It was more focused, but less venturous, than Plan A and was guaranteed to be successful.

Nakam was to directly target the perpetrators of the Holocaust, those responsible for the deaths of six million Jews.

Their goal was to kill tens of thousands of SS soldiers.

Nakam knew that many SS soldiers were in Allied Prisoner-of-War (POW) camps and awaited trial.

According to Professor Michael Bar-Zohar, a scholar who studied Nakam in 1969, their aim was to “… generate direct revenge on the criminal”.

Harmatz set out to examine the POW camps. Americans provided the food, but the bread was locally made. Therefore, the bakery was their way in.

Reichman oversaw the operation. Teams of Nakam members were sent to two of the main POW camps and had to infiltrate the bakeries.

Kazik, Poldeck, and their group were in Dachau, a former concentration camp, in Munich. Harmatz, Ariel ‘Leibke’ Distel, and their group were in Stalag 13 in Nuremberg. Leibke and Poldeck both came from a family of bakers.

Leibke infiltrated Stalag 13’s POW camp bakery, where he explained the situation to the owner of the bakery and gained Nakam ease of access.

For Poldek, he needed to be stealthier. No one could know of their plan.

Their months-long investigation began.

While Leibke and Poldek investigated, Poldeck contacted an engineer, Yitzak Ratner, about the poison. After Ratner was sent to Paris, he made the poisonous substance.

Problem in Dachau

Poldeck reported that the American authorities were onto Nakam and their plan. Their suspicions were growing, which meant the risks grew higher.

Reichman knew she had only two options: continue as planned or abort the plan in Dachau. She chose to abort the plan and the Nakam members stationed in Munich returned to Paris.

All hopes laid with Nuremberg.

Eventually, the poison made its way into Nuremberg, hidden in hot water bottles.

Leibke hid the poison under the floorboards of the bakery.

After the final shift change, Leibke and Harmatz planned to lace the loaves of bread. The bread would then be delivered by the American soldiers the next morning to the SS soldiers.

Sunday, April 12, 1946

In the dead of night, Leibke and two Nakam members got to work.

The arsenic poison was mixed with glue and had to be brushed onto the underside of each loaf.

Without any delay, the three members brushed the poison on 3000 loaves by the early morning.

Monday, April 13, 1946

The American soldiers delivered the loaves.

Tuesday, April 23, 1946

Ten days later, Reichman chose Rachel Glicksman to investigate the outcome of their operation in Nuremberg. Her task was to count the dead bodies leaving the camp.

If Glicksman was caught, she couldn’t mention Nakam and Nakam wouldn’t help her.

As she arrived outside the POW camp, Glicksman was able to blend in with the wives of the SS soldiers that crowded at the gate. They waited for news about their husbands’ conditions.

Many SS soldiers were ill and suffered the effects of arsenic poisoning, but that’s all they suffered. The poison only caused severe illness and no deaths were reported.

Professor Bar-Zohar believes that more than 100 soldiers died from poisoning. The truth had to be omitted, otherwise, it would have caused mass panic in other Allied POW camps.

The End of Nakam

Jewish people on a large boat heading for the port, all crowded onto the ship and waving and showing signs of happiness.
image source: Reuters

After Plan B, Nakam received a message from Kovner. He told them to stop the killing, leave all the plans for revenge and move towards building a new home for themselves and others in Israel.

Nakam members arrived in Haifa, Israel, and, for the first time in years, there was peaceful silence.

Harmatz: “There is no hate towards the current youth of Germany, but there will never be forgiveness for those who committed the horrendous crimes against the Jews.”

Those 50 Holocaust survivors’ experiences haunt them, from their time in the camps and as members of Nakam.

Some still believe that the Germans deserved Nakam’s wrath, in both Plan A and B. Others remain conflicted by the vengeful actions, in constant wonder if vengeance was the right path to take.

Kovner and all members of Nakam weren’t charged with crimes in connection with the plot.

Years later, German prosecutors investigated the matter, but due to ‘extraordinary circumstances’, they didn’t press on and filed no charges.

Before his death in 1987, Kovner had the surviving members of Nakam meet in a house in a forest. Their meeting was to record the events from 1943 to 1946, where they all shared their experiences.

In 2018, the remaining Nakam members head the recording for the first time.

As of April 2021, 175 000 out of 6.8 million of the Israeli Jewish population are Holocaust survivors.

“A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.”

– Francis Bacon, Essays.

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