In 1944, a band of Jewish guerrillas emerged from the Baltic forest to join the Russian army in its attack on Vilna, the capital of Lithuania. The band, called the Avengers, was led by Abba Kovner, a charismatic young poet. In the ghetto, Abba had built bombs, sneaking out through the city's sewer tunnels to sabotage German outposts. Abba's chief lieutenants were two teenage girls, Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczak. At seventeen, Vitka and Ruzka were perhaps the most daring partisans in the East, the first to blow up a Nazi train in occupied Europe. Each night, the girls shared a bed with Abba, raising gossip in the ghetto. But what they found was more than temporary solace. It was a great love affair. After the liquidation of the ghetto, the Avengers escaped through the city's sewage tunnels to the forest, where they lived for more than a year in a dugout beside a swamp, fighting alongside other partisan groups, and ultimately bombing the city they loved, destroying Vilna's waterworks and its powerplant in order to pave the way for its liberation.
Leaving a devastated Poland behind them, they set off for the cities of Europe: Vitka and Abba to the West, where they would be instrumental in orchestrating the massive Jewish exodus to the biblical homeland, and Ruzka to Palestine, where she would be literally the first person to bring a first hand account of the Holocaust to Jewish leaders. It was in these last terrifying days--with travel in Europe still unsafe for Jews and the extent of the Holocaust still not widely known--that the Avengers hatched their plan for revenge. Before it was over, the group would have smuggled enough poison into Nuremberg to kill ten thousand Nazis. The Avengers is the story of what happened to these rebels in the ghetto and in the forest, and how, fighting for the State of Israel, they moved beyond the violence of the Holocaust and made new lives.
From Rich Cohen, one of the preeminent journalists of his generation and author of the highly praised Tough Jews, a powerful exploration of vindication and revenge, of dignity and rebellion, painstakingly recreated through his exclusive access to the Avengers themselves. Written with insight, sensitivity, and the moral force of one of the last great struggles of the Second World War, here is an unforgettable story for our time.
As a child visiting an Israeli kibbutz on a family vacation, Cohen met a relative who had survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Israel. Slight and gray-haired, Ruzka looked a lot like Cohen's grandmother, but her stories introduced him to a little-known, remarkable group of Jews: the Avengers, who fought Nazis in the gloomy forests of Eastern Europe and later battled for Israel's independence. As Cohen notes, these "were the kind of people who inspired Joseph Goebbels to write in his diary, `One sees what the Jews can do when they are armed.'" An ardent Zionist, Ruzka left her home in Poland in 1939, as German troops were occupying the country, and made her way to Vilna, Lithuania, where she hoped to find passage to Palestine. Arrested as an "illegal immigrant" upon her arrival, she was released through the efforts of a Zionist youth group who gave her shelter in their headquarters. There, Ruzka met Vitka Kempner, another young girl on her own, and Abba Kovner, a charismatic young man whose steadfast belief in resistance and canny strategies inspired the Avengers. In period-perfect detail, Cohen portrays scenes of ghetto life in Vilna, the efforts of a Jewish leader who thought he could help his people by collaborating with the Germans and, above all, the riveting story of the Avengers' escape from the ghetto, their acceptance of a renegade German officer who hated his army and their eventual emigration to Palestine. Cohen (Tough Jews: Father, Sons and Gangster Dreams) delivers a compelling story that not only amplifies the accepted version of Jewish experience in the Second World War, but also provides a terrific narrative of courage and tenacity. Photographs.