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The mystery of how Jewish Avengers' poisoned bread failed to kill Nazi POWs

The mystery of how Jewish Avengers' poisoned bread failed to kill Nazi POWs
By Robert Hackwill
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Rather worryingly, when researching the Nakam, (Hebrew for ‘Avengers’), group on the internet, this entry comes up on the very first page, taken from a well-known blog…


Rather worryingly, when researching the Nakam, (Hebrew for ‘Avengers’), group on the internet, this entry comes up on the very first page, taken from a well-known blog accumulator. You do not want to bother with its virulent anti-semitism or language, nor its often-repeated claims or fabrications. But the fact that material of this type proliferates rather than hard facts about, say, the experience of the Jewish people during WWII speaks volumes.

The popular perception is that from the mid-1930s a cowed people were herded to their deaths by a murderous Nazi regime in Germany, with only the Warsaw Uprising representing any determined effort to resist. To fight back, a Jew needed to be in an Allied uniform, and fight under the Allies’ rules, or hide in the forests of Eastern Europe with the Partisans.

The partisans’ role in fighting the Nazis got a rare moment in the spotlight with Edward Zwick’s 2008 movie, “Defiance”. Zwick is something of a specialist when it comes to telling little-known histories.

But Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 confection “Inglorious Bastards” is wishful thinking on the author’s part as no such integrated Jewish death squad ever existed, but the idea of taking the fight to the Nazis was always a constant, even if in the death camps that was reduced to just stubborn survival, and resistance. Denied weapons, those Jews who survived had the invisible arm of their spirit to rely on.

And yet, after the war, the Jews are supposed to have just turned on their heels and quit
Europe for Israel and other parts in disgust and exhaustion, keen to erase the past, keen to start anew rather than fight old battles, leaving that task to a few heroic Nazi hunters and the Israeli government to pursue.

The vast majority did just that, but a group of about 60 men and women formed the Nakam , or Nokmim, group whose one and only mission was simple; revenge. Its objective would be to shed as much Nazi blood as possible, just like in Tarantino’s fantasy, especially members of the SS and Gestapo. Following the German surrender there were thousands of them, potentially sitting ducks, in prison camps around Germany under Allied detention.

After the war, allied officials identified 13.2 million men in western Germany alone as eligible for automatic arrest because they had been deemed part of the Nazi apparatus. Fewer than 3.5 million of these were charged and, of those, 2.5 million were released without trial.

That left about a million people and most of them faced no greater sanction than a fine or confiscation of property that they had looted, a temporary restriction on future employment or a brief ban from seeking public office.

Nakam vowed they would go after the guilty men and women who gave and followed the orders to execute the Holocaust, from the officers and train drivers to the camp guards and local vigilantes. One account dates the formation of the group to Spring 1945, in Bucharest, following a Passover gathering at which the future unofficial national poet of Israel, Abba Kovner, gave an address.

Quoting Psalm 94, “He will repay them for their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness”, Kovner implied the German people had to pay, if not through the international courts, then at the hands of the Jews themselves.

The group then took part in its first wave of operations, killing individuals they had identified as directly implicated in the Genocide but had been allowed, or managed, to slip invisibly back into civilian life. There was a spike in the number of former SS and Gestapo officers who died in road or domestic accidents, or who took their own lives. It is unknown how many lives Nakam took, allegedly along with help from members of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade, who took the secrets of their actions to the grave. It may be in the hundreds.

Then Nakam’s leadership decided this would not do, and only something far vaster could approach justice for the six million Jewish dead, an indiscriminate mass killing such as had been meted out to them. A plan to poison several cities’ water supply was discussed and reduced to one, the highly symbolic Nuremberg, the venue for the great Nazi rallies.

Kovner set out for Palestine to secure moral approval for the scheme and procure the poison. He revealed the shocking truth about the holocaust to, among others, future first president of Israel Chaim Wiezmann, who in some accounts approved the mass attack and gave Kovner the poison. Other accounts say Weizmann only approved a more limited attack on a POW camp.

However it is thought Kovner was betrayed by elements in the fledgling Jewish leadership, afraid that such an atrocity might jeopardise UN approval of the formation of the state of Israel. British Military Police intercepted Kovner on the boat back to Europe, and forced him to dump his arsenic overboard.

Undeterred, Nakam returned its gaze to the sitting ducks on their doorstep, the Nazi prisoners awaiting processing. In 1946 they decided to poison one American-run camp, Stalag 13, in Nuremberg, but recently-declassified US military documents reveal an enormous mystery over Nakam’s most daring operation.


They managed to plant an activist in the bakery, and one night over several hours managed to coat the following days’ bread for the camp with what they calculated would be a lethal dose of arsenic. Indeed the US documents show that after analysis their calculations were correct, and that the bread should have killed Stalag 13’s 3000 inmates. In fact, they used enough arsenic to kill tens of thousands.

Instead it made most of them ill to varying degrees but beyond causing a lot of pain and discomfort and in some cases lasting damage the newly-released papers show there were no fatalities, despite previous claims to the contrary. Why the prisoners survived is unknown; possibly an early victim alerted the others and not enough bread was ingested to make for a fatal dose, but despite Nakam’s best efforts the plan was foiled and they had to escape, the group relocating in Israel and continuing its activities around the world throughout the following decade or more.

Very few members of the group are still alive. One, Joseph Harmatz, has written about it in a memoir, “From the Wings”, and American author Rich Cohen’s “The Avengers” benefits from a family connection with some of the group leaders. Former BBC Jerusalem correspondent Michael Elkins has also written “Forged in Fury” about the group.

By 1949, four years after the war, only 300 Nazis were in prison. From an original wanted list of 13 million, just 300 paid anything like a serious price. Nakam helped ensure that many Nazis who used the “Odessa” network to escape to fascist Spain, South Africa or Latin America would not escape the ultimate justice they deserved.

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