Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Rich Cohen's The Avengers
, a riveting and powerful look at the intrepid
individuals who fought against the Holocaust and the Nazi
occupation of Europe.
like no Holocaust story I have ever heard. There are no cattle
cars in it, and no concentration camps. It takes place in
underground hideouts and forest clearings, and in the ruins of
German cities after the Second World War" [p. 3]. So begins Rich
Cohen's book The Avengers. Clearly Cohen is drawn to the
story of Abba, Ruzka, and Vitka because of its powerful
difference from most Holocaust stories that Jewish children are
told. What is the effect, particularly upon a child's mind, of
having the Holocaust as a formative narrative of identity?
As in Tough Jews, Cohen is driven by a discomfort
with the idea of Jews as passive victims. Does The Avengers
alter the impression that Jews were led "like sheep to the
slaughter"? Why were the partisans largely unsuccessful in
getting Jews to join them in resistance to the Nazis? Is it
troubling that Abba, Vitka, and Ruzka left members of their own
families behind in ghettoes that would eventually be taken by
What are some of the possible ethical responses to the
genocide the Nazis engineered? Is the Talmud's "an eye for an
eye" a more appropriate response than the Christian concept of
"turning the other cheek"? Was Abba Kovner's plot to poison
Nazis in the Nuremberg camp a sensible and moral response? On
page 213, Cohen calls Kovner a "fanatic," the leader of a group
of avengers whose "mere existence was their victory." Should
Kovner be considered a fanatic, a hero, or both?
Cohen implies that for the partisans, fighting back put
them in a strange position at times. With the massacre of
civilians carried out in the pro-Nazi town of Konyuchi, the line
between the partisans and the Germans became blurred: "The
rebels sat for hours at the campfire, asking themselves, 'Who
are we?'"[p. 145]. How did this conflict of identity affect the
partisan cause? How were they able to justify their own use of
The Catholic nun who helps the partisans tells Vitka, "In
this situation, a Jew is the only decent thing to be" [p. 40].
Who are some of the other quietly heroic people who come into
play in the story? Does The Avengers give a sense of why
such people were ultimately helpless in changing the tide of
events as the Nazis liquidated ghetto after ghetto throughout
Rich Cohen occasionally uses the techniques of fiction in
telling his story, manipulating narrative point of view and verb
tense. See, for instance, the first full paragraph on page 177,
or the final full sentence on page 188. What effect do these
moments have? On whose testimony does the factual basis of the
story rest? How much imaginative reconstruction, in the interest
of telling such a riveting tale, might Cohen have had to do?
Photographs of the story's three protagonists appear on
pages 151-52. Cohen writes, "You can reconstruct a moment from
this picture: the fading light, the shock of return, the sense
of no victory" [p. 152]. What in fact can be gathered from the
photographs--here and elsewhere in the book--of Abba, Vitka, and
Ruzka, in various poses and at various times of their lives?
What sense does the reader get of their different personalities,
and the ways in which their individual characters were shaped by
experiences during the war?
To what degree did a youthful commitment to Zionism shape
the choices made by Abba, Vitka, and Ruzka? How important was
the political ideology of Zionism to their lives in Israel? How
did their commitment to Zionism change over the years?
When Ruzka departed for Palestine, Cohen says, "For the
first time, [Abba and Vitka] lived as a couple, perhaps sensing
the life they would spend together. . . It was the end of the
life they had lived with Ruzka and the beginning of something
new" [pp. 166-67]. What role might their triangulated
relationship have played in the motivations of Abba, Vitka, and
Ruzka, both during the war and afterward? Is there, as Cohen
suggests, an element of romantic drama in this aspect of the
Given that Jewish leaders in Palestine, immediately after
the war, were caught up in their struggle to found a Jewish
state, is it surprising to find that they had little interest in
Abba Kovner's plan for revenge against the Germans? How did
Kovner himself come to realize that it was time to turn his
energies toward the future of Israel and away from his desire
For discussion of The Avengers
and Tough Jews:
"I've taken it upon myself, though not with any real plan, to
challenge stereotypes of Jewish history," Rich Cohen has said.
"One is the idea of Jews as passive objects of history and the
other is Jews as victims. . . . The Avengers
natural outgrowth of the first book, part of the same project,
which was to look back and tell history with the breadth with
which it was lived. These weren't Jews that were saved when
somebody else was saving the Jews, although those people are in
my book too. These were Jews who saved themselves." What do Rich
Cohen's two books have in common, and do they reflect their
author's effort to challenge popular stereotypes? How, in each
case, does he fulfill his desire to "tell history with the
breadth with which it was lived"?
Cohen points out that several of the Jewish gangsters were
strongly anti-Nazi during the war, and that Bugsy Siegel might
have been involved in an assassination attempt against Goering
and Goebbels. The gangsters "understood Nazis in a way most
law-abiding adults could not" [p. 189]. Are there similar
qualities of toughness--or a refusal to be bullied--in the
protagonists of his two books? Why do some brave and
nonconformist people become criminals, while others become
Ghetto in Flames
; Isaac Babel,
; Andre Schwarz-Bart,
The Last of the Just
Lucy S. Dawidowicz,
The War Against the Jews
Auschwitz and After
; E. L. Doctorow,
; James Ellroy,
My Dark Places: An L. A. Crime
; Albert Fried,
The Rise and Fall of the Jewish
Gangster in America
; Allegra Goodman,
A Cold Case
; Abba Kovner, et al.,
Scrolls of Testimony
; Lawrence Langer,
Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory
; Primo Levi,
; Nicholas Pileggi,
Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia
; Mario Puzo,
; Luc Sante,
; Tom Segev,
The Seventh Million
; Burton B.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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