9

Vengeance Is Mine

Though Johann Trollmann said that he would have liked to get even with the Nazis who destroyed his life and career, he did not survive his torturous existence in Auschwitz. Many of those who did survive were so angry at the Nazis that nothing short of murder could satisfy their desire to get even. But how could anyone possibly even the score for 6 million dead Jews who had been mercilessly slaughtered? Killing 6 million Nazis was unrealistic. Then how to exact revenge? At least one could make examples of some of those who would not be tried in international courts. Thousands of vicious SS guards could be hunted and executed.

Though hundreds of avengers were preparing to exact revenge, most Jewish survivors of the camps were intent on rebuilding their lives and starting new families; for them, living and producing children was revenge enough against a murderous Nazi regime that had aimed to destroy them. They believed that rebuilding for the future was the best means for responding to the vast calamity that had befallen the Jews. For those who wanted revenge, however, such an attitude seemed to diminish the tragedy of the past. Only physical retribution would satisfy their sense of right and wrong. They did not regard their mission as quixotic; rather, it was necessary. The world should know that from now on no Jew would get on his knees and be shot in the head. Jews would fight their enemies to the death. Vengeance would be a warning to the world to never attempt genocide again.

For those who deemed themselves avengers, the burning impetus for revenge as a message to the world would require them not just to kill members of the SS and Gestapo but also German citizens who were complicit in the crimes of the Nazis. The avengers believed that just because ordinary German citizens had looked away and not participated in the crimes, that did not make them innocent. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners notes the Holocaust was carried out not just by the SS but also by tens of thousands of non–SS Germans who took pride that others were killing and torturing Jews.

As early as 1942 there was a Jewish call to arms. Not only must the slaughter of Jews be stopped, but those who committed acts of genocide should pay with their lives. Jewish newspapers in Mandate Palestine daily ran editorials demanding that there be retribution for the murder of Jews. Wherever Jews were being murdered, the murderers should suffer the same fate as their victims. Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, claimed that all the Jews he knew were obsessed with revenge. There was a rage to destroy the destroyers.

Dina Porat, a highly esteemed Israeli historian and biographer, estimated that between 200 and 250 Holocaust survivors exacted revenge against the Nazis. They did so with guns, knives, garrotes, poisons, and explosives. And to make sure that Nazis could not become enemies of the new state of Israel, Mossad, Israel’s equivalent of the CIA and considered the world’s most efficient killing machine, hunted and executed an estimated 1,500 Nazis. The details of their missions remain a government secret.

In the world of Jewish revenge, the most celebrated group to exact retribution was Nakam (Revenge). The group was led by a charismatic poet and eloquent guerrilla fighter named Abba Kovner who believed in proportional revenge. Large-scale revenge was not only impractical but also impossible. To use a more recent military term, Kovner wanted to embark on a mission that would “shock and awe” the Germans. He told his followers that “the Germans should know that after Auschwitz there can be no return to normality.”1 His words had a hypnotic effect on members of Nakam.

“Members of the group believed that the laws of the time were unable to adequately punish such an extreme event as the Holocaust and that the complete moral bankruptcy of the world could only be cured by catastrophic retributive violence.”2

The group decided that it would poison a large number of Germans. It developed interlocking networks of underground cells, each member prepared to carry out specific tasks. Before they could put their plans into action, they had to raise large sums of money not only to cover their own considerable expenses but also to bribe those who could secretly open doors and provide classified information. Once the money had been raised, they began acquiring poison and infiltrating various parts of the German infrastructure. The Jewish Brigade, which had been formed in 1944 by recruiting Jews from Mandate Palestine and was commanded by British Jewish officers, helped to fund Nakam. They provided Nakam members with forged British currency and weapons. Their role was crucial to the success of Nakam’s activities.

Shortly after the end of World War II, after the Jewish Brigade had valiantly fought alongside the British in Italy, it formed a group known as Tilhas Tizig Gesheften (Kiss My Ass), often referred to by its initials TTG. TTG went after the Nazis like lions after gazelles. They assassinated members of the SS and Wehrmacht wherever they could find them. They would kidnap members of the SS, then torture them into providing information on the whereabouts of those who had committed atrocities against Jews. Once the brigade had extracted the information, it would dispose of its kidnapped victim, leaving a corpse where other SS men could see it. Other times, dressed as British soldiers, two or three of them would knock on the door of an SS officer’s home and tell him he was wanted for questioning. The SS officer would reluctantly accompany the TTG men, getting into a car with a British army insignia. But instead of being driven to a British army office, the SS man would be driven to a darkly wooded area, dragged from the car as he loudly protested, dumped deep in the woods, forced to kneel and beg for his life, then shot in the head. His body would be left in the woods. When the brigade disbanded in the summer of 1946, many of its members joined Nakam. They brought with them British army uniforms and credentials, but best of all they kept their military weapons and so were well armed for the task of assassination. According to historians of Israel’s secret wars, the members of Nakam were reputed to have killed about 1,500 Nazi war criminals. Members of Nakam later said that while there were war crime trials of top Nazi leaders, many SS officers who had carried out the gruesome murders of Jews freely returned home. While the majority of SS officers did not garner much media attention, the Reich’s leaders such as Goring, Hess, Donitz, Frank, Keitel, Speer, and Rosenberg were vilified in the international press as they were tried at Nuremberg. Those men were not the targets of Nakam, for they would be imprisoned or executed. Nakam was out to get those who seemed to believe they would not be held accountable for their crimes.

