TEL AVIV, Israel — Seventy years after the most daring attempt of Jewish Holocaust survivors to seek revenge against their former tormentors, the leader of the plot has only one simple regret — that to his knowledge he didn’t actually succeed in killing any Nazis.
Joseph Harmatz is one of the few remaining Jewish “Avengers” who carried out a mass poisoning of former SS men in an American prisoner-of-war camp in 1946 that sickened more than 2,200 Germans but ultimately caused no known deaths. A recently declassified U.S. military report obtained by The Associated Press has only added to the mystery of why the brazen operation did not kill Nazis, because it shows the amount of arsenic used should have been fatal to tens of thousands.
Still, the 91-year-old Harmatz says the message echoed into a rallying cry for the newborn state of Israel — that the days when attacks on Jews went unanswered were over.
“We didn’t want to come back (to pre-state Israel) without having done something, and that is why we were keen,” Harmatz said in a hoarse, whispery voice from his apartment in north Tel Aviv.
Despite a visceral desire for vengeance, most Holocaust survivors were too weary or devastated to seriously consider it, after their world was shattered and 6 million Jews killed during World War II. For most, merely rebuilding their lives and starting new families was revenge enough against a Nazi regime that aimed to destroy them. For others, physical retribution ran counter to Jewish morals and traditions. For even more, the whole concept of reprisals seemed pointless given the sheer scope of the genocide.
But a group of some 50, most young men and women who had already fought in the resistance, could not let the crimes go unpunished and actively sought to exact at least a small measure of revenge. The Nuremberg trials were prosecuting some top Nazis, but the Jewish people had no formal representative. There was a deep sense of justice denied, as the vast majority of Nazis immersed themselves back into a post-war Germany that was being rebuilt by the Americans’ Marshall plan.
While there were some isolated acts of Jews harming individual Nazis after the war, the group, codenamed Nakam, Hebrew for vengeance, sought a more comprehensive form of punishment.
“We didn’t understand why it shouldn’t be paid back,” said Harmatz, who was nicknamed Julek, and lost most of his family in the Holocaust.
So the group set out with a simple mission.
“Kill Germans,” Harmatz said flatly.
“As many as possible,” he quickly replied.
The first plan of action described by Harmatz was audacious. Initiated by the resistance fighter and noted Israeli poet Abba Kovner, the idea was to poison the water supply of Nuremberg, a plot that could have potentially killed hundreds of thousands.
But there were deep reservations even among the Avengers that such an operation would kill innocent Germans and undermine international support for the establishment of Israel. Either way, when Kovner sailed for Europe with the poison, he drew suspicion from British authorities and was forced to toss it overboard before he was arrested.
Following that setback, attention shifted toward Plan B, a more limited operation that specifically targeted the worst Nazi perpetrators. Undercover members of the group found work at a bakery that supplied the Stalag 13 POW camp at Langwasser, near Nuremberg, and waited for their chance to strike the thousands of SS men the Americans held there.
It came on Apr. 13, 1946. Using poison procured from one of Kovner’s associates, three members spent two hours coating some 3,000 loaves of bread with arsenic, divided into four portions. The goal was to kill 12,000 SS personnel, and Harmatz oversaw the operation from outside the bakery.
While the mass death count of the first plan would have been disastrous for the Jewish people, the second’s more direct route was easier to accept, since its targets were the worst of the worst, said Dina Porat, the chief historian at Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial. She has written a biography of Kovner and is about to publish another book on the Avengers themselves.
“The terrible tragedy was about to be forgotten, and if you don’t punish for one crime, you will get another,” she explained. “This is what was driving them, not only justice but a warning, a warning to the world that you cannot hurt Jews in such a manner and get away with it.”
Even if they were ultimately unsuccessful, she said, the Avengers’ act was seeped with symbolism for a burgeoning state of Israel fighting for its survival in a hostile region.
“What is Zionism? Zionism is the Jews taking their fate in their own hands and not letting the others dictate our fate,” she said. “This is what they wanted to show. You cannot get away with such a terrible deed.”
Under German regulations, authorities in Nuremberg later investigated Harmatz and Leipke Distal, who worked undercover in the bakery for months, after they appeared in a 1999 television documentary and revealed details of the operation.
The prosecutors, in the uncomfortable position of having to investigate Holocaust survivors trying to kill Nazis, eventually concluded that even though there was an attempted murder they would not file charges because of the “extraordinary circumstances.”
According to previously classified files from the U.S. military’s Counter Intelligence Corps, which investigated the 1946 incident and which the Nuremberg prosecutors did not have access to, the amount of arsenic used should have been enough to cause a massive number of deaths. The files were obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Archives.
In one memo from 1947 stamped “confidential,” investigators write that at the bakery they found “three empty hot water bottles and a burlap bag containing four full hot water bottles.” An analysis of the contents “revealed that they contained enough arsenic mixed with glue and water to kill approximately 60,000 persons.”
Another confidential report said a chemist called in to help in the investigation had determined “10 kilo of pure arsenic was present, mixed with water and glue for adhesive purposes.”
Laboratory investigators found arsenic on the bottom, top and sides of the bread, and reported that doctors said the SS men exhibited symptoms “similar to cholera and included vomiting, diarrhea and skin rashes.” The report added that the most amount of arsenic found on a loaf was 0.2 grams — which fell well within the range of 0.1-0.3 grams that would be ‘in most cases lethal.”
To this day, it remains a mystery as to why the poison failed to kill Nazis. The prevailing theory is that the plotters in their haste spread the poison too thinly. Another is that the Nazi prisoners immediately sensed something was off with the bread and therefore no one ingested enough of it to die.
After the attack, Harmatz, Distal and others had to flee quickly. At the border of Czechoslovakia they were met by Yehuda Maimon, an Auschwitz survivor from Poland who lost his parents in the camps and decided to join Nakam shortly after escaping a death march. He was responsible for smuggling the group out safely and bribing officials at the border. From there, they slipped into Italy before migrating for good to the Holy Land.
From the retirement home outside Tel Aviv where his grandchildren frequently visit him, the 92-year-old Maimon, who goes by the nickname Poldek, fixes a steely gaze with his piercing blue eyes. He looks back with satisfaction at carrying out his “duty” for revenge before starting anew in Israel.
“It was imperative to form this group. If I am proud of something it is that I belonged to this group,” he said. “Heaven forbid if after the war we had just gone back to the routine without thinking about paying those bastards back. It would have been awful not to respond to those animals.”
Herschaft reported from New York. Associated Press writer David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.