In the summer of 1963, I was a volunteer on Kibbutz Gvat in Israel. The head of my host family, whose name was Nachman, told me interesting stories of his time in the Jewish Brigade of the British army during World War II. One of the things he told me was that during and after the war he and others in the brigade searched for Nazis and Germans and killed them. He did so, he said, out of revenge for what the Germans did to his family and to the Jews in Poland. He said that at the time his heart was ice cold. He had no feelings of mercy or remorse for what he did and for those he killed.
He told me, that in the evening they would take German prisoners to the woods or other secluded spots and kill them. Then they would dispose of the bodies. At roll call in the morning, when the British officers asked where these missing men were, the Jewish soldiers would say, “Oh, them. They escaped.”
Another time, he said, they tied up a group of German prisoners, put them on a boat and sailed out to sea. When they went far enough, they knocked the Germans over the head and threw them overboard. When I said that this was murder, he answered, “So? Should we have fed them?”
I was a bit shocked. Here was this kind and gentle man who worried about whether I had enough to eat, and when I became ill took me to stay in his home. And here he was telling me that at one time he acted like a ruthless assassin.
Since then, I never thought much about it. Until recently, when I became curious about Jewish retribution and vengeance toward the Germans during and after WWII. After the war and the Holocaust, a fierce hatred and desire for revenge against the Nazis and Germans burned in the hearts of Palestinian Jews and Holocaust survivors whose families had been tortured and murdered. The Palestinian Jews sought revenge.
In 1942 a Palestine Jewish unit dubbed “Palestine Buffs” had been created by the British because of their need for manpower in the war. This unit was then integrated into the British army. However, in 1944 the British government agreed to the formation of an independent Jewish Brigade within the British forces. The brigade numbered 5,000 men and was commanded by a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish officers.
Unknown to the British commanders, set up within the Jewish Brigade, was a secret unit called “Gmul,” Hebrew for “Recompense.” Its mission was to seek vengeance against the SS men and Germans who had taken part in the slaughter of the Jews. Mordechai Gichon, a former soldier in the Jewish Brigade, who would later be one of the founders of Israeli military intelligence, said, “We looked for big fish, the senior Nazis who had managed to shed their uniforms and return to their homes.”
In June 1945, Gmul agents found a Polish-born German couple who lived in a small town in northern Italy. During the war, the wife had been involved in transferring stolen Jewish property from Austria and Italy to Germany. Her husband had helped run the regional Gestapo office. The Gmul agents offered them a harsh choice: cooperate with us or die.
The husband was interrogated by Israel Carmi, a member of the Jewish Brigade. Carmi later became the commander of the Israeli army’s military police. After an intense interrogation, the husband broke down and agreed to cooperate. Carmi said, “I assigned him to prepare lists of all the senior officials he knew and who had worked with the Gestapo and the SS. I wanted names, dates of birth, education, and positions.”
The result was a major intelligence breakthrough. Carmi received lists of dozens of names. Gmul’s men tracked down each missing Nazi and pressured them to divulge more information. They promised each German he would not be harmed if he cooperated. Most did. Once a particular name had been verified, Gmul operatives located the target and gathered information for the final killing mission. Then, when the targets were no longer useful, Gmul agents shot them and dumped their bodies.
Mordechai Gichon, who himself had been born in Germany, was often assigned the job of identifying German killers. “No one suspected me,” he said. “My vocal chords were of Berlin stock. I’d go to the corner grocery store or pub or even just knock on a door to convey greetings from someone. Most of the time, the people would respond to their real names, or recoil into vague silence, which was as good as a confirmation.” Once the identification was confirmed, Gichon would track the German’s movements and provide detailed sketches of the house where he lived or the area that had been chosen for the abduction.
The Gmul killers worked in teams of no more than five men. When meeting their target, they generally wore British military police uniforms. And they told their target they had come to take a man named so-and-so for interrogation. Most of the time, the German came without objection. The Nazi was sometimes killed instantly. Other times they would be transported to some remote spot before being killed. Shalom Giladi, one of the group’s members related, “In time we developed quiet, rapid, and efficient methods of taking care of the SS men who fell into our hands.”
In most cases, the avengers brought the Nazis to a small line of fortifications in the mountains that held abandoned fortified caves. Giladi said, “Most of those facing their executioners would lose their Nazi arrogance when they heard we were Jews. They would cry, ‘Have mercy on my wife and children.’ We would ask him, how many such screams the Nazis had heard in the extermination camps from their Jewish victims.”
The Gmul operation lasted only three months, during which Gmul killed between 100 and 200 Germans. Gmul was closed down when the British, who had heard complaints about disappearances from German families, understood what was going on. The British decided not to investigate further, but to remove the Jewish Brigade and send it away from the Germans to Belgium and Holland. The Haganah command issued an order for Gmul to cease the revenge operations.
Although Gmul was ordered to stop killing Germans in Europe, the Haganah (Jewish defense organization) leaders did not abandon their policy of retribution. Instead, the vengeance that had been halted in Europe was to be carried out in Palestine, against the German Templar sect, which had been expelled from Palestine at the beginning of the war because of their German nationality and Nazi sympathies and which was now attempting to return.
Originally, the Templars were a large organization of devout Christians during the medieval era that was created to protect Christian pilgrims who visited sites in the Holy Land. In the 19th century German Templars built a colony in Haifa in northern Palestine. In 1937, over 30% of the Templars were members of the Nazi party. Many Templars had joined the German war effort and took part in the persecution and murder of Jews. When the war was over, some of them returned to their former homes in Palestine.
