In the winter of 1941, a charismatic young poet named Abba Kovner formed a Jewish guerrilla group in the Vilna ghetto, in Lithuania. They sneaked through the city's sewers, blowing up German transports and outposts with homemade bombs. After the war Kovner and his Avengers hatched a plan to poison 8,000 Nazis imprisoned at Stalag 13 in Nuremberg. Kovner never talked of his exploits, fearing, among other things, that they'd be used to justify terrorism against Israel. Only now, with his death and the passage of years, have the surviving Avengers told their story.
Abba discussed the plan in the spring of 1945, at a dinner of survivors and refugees. Fittingly, it was Passover, and the fighters must have thought of the Hebrew slaves, not yet Jews, waiting in that brief pause in Egypt, after Pharaoh said go but before he gave chase. Standing at the head of the table, hair pushed back, voice climbing, Abba said yes, the war is over, but no, not for the Germans; it is time for Germany to suffer; the Germans, who killed the Jews, must now pay with their own lives.
Abba was a deeply religious thinker who did not believe in God. He thought in terms of the Old Testament, vengeance and justice. Where was God when the German tanks rolled east? Where was God when the ghetto was built? Where was God when the ghetto was destroyed? And what about today? The war is over, but where is God? Is he with the Poles as they kill Jewish refugees who return to their homes? Is he with the Germans as they pass out fliers: "Bring back Hitler and we will have bread"? If there is no God, if the prayers go unanswered, then Jews must answer the prayers of the Jews. Germany must pay. "We will do it for ourselves," said Abba. In that moment, the eyes of the room on him, his jaw twitching, Abba was the leader of a new religion.
Lebke Distel, sitting in a bakery in Nuremberg, told the owner why he wanted a job. "My name is Julian Brooklyn," he explained. "I am a Pole freed from a work camp. I will stay in Nuremberg only until my visa arrives. Then I will move to Canada. My father owns a bakery in Montreal. I want to learn the business. I will work for free."
Through a window, Lebke could see armed guards examining packages. Each day the bakery delivered bread to Stalag 13, where 8,000 Nazis were being held prisoner, guards from the death camps and members of the Einsatzgruppen, the killing squads that had operated in Eastern Europe. After looking Lebke over--stubs for fingers, hard blue eyes--the bakery owner said, "Sorry, no jobs." The next morning Lebke came back with a bottle of vodka and a carton of cigarettes. He started work that afternoon.
Nuremberg was then just miles of debris, vistas of ruin, here and there a building that had escaped the bombs. In the outskirts the world started up again, debris forming into buildings, streets, towns. In a village just beyond the city limits, Lebke shared a flat with Pinchas Ben-Tzur and Joseph Harmatz, the local commander of the Avengers. Each night, when these men returned from work, the apartment filled with resentment. "The Germans were taking their children out in little prams, they had milk to feed them and still complained that the level of fat in the milk was not high," Harmatz later wrote. "They, on the other hand, [had] grabbed our children by the legs and [thrown] them against telephone poles and into furnaces."
At night these men argued in cafes, a newspaper folded back, an article read out loud. They spoke of the courtroom in the city where 22 top-ranking Nazis were on trial. In the end 12 of the accused were condemned to death. On hearing his sentence, Hans Frank, who had once ruled Occupied Poland, compared himself to a martyr of the early church. Julius Streicher, a leader of the Nazi Party, complained that he could hear the gallows being built. "It is all right to hang a man," he said, "but why torture him?"
Lebke learned each part of the bakery business, firing ovens, cleaning pans, frosting cakes. He often worked with the women, in hairnet and gloves. He bribed his way into a job baking bread. Five minutes into a shift, Lebke was covered in flour. He could hear the cooks talking in the other parts of the kitchen, baking pastries and cakes, which they set to cool on long metal tables. Now and then a cook slapped Lebke on the back, saying, "My friend Julian Brooklyn!" Lebke tried to hide his disdain. As far as he was concerned, every German had killed his family. As the nights went on, he noted each variation in momentum and shift change, trying to figure out the perfect scheme. He thought of kneading poison into the dough or of pouring it into the flour. No good. When the bread went into the ovens, the heat might kill the poison. In the end he decided to paint the poison directly onto the loaves as they cooled.