While 6 million Germans could not be executed, Kovner nevertheless espoused the need for proportional retribution. He thought that poisoning a large number of German civilians would come close to being symmetrical justice. So a group of former camp inmates and members of the Jewish Brigade led by Joseph Harmatz and Kovner decided on two plans. One was to poison a large number of residents in several German cities; the other was to poison all of the Nazi POWs who were being held in an American camp near Nuremberg, the city of Hitler’s most dramatic rallies.

Rich Cohen writes,

The soldiers of the Avengers would scatter, traveling to a handful of cities near concentration camps or else of symbolic value to Nazi Germany. Munich, Berlin, Weimar, Nuremberg, Hamburg. Using forged papers, they would take jobs in the city waterworks, learning the sewers of each town. At the given moment, the Jews would shut off the valves to those neighborhoods where foreigners lived, then fill the pipes with poison. Death would flow from the faucets, killing without discrimination, young and old, healthy and sick, five cities in an instant. An eye for an eye. Plan A.

Plan B was the fallback. Captured Nazis, just the highest ranking officers, were being held in the former concentration camps, awaiting trial for war crimes. Plan B was to poison the bread these men ate with each meal. Both plans, A and B, relied on the chaos of Liberated Europe, a babble of languages, a stream of refugees, confusion on the roads, a land with no one in charge, where a saboteur could vanish in a column of DPs [displaced persons].3

Abba Kovner was well suited to such a task for he had been a courageous guerrilla fighter against the Nazis who occupied his home city of Vilna. There he had organized what came to be known as the Vilna Ghetto Uprising, a vehement struggle that had failed to succeed yet had the effect of mobilizing numerous Jews against the Nazi invaders. While in Vilna Kovner also issued a 1942 manifesto titled “Let Us Not Go Like Lambs to the Slaughter.” It is considered the first writing by a Jew warning that Hitler intended to exterminate all the Jews of Europe. He added that many of the Jewish residents of Vilna had already been slaughtered in the Ponary Massacre and the fate of the rest of the Jews would be the same.4 In his manifesto Kovner used the phrase “like sheep to the slaughter.” But when many Jewish residents read it, they found it to be an unbelievable accusation; they thought it was—at best—a wild exaggeration, something designed to stir them up, to enlist them in a rebellion that would be doomed to failure. The few who believed it joined Kovner’s underground military organization and pledged to do all in their power to fight the Nazis and prevent them from killing more Jews. As fierce and determined as Kovner and his comrades were, the Vilna Ghetto uprising, as many Jews had suspected, failed to achieve its military goals. Failure, however, did not deter the underground from fighting on. They were more fiercely determined to fight against the Nazis than they had been. They escaped into Rudniki Forest where they joined Soviet partisans who were known for their vicious and remorseless treatment of captured Nazis, who were often beaten to death for they were not worth the price of bullets. Together the Jews and the Russian partisans ambushed and killed Nazi soldiers and sabotaged convoys of trucks and tanks, killing those who survived the attacks. From dead Nazis the groups grabbed guns, ammunition, and grenades.5

Because Kovner was an inspiring and intuitive leader of the Jews who had escaped from Vilna and organized the resistance to the Nazi occupation, he was looked upon as a natural leader, someone who commanded respect and admiration. Historian Dina Porat says, “His was a personality you could not ignore. Whose vision and thoughts about Jewish history were of the highest level… . He gave them goals and they followed him for those goals.”6

Based upon Kovner’s record, Nakam members trusted his decisions and were inspired by his courage and commitment. Two of his most trusted and devoted lieutenants were a pair of courageous women named Vitka Kempner and Ruska Korczak. As members of Nakam, the two women said of themselves that they were as much avengers as the men. Kempner, a young woman of only nineteen during the Vilna Ghetto uprising, had risked her life smuggling weapons through the city’s sewers. She became renowned among guerrilla fighters after blowing up a Nazi train with a homemade bomb. She and Kovner became lovers; in 1946, they married. Korczak, also a young woman of extraordinary courage, helped to smuggle weapons to those fighting the Nazis in Vilna. In addition, she helped to smuggle Jews out of the city and to safety. She and Korczak remained close friends though she was rumored to be another of Kovner’s lovers. Supposedly no jealousy over the affections of Kovner dampened the relationship of the two women.