The leader of the Templars in Palestine was a wealthy industrialist named Gotthilf Wagner who had assisted the Gestapo and Wehrmacht during the war. He once boasted to a Holocaust survivor, who had masqueraded as a Hungarian priest, that he was personally present at both Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He said that when he was at Auschwitz, they brought out a group of Jewish children and he poured flammable liquid over them and asked them if they knew that there was a hell on Earth. He then ignited the liquid while telling them that this was what awaited the Jews in Palestine.
Rafi Eitan was the 17-year-old son of Russian Jewish pioneers in Palestine. He recalled thinking, “Here come exultant Germans who had been members of the Nazi party, who enlisted in the Wehrmacht, and SS, and they want to return to their property, when all the Jewish property outside was destroyed.”
Eitan, who later became head of the Mossad, was part of a 17-man special squad from the Haganah sent to kill Wagner. On March 22, 1946, they forced Wagner’s car off a road in Tel Aviv and shot him. Shortly thereafter, the Haganah assassinated two other Templars in the Galilee and two more in Haifa. The Templars got the message and left Palestine and their property behind them. They were never seen in Palestine again.
Working under the code name “Operation Judgement,” Brigade members formed secret killing squads to kill former Nazis. One of the executioners explained that they would go to the home of a suspect, put on their British Military Police helmets and police armbands. They would enter the home and tell the suspect they wanted him for interrogation. Once in the car they told the prisoner who they were and why they took him. Some of the suspects admitted guilt. Others kept silent. Then they took the suspect to a predetermined secluded spot and killed him.
All the while, the British military command turned a blind eye to the brigade’s activities. They were sympathetic to what the brigade was doing because many of them had fought alongside the brigade during the war. Also, being war-weary, they did not want to expend the energy it would take to end the brigade’s actions.
Members of the killing squads never showed any remorse for their actions. They believed that the Germans deserved it. Years later, when one of the survivors was asked how he could have been part of an operation that could have killed many innocent people, he explained, “If you would have been there with me at the end of the war, you would never ask me such a question.”
Yet it soon became clear that the Allies had much less interest in meting out justice to Nazis. Pursuing all those responsible for the slaughter of Jews would have meant trying thousands of people, and it would have ended in the jailing a large fraction of the adult male population of Germany, which was now divided between the Soviet Union in the east and the Allies in the west. The Allies put their hands up in in despair.
A group of survivors from the ghettos and concentration camps saw what direction this was taking. Most of them had lost their families and witnessed unimaginable horrors. And now they saw that the guilty were about to walk free. The world wanted to move on. But these young men felt a responsibility to their fellow Jews not to forget.
Thus it was that the group that would come to be known as the “Nakam,” Hebrew for “Avengers,” was born. In the spring of 1945, a Passover gathering of survivors in Bucharest was addressed by Abba Kovner, the young leader of the Jewish uprising in the Vilna ghetto. Kovner was born in 1918 in Sebastopol, Russia, and spent his high school years in Vilna, where he joined Ha-Shomer Hatzair youth movement. When the Germans invaded and occupied Lithuania, they rounded up the Jews and put them in a ghetto. Kovner pleaded with Vilna’s Jews to join the partisans in a popular uprising, but they refused. After briefly fighting the Germans, Kovner and other partisans fled to the forest. While there, they destroyed 180 miles of train tracks, five bridges, 40 enemy train cars and killed 212 German soldiers. He returned to Vilna with the Red Army on July 7, 1944, capturing the city from the Germans on July 13, 1944. After the war, he and 50 other partisans attempted to poison thousands of Nazi and SS prisoners in a Nuremberg POW camp. It is unknown how many Germans were killed. In 1961 he testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. In 1970, he won the “Israel Prize” in literature for his poetry.
At that gathering, Kovner spoke passionately and invoked Psalm 94, in which God promises that he shall deal with the enemies of the people of Israel. “He will turn upon them their own violence and with their own wickedness destroy them.” This, Kovner suggested, was the fate that should be meted out to the Germans. And if the courts of international justice would not do it, then the Jews should do it themselves.
Calmly, the group set about implementing the death sentences they themselves had passed. First, they would identify a Nazi who had melted back into civilian life. They would then stage an arrest and spirit the German away. Some of these ex-SS men were strangled, others hanged. The deaths of those who were hanged could be passed off as suicides. Hangings might take place in a garage, with the subject forced to stand on a car roof while his neck was placed in the noose attached to an overhead beam. An Avenger would drive the car away and the man would be strangled. These efforts endured into the 1950s. The executioners kept their mouths shut and took their secrets to their graves.
The Nakam went to Spain, Latin America, Canada, and other places where Nazi murderers found refuge. In one such operation, the Nakam tracked down Alexander Laak, responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Jews at the Estonian concentration camp of Jagala. One evening they waited for Laak’s wife to leave for the movies, went to his home, and confronted him with his crimes and their intended punishment. They gave him a choice: They would kill him, or he could do it himself. He hung himself.
Benjamin Levi, one of the avengers, recalled that period in his life saying, “I saw a lot of things. I saw very noble people become animals. And very plain people become noble.” He had joined the partisans during the war and helped to liberate Vilna. He and his comrades rounded up Lithuanians who had collaborated with the Germans and shot them on the spot. “We didn’t keep prisoners,” he said. “There was no discussion. It was a normal thing.” All enemies were immediately shot. “The moment I start to think about this more and more memories come,” he said to a later interviewer. “We don’t talk about this anymore. But it’s alive inside.”
After the founding of the State of Israel, the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, undertook the task of tracking down former Nazis and killing them, and in some cases, putting them on trial. But that’s another story.
Robert Rockaway is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, and the author of But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.