Just before dawn the owner of the bakery would stand next to Lebke and say, "Fine work, Julian!" He would then hand Lebke the keys, telling him to lock up on his way out. The night guard stayed on until Lebke went home. By the time Lebke walked into the pale morning, the street was filled with delivery trucks. Each day 10,000 loaves of bread were shipped to Stalag 13. Nine thousand loaves of black bread for prisoners. One thousand loaves of white bread for their American guards. The average American cannot stand black bread.
After spending several months in the bakery, Lebke told Joseph Harmatz, "If you want to go ahead with the mission, fine. But do it soon." Living in Germany, working with the enemy, leading this phony life--it was destroying him. Harmatz announced the date: Saturday, April 13, 1946. There would be a full moon that night, giving Lebke much-needed light. On April 11 the members of the Avengers living in Nuremberg, those not involved in the actual poisoning, were ordered to leave for Lyon, France. The poison had arrived a few days before--arsenic purchased on the black market from French chemists who had tested it on a cat. The arsenic was smuggled to Nuremberg by a Palestinian soldier from the Jewish brigade, who strapped it to his body in hot-water bottles.
Over the next few days Lebke sneaked the poison into the bakery, hiding the bottles beneath the floorboards. On April 13, before anyone arrived at work, he used the keys to let in Pinchas--up the stairs, past the tables and ovens, to a back room where flour drums stood against the wall. "This one is empty," said Lebke. "Get in."
That night Lebke showed up to work with two men. He was able to sneak only one of them into the bakery, a former partisan who hid in a storeroom. As he worked, Lebke, acting as if this were just another night, was swept away by worry: would three men be enough? In a brief window of time he hoped to poison 9,000 loaves. This was the moment the Avengers had so long been working toward: Jews acting out the vengeance of God. Like most big moments, though, it was lost in the little moments that surrounded it. Is there enough poison? Will there be enough time? This nitty-gritty is what protects soldiers, the consequences of the big picture lost in the hustle of the little pictures. Before Lebke knew it, the boss was throwing an arm across his back, saying, "Fine work, Julian!"
He handed Lebke the keys and went out.
A few minutes later Lebke went downstairs, said goodbye to the guard and walked around the block. From the shadows he watched the guard go off duty; it would be a few minutes before the morning guard came on.
Lebke rushed to the front door, fumbled with the keys and let himself in. He went to the back room. Pinchas had been hiding in the drum for 15 hours. When he climbed out, his knees buckled. The second man came out of the storeroom. Lebke then slid into a crawl space under the floorboards. He emerged with the poison. He mixed it in big metal bowls. It was clear and had no smell. Pinchas spread the black bread, still warm from the ovens, across the long metal tables. Outside a strong wind was blowing. The men worked quickly, in a kind of assembly line, one setting out the bread, one painting on the poison, one arranging the bread back in rows. After two hours, using small brushes, the men had painted 3,000 loaves with poison.
Then, bang! Something smashed into the building. Lebke crossed the room and looked out the window. A shutter had come apart in the wind and banged into the building. It did not matter. The guard would still come up to check. He would search the bakery and find the poison.
"Let's give him something else to find," said Lebke.
He tossed several unpoisoned loaves of bread into a bag and set the bag next to an open window. The guard, coming upon the bread, would assume there had been a robbery. There were severe food shortages in Germany, and such thefts were not uncommon.
Pinchas climbed into the empty drum, and the other man went out the window--his work was finished. Lebke hid the bottles of poison and slid under the floorboards. A few minutes later the floorboards creaked as the guard walked through the room. A flashlight danced on the walls. Taking no chances, the guard called for a policeman. The policeman found the sacks of bread by the open window, sighed and said, "Robbery."