Joseph Harmatz, a close friend of Kovner, was also a member of the Avengers and a vital member of the Vilna resistance. At age sixteen, as an idealistic communist, he had joined the underground and smuggled partisans through the city’s sewers to safety in the nearby forests. There they were trained and armed so that they could join the fight against the Nazis. When it came to carrying out the planned poisoning of Germans, Harmatz, posing as a Polish displaced person named Maim Mendele, was charged with infiltrating the municipal water-supply company as well as finding rooms in which the conspirators could conceal themselves in Nuremberg. There was a shortage of rooms because much of the city had been destroyed by American and British bombs. Nevertheless, Harmatz was resourceful and determined to carry out Nakam’s plans. Using real and forged British currency, he bribed a number of landlords to make rooms available for his comrades. In addition, he bribed foremen and managers at the water company. As a result, he managed to get Willek Schwerzreich (Wilek Shinar), an engineer from Kraków who spoke fluent German, employed by the municipal water company. Schwarzreich stole a copy of a diagram that contained the plan of the water system. The diagram identified the main water valve into which poison could be poured. He reported his findings to Kempner and also to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s future prime minister, who said he was more interested in creating a Jewish state than in exacting revenge, though he did not dissuade the Avengers from going forward with their plan. In an interview many years after the war, Harmatz confirmed Plan A to kill Germans.

“So the group set out with a simple mission. Kill Germans,” Harmatz said flatly.

How many?

“As many as possible,” he quickly replied.7

In July 1945, Kovner, disguising himself as a Jewish Brigade soldier on leave, left for Milan. There he boarded a ship for Mandate Palestine. Though he wanted to move as quickly and as quietly as possible after disembarking, he was arrested by Mossad, confined to a small apartment, and interrogated for three days by Mossad’s chief, Shaul Meirov. After being released from his temporary confinement, Kovner met with numerous Jews hoping to get poison for his mission in Germany. Years later he claimed that he met with Chaim Weizmann, the visionary Zionist leader, a brilliantly inventive biochemist, and first president of Israel. Kovner said that Weizmann approved Plan B, which seemed far more practical and less likely to raise anger against the Jews than Plan A. He supposedly put Kovner in touch with the Katzir brothers, who were sympathetic to Kovner’s revenge plot and convinced the head of chemical storage at Hebrew University to give Kovner poison. Kovner was given the poison and planned on returning to Germany. Still posing as a member of the Jewish Brigade on leave, Kovner traveled to Alexandria in Egypt where he boarded a British destroyer bound for France. In his rucksack he carried several documents, all of which were fake. The documents identified him with a false name as a soldier in the Jewish Brigade. His rucksack also contained two canisters of deadly poison. As the boat approached the coast of Toulon, France, the captain announced through the public address system that a member of the Jewish Brigade should come to the bridge. The captain, in calling for the soldier, used the fictitious name on Kovner’s identity papers. Kovner was startled that the captain would know the fictitious name, for only a few people in Mandate Palestine had been made privy to it. Kovner, fearing that he would be searched, quickly withdrew one of the canisters of poison from his rucksack and poured the contents into the sea. He then handed the other canister to a friend, Yitzik Rosenkranz, and told him to bring it to Kempner in Paris. He also handed Rosenkranz a note to be delivered to Kempner. He instructed him to go ahead with Plan B. After this, he walked to the captain’s quarters, where he was arrested by the British police. The police questioned him for hours, which produced no information because Kovner could not speak English. It was a perfect defense. Frustrated, the police called in an interpreter who was no more successful in gaining answers to police questions, for Kovner maintained his ignorance of any plot. He would shrug his shoulders and state that he had no knowledge of any plot. Unsatisfied with the interrogation, the police had the interpreter tell Kovner that because he was uncooperative he would be returned to Alexandria and locked up until the government decided to release him. When Kovner asked what crimes he was being accused of, he was handcuffed. After disembarking in Alexandria, he was taken to a bleak, bug-infested jail in Cairo, pushed into a cell, and left there for two months. Rich Cohen writes,

Years later, a Haganah veteran talked of the case saying Abba’s arrest had been engineered at the highest level, perhaps by Ben-Gurion himself. When the Jewish leaders realized that Abba had left the country with the poison, they tipped off the British. They did not want Abba punished—just detained. His plan might greatly damage their cause.8

In Paris, Kempner got together with Pasha Reichmann, a resourceful fighter who had distinguished himself in various military encounters against Nazi troops. As a young man he had been a member of the Polish Communist Youth Organization in Lodz. After the outbreak of war, he impressed his comrades by his fierce hit-and-run attacks on Nazi soldiers. He and his wife organized a group of underground fighters. They stole the parts used to manufacture rifles then assembled their own. In short order, they had a sufficient number of weapons so that all twenty-one members of their group were well armed. Once armed, they connected with Ukrainian partisans and Soviet paratroopers. They merged to form a partisan battalion that engaged in successful acts of sabotage. From hidden places in forests, they picked off Wehrmacht soldiers, stole the dead soldiers’ weapons, then quickly retreated into the density of thickly wooded forests before anyone could launch a counterattack. In one of the encounters, Reichmann was badly wounded, soon recovered, and again participated in the fight against Nazis. In 1944 he met Kovner in Lublin, who was so impressed by Reichmann’s intelligence, tenacity, and commitment that he asked him to serve as his second in command. While Kovner was imprisoned by the nascent government of what would become Israel, Reichmann served as head of Nakam.

