A Conversation with Rich Cohen, author of The Avengers: A Jewish War Story
Who were the Avengers?
The Avengers were a group of young Jews, some still in their teens, who found themselves caught in the Holocaust; who, given a choice to get on the trains or to go underground, to die or to fight, chose to fight. Abba Kovner, who was the leader of the group, phrased the dilemma this way: "If we act cowardly, we die; if we act courageously, we die. So we might as well act courageously." The story centers around Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczak. Vitka and Ruzka, who were from towns in Western Poland, had fled the German invasion on foot, walking clear to Vilna, which later became the capital of Lithuania, where they met Abba, a young Zionist leader. From then on, the lives of these three young people were entangled -- in love and in war. When the Jews of the city were locked in a ghetto, they formed an underground, smuggling and stealing weapons, spreading the call to revolt, going on raids. At nineteen, Vitka led a mission to the forest, where she blew up an enemy troop train -- the first sabotage in Occupied Europe. When the Germans liquidated the ghetto, Abba led the group through the sewers and into the forest, where they waged a guerrilla war. Joining with the Red Army, the Avengers fought their way back into Vilna, into the rubble of their old lives. At once, they knew their war had not ended, that they must carry on, finding a way to avenge the dead. They left Vilna, some disguised as German soldiers, some as concentration camp survivors. They devised a plan to kill scores of Germans -- Abba said six million to pay for six million. This is the story of what happened to the Avengers in the ghetto and in the forest, how they took revenge and how, fighting for the sate of Israel, they were able to build a new life.
This story, which is set in the chaos after the Second World War, recently found its way back into the headlines, into current events. What happened?
For years, the story of the Avengers was kept as a secret among its former members. This was due mostly to Abba Kovner, who feared the behavior of his group, as partisans and avengers, could be used by enemies of Israel to excuse terrorist attacks. He was most concerned that his friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, would not understand the hard decisions he had been forced to make during the War. Removed from its proper context, his behavior might seem brutal and cruel. In the ten years since Kovner's death, however, some of the surviving Avengers -- about fifteen of them are alive -- began to tell bits and pieces of their stories. One of these scraps found its way to Nuremberg, where the Avengers had poisoned the bread eaten by former German SS soldiers. (To those who have grown up with the stories of the concentration camps, such stories of vengeful, violent Jews, can be shocking.) A few months ago, a German prosecutor opened an investigation into two of the men who painted on the poison. Murder charges seemed to be in the air. Former Avengers considered the prospect: Jews who had seen their entire families wiped out would be put on trial by the descendants of the killers. A few days ago, perhaps bowing to the political pressure, the prosecutor dropped his investigation. It is strange to see the past turn up in the present. It only furthers my belief that the past is never really past, that it is where we have been living all along.
You are related to Ruzka, one of the key players in this story. What is your relation to her and what was her role in this underground movement?
Ruzka was the only member of my grandmother's family to survive the Second World War. My grandmother, who had left Poland when Ruzka was just ten years old, learned of her survival five years after the War. In the early 1950s, my grandmother visited Ruzka in Israel and returned to us with her story. Ruzka is, in many ways, the hero of this book. When she was still a teenager, she fled the Nazi invasion, hiked two hundred miles to Vilna, and, when the Nazis took that city, joined the underground. She taught herself to build bombs, sabotage trains and shoot a gun. When the ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were sent to concentration camps, Ruzka fled with Abba and the other members of the underground through the sewers of the city and on to the forest, where she blew up trains and trucks. While the war was still being fought, Ruzka traveled to Bucharest, where she met with Jews from Palestine. Abba wanted Ruzka, who had a powerful presence, to tell the story. He said, "You will be believed." Ruzka went to Palestine, where she was the first Jew to bring the story of the Holocaust and the War in the East. In the weeks after her arrival, she met with dozens of Israeli leaders, including Chaim Weizman and David Ben-Gurion. She later served the Avengers as a sort of point person, setting up meetings and arranging get-aways. Recently, on my way out of Israel, I was questioned by an airport security guard, a young woman soldier who asked why I was in the country. I told her that I was writing a book. She asked what the book was about and I mentioned Ruzka. The girl leaned back and said, "Ruzka, the partisan?"
How come this story has never been told before?
