Reviews for Nakam : the Holocaust survivors who sought full-scale revenge

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

An intricate, chilling portrait of a group of Jewish “avengers” of the Holocaust. In this work translated from the Hebrew, Porat, former chief historian of Yad Vashem, focuses on Abba Kovner (1918-1987), a partisan fighter from the Vilna ghetto (in present-day Lithuania) who became a messianic figure to the waves of traumatized young survivors of the Nazi death camps. Kovner’s manifesto of resistance against the Germans resonated mightily to those “whose lives were reduced to rubble.” For the millions who suffered under the Nazi regime, “life as it had been was replaced by forced relocation, torture, hunger, physical exhaustion, and disease.” Kovner gathered around 50 devoted men and women in a carefully orchestrated underground army, and the group devised two potential plans for wide-scale revenge on the Germans. Plan A involved the poisoning of water sources in several major German cities, while Plan B would target SS and other German prisoners of war in Allied camps. Porat presents many fresh, moving perspectives from the archives, enlivening the narrative with important information gleaned from her interviews with many of the surviving Nokmim (“avengers”). As she chronologically recounts the group’s incredible story, she circles back to the question of why these young people would sacrifice everything for revenge. “They adopted vengeance as an indispensable stage in their rehabilitation,” she writes, “without which they could not return to life, society, and social order.” Moreover, they strongly believed that the blood of the murdered demanded recompense, and the specter of antisemitism still loomed. Porat also tells the little-understood story of how Kovner navigated the more moderate Yishuv (administrators of the Land of Israel) and Haganah (Zionist military) leaders, whose postwar focus was on the rescue and transit of survivors and the construction of a political homeland for the future. Many of the Nokmim kept their silence for decades and rued their inability to carry out their “divine retribution on a cosmic, biblical scale.” A valuable work of Holocaust research and Jewish history. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
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How should Germany’s slaughter of six million Jews during the Holocaust be punished? That fraught ethical question is at the heart of this definitive study of the Nokmim, or Avengers, a small paramilitary group of Holocaust survivors led by “poet and partisan” Abba Kovner who planned to kill millions of Germans by poisoning their municipal water supplies in 1945. Porat (The Blue and the Yellow Stars of David), the former chief historian of Yad Vashem, enriches her extended profiles of individual Avengers, many of whom had fought in partisan militias in the forests of Ukraine and Lithuania, with details about the reaction to their intentions by Zionist leaders who were more focused on rescuing and caring for survivors and maintaining support for international recognition of a Jewish state in Palestine. While the water contamination scheme did not happen, the Avengers poisoned German POWs near Nuremberg by brushing arsenic onto bread loaves; thousands were sickened, but it’s believed no one died. Porat succeeds in capturing the mindset of the Avengers (“After the most horrible event that had ever happened to this people in their long history, it was unthinkable to return to everyday life as if it had not occurred”) while making clear that “revenge was the heartfelt wish of a small, scattered, weak community.” This meticulous and empathetic study gives an overlooked chapter of Jewish history its due. (Nov.)