I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Nakam was the name of a group of Jewish partisans that was formed at the end of World War II. The group’s goal was to avenge the deaths of six million of their people in equal measure. It started in the Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania) ghetto under its motto “We will not go like sheep to the slaughter.” The Jewish population of Wilno went from about 40,000 at the start of the war to zero.
Nazis Escaped Consequences
When the guns fell silent in 1945, two dozen top members of the Nazi Party went on trial for their roles in the systematic slaughter of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Communists, and others. Twelve were given the death penalty, three were acquitted, and rest got long prison sentences.
Further down the pecking order, 3.5 million Germans were arrested as being in some way complicit in the Holocaust. Quickly, 2.5 million were released without trial. The nearly million left faced fines or loss of property they had stolen from Jews.
A relative handful was given prison sentences and, by 1949, about 300 were still behind bars.
It seemed to a lot of Jews that many of those involved in the industrial-scale murder of so many of their people had literally gotten away with murder.
Where was the punishment for the thousands of guards at Treblinka, Dachau, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belsen, and all the other death camps? What about the men who formed the firing squads or the ones that owned factories employing slave labour? How could the brutes of the SS and Gestapo be allowed to return to civilian life as though nothing had happened?
David Cesarani is a University of London professor. He says prosecuting all the guilty parties “would have been a never-ending task … The allies put their hands up in despair.”
There were others who thought, if the Allies won’t do it we will.
Revenge Group Formed
The Hebrew word for revenge is “Nakam.” This was the name that 50 concentration camp and ghetto survivors, men and women, chose for their organization. They were led by Abba Kovner, a charismatic Hebrew and Yiddish poet. He was also a partisan fighter in the Wilno ghetto in what is now the capital of Lithuania.
Kovner had a grand plan based on proportional retribution; this was to kill one German for each Jew who had been murdered. The idea was to poison the water supply of cities such as Munich, Hamburg, and Frankfurt.
Kovner was travelling from Palestine, as it then was, with the poison to do the job. However, his forged identity papers drew the suspicion of British security people on the ship he had boarded. Others suggest the British were tipped off by Zionists who thought Kovner's plan would jeopardize the push for the creation of Israel. The poison was found and thrown into the sea.
The group switched to plan B, which was to poison with arsenic the bread being served to Germans still held in prisoner-of-war camps. About 2,000 people were poisoned by the Nakam members. Some accounts say a few hundred died, others as many as a thousand, although the exact number has never been revealed.
Then, the attacks were called off. Did Kovner conclude the negative publicity about mass fatalities would harm the Jewish cause? We’ll never know.
The revenge project moved to more clandestine activity.
Making Nazis Pay
Joseph Harmatz was one of those involved in the poison bread scheme. He later told The Guardian that the group set about eliminating former Nazis on an individual basis. The newspaper reported that Nakam members “would identify a Nazi who had melted back into civilian life, stage an arrest, and spirit him away. Some of these ex-SS men would be strangled, others hanged - all the better for passing off the death as a suicide.
Some victims were found in ditches beside roads, the apparent result of a hit-and-run accident. A senior Gestapo officer died in hospital when someone inserted kerosene into his blood stream.
Of course, it’s impossible to know how many Nazis the vigilantes killed. Michael Elkins wrote about the revenge squads in his 1971 book, Forged in Fury. He estimated the number of victims to be in the dozens, and probably not all of them were dealt with by Nakam.
University of London Holocaust expert Professor David Cesarani says some of the extrajudicial killings were handled by members of the Jewish Brigade. This was a unit of volunteers within the British Army. In post-war Europe they had access to intelligence and enjoyed freedom of movement. Cesarini says of these people “They kept their mouths shut and took their secrets to their graves.”
Nakam members and their associates tracked down former Nazis in Latin America and Canada.
Here is just one example of revenge squads at work.
The Jägala concentration camp in Estonia was a place were thousands of Jews were murdered (estimates vary widely from 9,000 to 300,000). The commander of the camp was an Estonian Nazi called Alexander Laak. Testimony given in Tallin, Estonia in 1961 describes him as a particularly nasty piece of work.
Somehow, Laak was able to convince the Allies that he was suitable material for emigration to Canada. He settled in Winnipeg, but was exposed as an alleged war criminal in 1960 at Holocaust trials held by the Soviet Union.
According to David Cesarani, Israelis arrived at Laak’s home in September 1960 after his wife had left to watch a movie. Confronted with his crimes he was given a choice: “Take your own life, or we will kill both you and your wife when she returns.” The coroner’s report noted that Laak died of apparent suicide.
Abba Kovner’s Tapes
The Israeli screenwriter and movie director Avi Merkado-Ettedgui stumbled on some audio tapes of interviews with Nakam members. They had been recorded by Abba Kovner in 1985 as he was dying of cancer.
Merkado-Ettedgui used the tapes as the basis for his Channel 4 documentary, Holocaust: The Revenge Plot that aired in January 2018. He says it’s clear some Nakam people had qualms about the mass murder plot, but not over killing members of the SS or Gestapo.
Merkado-Ettedgui is quoted as saying “I know that most of them still wish they could have killed more. They felt it was different to kill those who were actually a part of the extermination of Jewish people. That was justice.”
Was it justice?
- In part, Nakam was financed by forged British five pound notes that had been created by Jews inside the concentration camps. The currency was sold on the black market in Italy.
- In 1944, members of the SS formed an organization called Odessa. The group had plenty of money that was plundered from its victims and used this to set up a network that spirited war criminals out of Germany. Former SS members were given new identities and set up for new lives in many countries, particularly in South America. The existence of Odessa was a clear admission by its members that Nazis had committed crimes for which they faced prosecution and punishment.
- “Revenge.” Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, July 26, 2008.
- “ ‘An Eye for an Eye’: The Jews Who Sought to Poison Six Million Germans to Avenge the Holocaust.” Ofer Aderet, Haaretz, July 11, 2019.
- “Was a Nazi War Criminal Living in St. James Forced to Hang Himself by a Jewish ‘Avenger’ in 1960?” Bernie Bellan, Jewish Post & News, undated.
- “Girls Forced into Orgies then Slain, Court Told.” Ottawa Citizen, March 8, 1961.
- “The Holocaust Avengers: ‘Most Wished they Could Have Killed More Nazis.’ ” Francine Wolfisz, Jewish News, January 25, 2018.
- “Member of a Jewish Holocaust ‘Revenge Squad’ Tells Story.” Aaron Schachter, The World, May 3, 2013.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 22, 2020:
Hi Nathan. A movie was made under the title Nakam. I haven't seen it but I understand it was pretty awful.
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on July 21, 2020:
Fascinating. They definitely could make a movie from this story. Or maybe they have.