As I have said, it was not told mostly at the insistence of Abba, who thought it would make the Avengers look like criminals, like killers, and not like the soldiers they believed themselves to be. Abba was afraid that they would be seen as terrorists and classed with those groups who were waging war on Israel. Also, in the past, the time had not been quite right for this story. The Holocaust has long be taught -- for the most part -- as a single narrative, the narrative of the concentration camps. The story of the Avengers is new in that it exists outside this narrative. It is the story as it was seen from the east, through the eyes of those Jews who decided to fight. It is a story of soldiers.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
This story comes from those who lived it, former partisans and Avengers who are still living in New York, Israel and Europe. I did most of my research with Vitka Kovner, one of the three main characters in my book and the only one who is still alive. A few summers ago, I moved into a guest house on the kibbutz where Vitka lives and spent my days with her. She told me her story and took me to other towns where other survivors were living. Often, she translated for me. In such discussions, I was building on other stories, which I had heard since I was a boy, stories told by Ruzka and Abba in Israel or on their trips to the United States. I also spent much time with Ruzka's children, who are my cousins, and with Abba and Vitka's children. I toured sites where Abba fought for Israel in the 1948 War on Independence, and I spoke with scholars and survivors. Also of great help were Ruzka's war time writings and the letters she sent to Vitka. I spent a month driving around Eastern Europe, meeting with former partisans, communists who never left Poland, and seeing, with my own eyes, the places where the partisans fought and the Avengers plotted. Mostly, the story I am telling is a personal story, a story of three people and how they carried each other through the war, and it comes from their letters and writings and memories
Which of the Avengers are still alive? Where are they living?
About fifteen are still living, some in the United States, most in Israel. Vitka lives on the kibbutz where she has been since the War. Each day, she does her work as a child psychologist. Lebke Distel, who poisoned the bread in Nuremberg, and a few other Avengers, are living on a kibbutz two miles south of Vitka. Other surviving Avengers are in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Haifa and New York. Each has their own memories and secrets, which, after years of keeping, they still find very hard to give up. In encounters with these people, the name Ruzka, and the fact that she was my cousin, was like a magic key, opening doors that had been locked for fifty years.
Some call the Avengers heroes, others call them murderers. How do you respond do this?
The Avengers should be seen in the context of the war that had killed their friends and families. The Germans took everything they had. Are we surprised that the Avengers acted like people with nothing to lose? They had been brutalized by the war. In a sense, the war had remade them in its own image. The true genius of Abba, Vitka and Ruzka was their ability to move beyond war, to escape brutality, to re-establish, in Israel, the values of normal life. To me, this was the true meaning of their revenge. Without a doubt, these are some of the great heroes of our time.
In your previous book Tough Jews, you bring to life the story of the Jewish involvement on the world of organized crime. How come today when we think of organized crime we think of Capone and Corleone but not of Lansky and Siegel?
The legendary Jewish gangsters of Murder Incorporated are the victims of a stereotype that tells us that Jews are not gangsters, that Jews are not tough, that Jews do not fight. If there is a Jew in jail, he is a white collar criminal. If there is a Jewish gangster, he is the brains behind the muscle. Well, the gangsters I wrote about were the toughest men on the street in New York. Yet, when it comes time to tell the stories, writers and directors leave out the Jews out, often with the thought that this image of a Jew -- Pittsburgh Phil Strauss cursing his way to the electric chair -- is not believable. In a sense, the story of the gangsters is connected with the story of the Avengers; the Avengers too act in a way outside the stereotype of Jewish behavior. For this reason, the story of the gangsters was often not told -- Jews don't do that. The same is true with the Avengers -- a story that has often not been told because it does not conform with our expectation of Jewish behavior.
You received great acclaim, but also some criticism for Tough Jews. Who and why did some criticize you for this work?
For the most part, the criticism of Tough Jews was of this variety: "Why are you telling these stories? Don't Jews have enough problems? Why do you want to give people a reason to hate Jews, to kill Jews." To this, my response has always been, "If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that the people who hate Jews or would kill Jews do not reason." If anything, examples of Jews living outside stereotype, whether they be villains, like the gangsters, or heroes, like the Avengers, will only prove to Jews that any life is open to them, the good or the bad, the weak or the strong.
What is next on the horizon for you?
I am currently working on a book about my early years on the shores of Lake Michigan, about my struggles with neighborhood bullies, about heeding the lessons of the school yard, about trying to look cool, about losing it all on the forced march to adulthood.