Though Nakam had to discard Plan A, Reichmann and Kempner organized the means for effecting Plan B. A number of Nakam members were brought aboard to help carry out the plan.

Finally by April 1946, all the elements of Plan B were in place and the operation was a go. A friend of Reichmann named Yitzhak Ratner set up a laboratory in Paris where he tested various formulations so that he could create a tasteless and odorless formulation of arsenic. After much experimentation, he created a mixture of arsenic, glue, and water that could be applied with a paint brush onto loaves of bread. He tested his mixture on several cats that died. Satisfied that he had created a perfectly odorless, tasteless formula, he contacted friends in the tanning industry, which used arsenic as a leather preservative. They arranged for him to receive forty pounds of arsenic, far more than anything Kovner could have delivered. The next step was to have a special formulation of arsenic, glue, and water smuggled into Germany. Jewish Brigade members, still in British army uniforms, concealed the poison compound in water bottles. If stopped by civilian or military police, the soldiers could show false papers identifying them as part of a medical team who were delivering hot water bottles to a hospital in Germany. The bottles were finally delivered to the Konsum-Genossenschaftsbäckerei (Consumer Cooperative Bakery) near Nuremberg. This bakery had the contract to prepare all the bread consumed by SS prisoners in Stalag 13-D (Langwasser Internment Camp).

SS prisoners of war in Stalag 13-D were not the only prisoners of war targeted by Nakam. Plans to poison prisoners at a prison camp near Dachau were also underway. There a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Simha Rotem, was using a nearby bakery to prepare poison bread. Rotem was clever and perspicuous as a well-trained spy. He successfully befriended the manager of the bakery, took him out drinking, told him ribald stories, and got him so drunk that he passed out. Rotem then proceeded to lift the manager’s keys and make copies of the particular ones necessary to open the bakery. While the manager was still out cold, Rotem returned the keys to one of the manager’s trouser pockets. He and two Nakam members were now ready to sneak into the bakery late at night and paint loaves of bread with arsenic and glue. However, just days before the sabotage was to take place, Reichmann received word from one of his operatives, a Jewish officer in the American army, that the two Nakam operatives were wanted by the military police. If caught, they could be forced to reveal information about the planned poisoning of prisoners at Stalag 13-D. Not wishing to endanger the success of that operation, Reichmann called off the Dachau attack on April 11, 1946.

To proceed with the poisoning of the prisoners at Stalage 13-D, two Nakam operatives managed to be hired by the Allied command. One of the men, Leipke Distel, a concentration camp survivor, posed as a Polish displaced person who was awaiting necessary papers so that he could go to Canada and work at his uncle’s bakery. He explained his situation to the manager of the Consumer Cooperative Bakery and offered to work for nothing. He was taken on and he secured entrance to the bakery’s storeroom after bribing the manager with alcohol and cigarettes. The Nakam plotters secretly met each night in a rented room near the bakery. One question in particular concerned the plotters: How do we poison the SS prisoners while not harming their American guards? To solve the problem, Harmatz was able to get several of his co-conspirators clerical positions in Stalag 13-D. They learned that on Sundays American guards were issued white bread and the SS were given only black bread. Problem solved.

Nakam now had six operatives at the Consumer Cooperative Bakery in Nuremberg. Each of the Nakam members was able to smuggle in several water bottles full of arsenic, glue, and water under their raincoats. Once inside, they took up several floorboards, hid the water bottles below floor level, then covered the bottles with the previously removed floorboards. It took several days to hide all of the water bottles. Then the operatives were ready to start painting the poison onto loaves of black bread. On Saturday, April 13, Nakam members were pleased that the bakery workers had gone out on strike. Though that meant the bakery would be free of many workers, it also meant that two Nakam members who were bakery workers also had to strike in solidarity with their fellow workers. Only three members of Nakam stealthily entered the bakery and proceeded to paint three thousand loaves of black bread with a mixture of arsenic, glue, and water. Shortly after they finished, they left the bakery as quietly and as quickly as stealthy cats. They then prepared for their escape.