When the guard and the policeman left, Lebke climbed out from under the floorboards. The sky in the window was turning gray. The delivery trucks would soon arrive. Lebke made certain the bread was arranged on its trays. He hugged Pinchas. The men went out the window, over the roof and down a drainpipe. Delivery trucks were idling in the distance. People were already in the street, construction workers, cars. A taxi crawled by. Lebke flagged down the driver. He said he wanted to go to the border of Czechoslovakia. The driver looked at him. "Don't worry," said Lebke. "I have money."
The next afternoon a girl walked alone on the road out of Nuremberg. She looked like a military wife in leather shoes and a high-collared dress. Her eyes were green, and her brown hair hung to her shoulders. It was spring, the road filled with the clatter of American trucks, soldiers hanging from the back in the sunshine. Country houses hunkered in the distance. Wooden signs pointed the way to Stalag 13. Across the fields the prison camp loomed in a geometry of barbed wire. The streets near the camp were lined with small, single-family houses, rooms for rent. Most of the rooms were taken by the wives of prisoners, young women awaiting the outcome of the war trials. The girl went house to house, knocking on doors. She asked to talk to the wives of prisoners. If such a woman came out to the porch, the girl turned sad and weepy. Her German was awful. "I've heard the most terrible stories," she said. "An illness in the camp. Men sick. Is it true? Please, my husband is in the camp. A Nazi from Poland. We are both Poles. Please. Is he alive? Tell me."
Some of the wives put an arm around the girl, brushing her face with a handkerchief. Yes, it is terrible. Many of the men are in the hospital. Some are deathly ill. The Americans say it is food poisoning. Nothing is certain. As the girl walked down the street, head down, shoulders slumped, she looked devastated. On her face, hidden beneath her hair, was the glimmer of a smile. She was a Jewish girl from Vilna, Rachel Glicksman, who, with her mother, had survived a concentration camp and gone on to work for the Avengers. She was sent to Nuremberg disguised as the wife of a Nazi to scout out what happened when the bread reached camp. In the course of the day, walking block to block, she learned that yes, something terrible had overtaken Stalag 13. She could sense it most in the American guards, in what they did not say. The night before, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Germans had been rushed to the hospital. There was a panic. No one knew just what was happening. Before sundown Rachel was back on the road to Nuremberg. By midnight she was on a train for France.
A few days later the story turned up in the newspapers. The Avengers would sit together, reading the articles, discussing each sentence. On April 23, 1946, it appeared in The New York Times.
Poison Plot Toll Of Nazis At 2,283
Arsenic Bottles Found by U.S. Agents in Nuremberg Bakery That Served Prison Camp
Nuremberg, Germany, April 22 (AP)--United States Army authorities said tonight that additional German prisoners of war have been stricken with arsenic poisoning, bringing to 2,283 the number taken ill in a mysterious plot against 15,000 [sic] former Nazi Elite Guard men confined in a camp near Nuremberg.
It was never clear just how many people were killed in the attack. Like a story from mythology, it varies with each telling. The New York Times said no one died, that all the German prisoners were saved in the hospital. To this day the members of the Avengers believe this to be a self-serving fiction, a story created by American officials charged with guarding the Nazis. Other papers said thousands of the Germans died. In "America's Achilles' Heel," a 1998 book about nuclear weapons and chemical terrorism, writers Richard A. Falkenrath, Robert D. Newman and Bradley A. Thayer claim that "the most lethal chemical poisoning ever, outside of the Nazi gas chambers, appears to be the arsenic poisoning of several thousand captive German SS soldiers in April 1946 by the Jewish reprisal organization [the Avengers]."
But it is not ultimately important if one or 1,000 men died in Stalag 13. More than anything, Abba wanted to leave a story behind. He played for the future, for the next generation and the generations after that, for the thrill a kid feels 50 years later when he stumbles across the story in the stacks of the public library. After a war in which Jews were starved and degraded, in which millions of them were killed in factories, this ragged group, led by a fanatic named Abba Kovner, fought on. Their mere existence was their victory. More than anything, they left the legend of their struggle, a way to look back at history and say, "Here there was a fight."