The following morning, the bread was delivered Stalag 13-D to feed more than two thousand SS prisoners of war. As the prisoners bit into the bread some questioned the odd taste, yet they ate it. Though the poison was tasteless, the glue wasn’t. In addition, the presence of the poison could alter the taste of the bread. Most of them became severely ill. Panic erupted among captives and captors who suspected that the prisoners were victims of sabotage. The American military, not wanting to be responsible for two thousand dead SS officers, supplied dozens of ambulances that rushed the prisoners to several nearby hospitals. Each of the prisoners had his stomach pumped clean. None of them died. Why the prisoners survived was the question that confounded the perpetrators. They speculated that the poison had been spread too thinly to kill anyone; or perhaps the prisoners did not consume a lethal quantity of arsenic. Regardless of the reason, the Nakam plotters were disheartened that their scheme to exact revenge had failed.

According to previously classified files from the U.S. military’s Counter Intelligence Corps, which investigated the 1946 incident and which the Nuremberg prosecutors did not have access to, the amount of arsenic used should have been enough to cause a massive number of deaths. The files were obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Archives.

In one memo from 1947 stamped “confidential,” investigators write that at the bakery they found “three empty hot water bottles and a burlap bag containing four full hot water bottles.” An analysis of the contents “revealed that they contained enough arsenic mixed with glue and water to kill approximately 60,000 persons.”

Another confidential report said a chemist called in to help in the investigation had determined “10 kilo of pure arsenic was present, mixed with water and glue for adhesive purposes.”

Laboratory investigators found arsenic on the bottom, top and sides of the bread, and reported that doctors said the SS men exhibited symptoms “similar to cholera and included vomiting, diarrhea and skin rashes” The report added that the most amount of arsenic found on a loaf was 0.2 grams—which fell well within the range of 0.1–0.3 grams that would be in most cases lethal.

To this day, it remains a mystery as to why the poison failed to kill Nazis. The prevailing theory is that the plotters in their haste spread the poison too thinly. Another is that the Nazi prisoners immediately sensed something was off with the bread and therefore no one ingested enough of it to die.9

Although the American military attempted to keep the story of the poisoning under wraps, it was soon uncovered by unidentified sources and handed over to reporters. On April 24, newspapers in Europe and America published the story that nearly 2,300 Nazi victims had been hospitalized possibly as a result of poisoning. The New York Times, for one, reported on April 23, 1946, that 2,283 German prisoners of war had fallen ill from poisoning, with 207 hospitalized and seriously ill. Though not stated, the implication was clear: victims of the Holocaust had attempted to take revenge on the men who had killed millions of Jews. Years later, the German government revealed that it had evidence against those who attempted to poison the prisoners but had decided not to prosecute the perpetrators, considering what they had suffered at the hands the Nazis. The survivors of the camps had sufficient reasons for their attempt to kill the SS, but prosecuting them would have been a double punishment.

Interviewed by an Associated Press reporter seventy years after the failed plot, Joseph Harmatz gave his account of what had happened.

There were deep reservations even among the Avengers that [Plan A] would kill innocent Germans and undermine international support for the establishment of Israel. Either way, when Kovner sailed for Europe with the poison, he drew suspicion from British authorities and was forced to toss it overboard before he was arrested. Following that setback, attention shifted toward Plan B, a more limited operation that specifically targeted the worst Nazi perpetrators. Undercover members of the group found work at a bakery that supplied the Stalag 13 POW camp at Langwasser, near Nuremberg, and waited for their chance to strike the thousands of SS men the Americans held there. It came on Apr. 13, 1946. Using poison procured from one of Kovner’s associates, three members spent two hours coating some 3,000 loaves of bread with arsenic, divided into four portions. The goal was to kill 12,000 SS personnel.10

“While the mass death count of the first plan would have been disastrous for the Jewish people, the second’s more direct route was easier to accept, since its targets were the worst of the worst,” said Dina Porat, the chief historian at Israel’s Yad Vashem Memorial. “The terrible tragedy was about to be forgotten, and if you don’t punish for one crime, you will get another,” she explained. “This is what was driving them, not only justice but a warning, a warning to the world that you cannot hurt Jews in such a manner and get away with it.”

“Even if they were ultimately unsuccessful,” she said, “the Avengers’ act was steeped with symbolism for a burgeoning state of Israel fighting for its survival in a hostile region.

“What is Zionism? Zionism is the Jews taking their fate in their own hands and not letting the others dictate our fate,” she said. “This is what they wanted to show. You cannot get away with such a terrible deed.”11

After the attack, Harmatz and others had to flee quickly. They were helped by sympathizers. At the border of Czechoslovakia, an Auschwitz survivor named Yehuda Maimon met them and helped lead them to safety, often bribing officials who pretended that they were unaware of who the plotters were. There had been stories in the newspapers about unidentified plotters, and border guards were instructed to demand identifying documents from all those who attempted to cross borders. After taking them through forests and over mountains, Maimon managed to get them into Italy. From there he smuggled them into the south of France. In the postwar chaos, it was easy for the Nakam plotters, using false papers, to board a ship and sail safely to Mandate Palestine. About thirty former Nakam operatives arrived by the end of July, following a brief detention by the British, who exercised control of Mandate Palestine and were limiting the number of immigrating Jewish refugees. The British government was fearful of an Arab uprising caused by too many Jews entering the country. So as not to antagonize the Arabs, the British strictly limited the number of Jewish immigrants. Nakam members who did make it into the country were warmly received as heroic freedom fighters at Kovner’s kibbutz, Ein HaHoresh. In addition to that welcoming party, the Nakam members were received as returning heroes by Haganah and the Israeli Labor Party. As military heroes, they traveled throughout the land as guests of whomever they visited.

While most of the Nakam members decided to stay put and help develop the land of Israel and build a state for Jews, a few of the militants decided that their mission of revenge was not over. They were led by a man named Bolek Ben-Ya’akov, for whom revenge was a principle doctrine worth pursuing. They were also assisted by a Labor Party politician named Abba Hushi, who served as mayor of Haifa from 1951 to 1969. He was an important advocate for workers and carried out numerous municipal improvements that helped modernize Israel.

During an interview in the 1980s, Ben-Ya’akov said he could not have looked at himself in a mirror if he had not attempted to seek revenge for all the Jews that the Nazis had killed. Another Nakam member who took pride in his attempts to seek revenge was Maimon.

From the retirement home outside Tel Aviv where his grandchildren frequently visit him, the 92-year-old Yehuda Maimon, who goes by the nickname Poldek, fixes a steely gaze with his piercing blue eyes. He looks back with satisfaction at carrying out his “duty” for revenge before starting anew in Israel:

“It was imperative to form this group. If I am proud of something, it is that I belonged to this group,” he said. “Heaven forbid if after the war we had just gone back to the routine without thinking about paying those bastards back. It would have been awful not to respond to those animals.”12

Nakam’s worldview, according to two Israel terrorism experts, Ehud Sprinzak and Idith Zertal, was similar to that of groups that believe the world is so evil it deserves large-scale catastrophe. Unlike most terrorist groups that say they commit their acts to create a new and better world, Nakam was prepared to kill indiscriminately. The Nakam operatives came from “heavily brutalized communities,” which sometimes consider catastrophic violence.13

Of course Nakam would disagree with such an assessment for they believed that the Nazis deserved death. If anyone had offered to forgive Nakam for acts of revenge, Nakam members would have rejected the offer as stupid. If anything, they wanted to be honored for their commitment to eye-for-an-eye justice.

Dina Porat said in an interview in the Israel newspaper Haaretz,

[Nakam members] don’t regret the terrible thing they planned to do. They explain that only someone who was in their place could understand them, and they want to receive recognition and appreciation for the attempt, which fortunately was unsuccessful… . As far as they were concerned, there was no need for warnings, arrests or trials. They wanted to take revenge—“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”—as is written in the Bible. They felt that the world was morally bankrupt, and only this punishment could settle the account and put it in order. They believed that the laws practiced at the time did not provide a suitable response to the terrible crimes that were committed.14

The remnants of the Avengers who did not initially seek shelter in Mandate Palestine found life in the new Federal Republic of Germany difficult. Much of the postwar chaos had subsided as the country worked to become profitable and stable. The government, through a variety of laws and regulations, made it difficult for the Avengers to achieve their goals. Some of the Avengers committed crimes to support themselves. After being arrested, many were able to escape from prison with the help of their allies, former members of the French Resistance. After 1950, the Avengers realized that they would be unable to succeed in their revenge missions and so for the next two years, several at a time moved to Israel, where they led normal lives, contributing to the growth of their new country.

While Nakam had ceased to exist, others were determined to exact revenge in the name of the 6 million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis. Between 200 and 250 Jewish assassins, many of whom were Mossad agents, killed more than 1,500 Nazis war criminals in the years after the war. At the beginning of the 1960s, Mossad agents were told they had permission to kill or kidnap any former Nazis they encountered. One of the most loathsome of the wanted Nazis was Herberts Cukurs, who had taken great pleasure in shooting Jews while mounted on his stately stallion. He had been known as the Hangman of Riga for sending many innocent Jews to the gallows. He achieved further notoriety for packing a synagogue in Latvia with three hundred Jews and then having the men under his command burn it to the ground. According to Bernard Press, “Eyewitnesses heard the people who were locked inside screaming for help and saw them breaking the synagogue’s windows from inside and trying, like living torches, to get outside. Cukurs shot them with his revolver.”15

At the time of Cukurs’s death in 1965, Time reported that his crimes included not only the infamous synagogue fire but also the drowning of 1,200 Jews in a lake and his participation in the November 30, 1941, murder of 10,600 people in a forest near Riga.

Who was this monster? Herberts Cukurs was born in 1900 in Latvia where he was a celebrated aviator, often compared to Charles Lindbergh. He won national acclaim for long-distance solo flights in the 1930s, one of which was from Riga to Tokyo. On another occasion he flew to Palestine and back. Following his return to Riga, he gave a lecture to a Jewish group about the sites of the Holy Land, and he often associated with Jewish intellectuals, artists, and writers in Riga’s cafes. He was certainly not seen as an anti-Semite. But he was drawn to authoritarian military leaders and ventures. He saw himself as a heroic man on horseback or in the cockpit of a plane. It was not surprising then that in 1939 he even designed a dive bomber known as the Cukurs C.6bis. Though he would have loved to have sold it to the Luftwaffe in 1941, the plane was not put to military use. It didn’t matter, for what was more important was his subscription to Nazi propaganda. Shortly after the Nazis took control of Latvia, they published defamatory lies about Jews in local newspapers. They claimed that the Jews were the “enemy within” who had stabbed their countrymen in the back as they secretly sided with the previous Soviet occupation forces. One newspaper wrote that “no pity and no compromise must be shown. No Jewish tribe of adders must be allowed to rise again.” Cukurs, though honored with various awards and trophies for his impressive aviation feats, would not be honored by history for his complete immersion in Nazi ideology and enjoyment of carrying out atrocities.

Why the rapid change? Like many Latvians, he had hated the Soviets during their 1940 occupation of his country and regarded the subsequent Nazi occupation as a liberation. And being a highly ambitious opportunist without a moral compass, and a thirst for heroics, he joined a notorious group of fascist thugs known as Arajs Kommando, which was set up at the direction of the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers–SS (Security Service of the Reichsführer–SS) as the Latvian Auxiliary Security Police. Cukurs was such an enthusiastic and ruthless killer of Jews that he was quickly promoted to second in command of the group. On July 2, Arajs Kommando, led by Cukurs, unleashed a murderous pogrom on Latvian Jews. The viciousness of the Kommando attacks was celebrated by both the SS and the Gestapo for Kommando murdered more than 26,000 Jews not only in Riga but also in the Rumbula Massacre. Cukurs took great pleasure in riding through the streets of Riga and firing his pistol at scampering Jews. He once shot an infant being held in the arms of her mother. Following the Rumbula Massacre, he invited his Kommando colleagues to his luxurious villa where they got drunk, went out into the street, hauled in any Jews they could find, and Cukurs clubbed them to death as his men cheered him on. So prized were the members of Kommando that a number of them got to impose their brutality as guards at the Salaspils concentration camp. After the war, the Allies discovered the graves of 632 children, ages 5 to 9, who had been killed at the camp, either by starvation or disease.

As Germany was losing the war and retreating out of the Baltics, Cukurs retreated along with the withering Nazi army. As the Soviet advance against the Nazis relentlessly continued, Cukurs made plans for a postwar career. He knew that he would be tried for war crimes and perhaps executed if captured. Like many other Nazis wanted for war crimes, Cukurs was able to escape: he went to Brazil via the infamous rat lines.16 With the assistance of the rat lines, Cukurs was issued a certificate of permanent residency in Brazil on December 18, 1945.

He initially settled in Rio where he operated a marina. He pretended to be a refugee from Nazi terror who had risked his life to save numerous Jews. He even befriended a few Jewish businessmen who believed his stories. He was profiled in a popular Brazilian magazine in which he was lauded as a friend of humanity. However, the truth about his past began to emerge and his business started to fail so he moved to São Paulo, where he opened a small business flying tourists and others in his Republic RE-7 Seabee, a small single-engine amphibious aircraft. He made a modest living flying eager tourists over many of Brazil’s most scenic sites such as Iguazu Falls; the 98-foot-tall statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain; Sugarloaf Mountain; Lençóis Maranhenses National Park; and Chapada dos Veadeiros. Unlike Eichmann and Mengele, Cukurs did not conceal his identity, he simply stuck to his story that he was a courageous refugee who had saved the lives of many Jews. He lived as a virtuous and proudly successful entrepreneur. Had he concealed his identity his fate might have been different, but his narcissism overtook his caution. He still needed to believe that he had been an aviation hero and an admired leader on horseback.

Judging from his lack of concealment, it was apparent that he did not know he was on a Mossad list of Nazi war criminals to be hunted down and executed. The plan to assassinate Cukurs began in early 1965 when the West German Bundestag was considering the approval of a statute of limitations for Nazi war crimes. There was a great outcry: for months protests took place in cities such as London, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, and Toronto, among various others. Ordinary men and women were joined in the streets by famous writers and politicians. Future pope Benedict XVI added his voice to the protests. The commotion caused a divisive debate in Germany between those who wanted to forget the past and those who wanted to atone for it. Finally in March 1965, moved by public opinion and pressure from foreign governments, the Bundestag voted overwhelmingly to defeat the proposal that would have brought an end to the hunt for Nazi war criminals. The world was not about to forgive the perpetrators of horrific crimes.

During the debate in the Bundestag, Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol made a decision that the world should never forget the beasts who had killed millions of Jews. Mossad should make an example of Cukurs and other Nazi war criminals who would never see the inside of a courtroom, never receive the justice they deserved. Mossad, without a courtroom in which to bring a case against Cukurs, was its own judge and jury. The spy agency judged Cukurs to be a war criminal and sentenced him to death for the thousands of Latvian Jews he had ordered killed.

According to Stephan Talty, Mossad used a skilled undercover operative named Yaakov “Mio” Meidad to trap Cukurs. Meidad, whose parents died in a concentration camp, had helped kidnap Adolf Eichmann and transport him for trial in Israel. It was his job to form an ersatz friendship with a man whom he despised. He assumed the false identity of one Anton Keunzle, a successful Austrian businessman, who would befriend Cukurs and lure him to his death. Soon after their first supposedly fortuitous and serendipitous meeting, Cukurs asked Keunzle questions designed to find out his motives. Keunzle convinced Cukurs that he was interested in investing in his various businesses. He told Cukurs had been in the Wehrmacht and fought on the Eastern Front. To test Kuenzle’s veracity, Cukurs invited him to a shooting contest in the jungles of Brazil. Keunzle passed the test and went on to convince Cukurs that he could help him regain his wealth.

Cukurs, ever the narcissist in need of approval, showed Keunzle his medals and trophies from his days as a celebrated aviator. Next he showed Keunzle photos of two beaches that he thought should be developed as tourist sites with hotels and restaurants. He bragged that he owned two ranches and would like Keunzle to be his guest at them. Cukurs suggested that his guest wear a pair of thick leather boots to protect himself from potential snakebites. Kuenzle was not as much concerned about snakebites as he was that Cukurs might suspect him of being a hired assassin and lure him into the jungle and kill him. So Kuenzle brought along a switchblade knife for protection. Of course, it would be an inadequate defense against the pistol and rifle that Cukurs carried. On their trip to one of the ranches, they crossed the Crocodile River on a dilapidated wooden bridge that creaked under their footsteps. Cukurs surprised Kuenzle by suggesting that they take target practice with the rifle. Keunzle proved himself a fine marks-men who, Cukurs said, was no doubt a formidable German asset on the Eastern Front. That night, the two men slept in the room that was normally occupied by the ranch manager, who was on vacation.

The time at the ranch passed pleasantly and Cukurs did not seem to have any suspicions about Keunzle. While chatting over breakfast, Kuenzle suggested that Cukurs join him in Montevideo, Uruguay, where they could lay the groundwork for a new aviation company. Cukurs agreed and Keunzle gave him the address of a villa outside of the city in which they could meet. Keunzle departed, saying he had business to take care of, but would meet Cukurs later.

Cukurs and Keunzle drove to the villa and were the only ones on the street. Keunzle led the way into the villa. Seconds after Cukurs entered, the front door slammed shut behind him and three men in their underwear grabbed him, attempting to wrestle him to the ground. (Like many professional assassins, the Mossad agents did not want to get blood on their clothing, which is why they were in their underwear.) Cukurs had always worried that something like this might happen to him, but he had not considered the possibility that he would be set up by his new prospective business partner. Shouting and screaming, Cukurs attempted to break free. He was much stronger than the agents had thought he would be. “Lass mich sprechen, lass mich sprechen [Let me speak, let me speak],” Cukurs shouted. He ripped one of his pants pockets as he desperately attempted to get hold of his pistol. To stop Cukurs’s screaming, one of the agents grabbed Cukurs’s face and pressed the palm of his hand over his mouth. Cukurs bit into the man’s hand drawing blood, then attempted to bite off the agent’s fingers. The furious agent grabbed a hammer with his bloody hand and smacked Cukurs’s head. Cukurs still resisted so another agent brought out his pistol and fired two bullets into Cukurs’s brain. Cukurs collapsed like a marionette whose strings have just been cut. Agents then fitted the body into a trunk, folding his legs at the knees so the entire corpse would fit.

On Cukurs’s corpse, one of the agents pinned a note stating that Cukurs had been condemned to death by “those who can never forget.” The Mossad agents then sent a note to the government as well as to the media. It stated,

Taking into consideration the gravity of the charge leveled against the accused, namely that he personally supervised the killing of more than 30,000 men, women and children, and considering the extreme display of cruelty which the subject showed when carrying out his tasks, the accused Herberts Cukurs is hereby sentenced to death. Accused was executed by those who can never forget, on the 23rd of February, 1965. His body can be found at Casa Cubertini Calle Colombia, Séptima Sección del Departamento de Canelones, Montevideo, Uruguay.”17

Those who received the note thought it the work of a prankster until police followed up and discovered the corpse.

When the event was reported internationally, the perpetrators were thought to be Jews seeking revenge for the terrible Riga massacres. The stories were generally sympathetic to the Jewish avengers.

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