World War II was over, Dov Shenkal and his friends had only one goal: Retaliation for the mass murder of Jews. They searched for culprits on their own initiative – and eliminated them. An encounter with three men who have no regrets
„For the mission in Vienna we used a car of the Jewish Brigade. Instead of the Star of David as insignia, our uniforms had brassards of the British military police.“ Chaim Miller tells the story in a firm voice and apparently with a vivid memory of the events. However, all that took place more than 50 years ago. Chaim Miller is now 76 years old and lives in a kibbutz near Jerusalem. He works as administrator for a steel plant. All his co-workers at the factory are his age – survivors of the Holocaust.
His comrade Dov Shenkal, 73, was with him in Vienna at that time, after the war. He continues to tell the story: „When we reached the address, we surrounded the house. Naturally, we looked for other entrances and secured them as well as the windows.“ Just like Chaim Miller, Dov Shenkal also lives in a kibbutz. In contrast to his friend, he is an introvert person. Although he speaks perfect German, he refuses to use the language of the enemy. The mission that bound the two men together was called „Nakam“: „Vengeance“ in Hebrew. It was their term for the Jewish payback to Nazis in Austria and Germany.
That particular night in June 1945, vengeance approaches a suburb of Vienna. The men are looking for a Nazi who, they believed, took part in the Shoa, the extinction of the Jewish people. As soldiers of the Jewish Brigade, they are part of the British occupation army. They trust in the authority of their uniforms in order to atone at least some of the horrors put upon their people by the Nazis. Their actions are illegal and can only be executed at night, without knowledge by their superiors.
The third man of the „Avengers“ also lives in Israel today unchallenged: Schmuel „Olie“ Giveon is 74 years old and a strange mixture of maverick and artist. The reserve officer with the rank of a Brigade General, a veteran of the six-day-war, is heading a Dada museum in the desert. His whole family was murdered by the Nazis, as were the families of his friends. „I had to use force to drag the Nazi out of his flat“, Olie Giveon remembers. „Apparently he figured out, that we were not actually military police.“ The three men drove their prisoner to a near-by forest. „We had to hurry, since we were afraid to be caught by the British military. I said: In the name of the Jewish people, it has been determined that you are going to die. Then we shot him.“
The verdict had been fulfilled. The delinquent had been found guilty of participation in the Holocaust. His three self-established prosecutors, judges and executors never had to answer for their actions. They returned to Israel, where they had been living since 1939, and led the lives as respectable citizens.
Like Dov Shenkal and Olie Giveon, Chaim Miller emigrated from Vienna to Palestine as a young Zionist in 1939. The region is still under British Mandate. On March 15, as Hitler and the „Wehrmacht“ march into Prague, Chaim Miller’s ship reaches Haifa. He is 18 years old. He has left his parents behind in Vienna; he will never see them again. Miller wants to build Israel, the Jewish state. Like his comrades Shenkal and Giveon, he joins the Hagana, an underground organisation to counter Arab attacks. Three years later, Hitler’s army under the command of Field Marshall Ernst Rommel reaches Egypt and threatens the Jewish dream of a state of their own. The leadership in Palestine decides to send their own army against Rommel. Thousands of Jewish soldiers had already served in the British army. Now the English trained them in guerrilla tactics.
The Hagana establishes a secret, 35 men-strong Special Unit – the „German Division“. In June 1942, on the hills above the kibbutz „Mischmar Ha’emmek“, the paths of Dov Shenkal, Olie Giveon and Chaim Miller cross for the first time. All of them are tall, blonde and blue-eyed. German is their mother tongue. Disguised as German officers, their task is to infiltrate Rommel’s Africa Corp and sabotage it. In their uniforms they have to complete the same training as their enemies. Every day they practice on German weapons, at night they have to learn Nazi songs – songs they hate, but will never forget. Chaim Miller still recalls the lyrics: „Durch Großberlin marschieren wir, für Adolf Hitler kämpfen wir, die rote Front, schlagt sie entzwei, SA marschiert, Achtung, die Straße frei.“
Rommel and his Africa corps do not get into Palestine and the German Brigade does not come into operation. The Jews under the leadership of the future founder father of the State of Israel David Ben-Gurion, demanded for years to lead their own army against Nazi Germany. But it is only in late 1944 that the English agree to raise a 5000 men strong Jewish Brigade. Near all its volunteers from Palestine are members of the Hagana. Their emblem is the Star of David ; their unit is part of the 8. British Army fighting in Italy.
Early in March 1945, the German Wehrmacht North of Florence retreats behind the so-called Gothic Line in the Apennine Mountains. Finally the Brigade comes into action. The German Section with Olie Giveon, Chaim Miller and Dov Shenkal volunteer on 26th April 1945. However, the war is almost over. „It was terrible“, Dov Shenkal recalls, „a terrible disappointment. For years, we had been prepared for our fight against the Germans. That was the reason why we joined the British Army. And then – almost nothing happened!“ At the end of the war the Brigade is based at Tarvisio in Italy, within the Austrian, Slovenian and Italian triangle. Millions of people wander about aimlessly in the destroyed Europe. Among them are also survivors of concentration camps. When they see the starved refugees passing the barracks of the Jewish Brigade, the soldiers start an unprecedented rescue mission: Under the eyes of the British military, aided by of the Hagana, they smuggle hundreds of Holocaust survivors illegally into Palestine. Provided with British documents by the soldiers of the Brigade, the refugees from Poland, Germany and Austria are brought to Yugoslavia and from there on to Palestine. The Holocaust that for many Jewish soldiers hitherto had only been a distant tragedy suddenly moved much closer. Many lost their families in the camps. The shock initially turns into blind rage. Soldiers of the Brigade kill German prisoners, rape Austrian women. At the outset, the hatred towards the Germans only hits random targets. „I don’t know whether you could actually call what we did revenge“, says Chaim Miller. „Our targets were not all Germans. We just wanted those who were guilty. We were looking for individuals who took part in the extinction of the Jewish people. There was no intention to hurt innocent people. We did not want blind rage.“ The organisation of the vengeance is coordinated by two men: Chaim Laskov, who later became the first Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, and Mei’r Zorea, who also became a high-ranking general. Both of them recruit retaliation troops from the Jewish Brigade who operated independently. The German Division discover a former Gestapo member who, together with his wife, took part in the confiscation of Jewish property. He provided them with addresses of other Nazis. Later the informant and his wife were executed.
„Not far from the city, we liquidated them with gunshots. The bullets left only a small whole in the forehead but tore off almost the whole skull. One of our own men was nearly injured. It was a very unpleasant thing.“ This story was told by the late General Mei’r Zorea, who died in June 1996, during a speech that was taped on video. Each group had its own method of executing people. „When we liquidated someone, we were very straight forward. We never disclosed to any of them how and why they should die nor who we were. We never said ‘in the name of the Jewish people’“. Contradicting Giveon, Mei’r Zorea claims: „No speeches, no blah, blah. We squashed Nazis like bugs.“
Early summer 1945, Olie Giveon and his group are on duty in the Austrian mountains. In a hut they accidentally discover two SS officers in hiding. They give them short shrift. „We surprised them“, said Olie Giveon. „I tore down their shirts immediately. They were wearing SS tattoos on their arms. After putting some pressure on them, we found out who they were, where they had been fighting and that they had participated in killing Jews. It was not easy to get out of them. They lied. I led them to a glacier and pushed them down a very steep crevice. That was it. If I had not been a hundred percent sure, I would not have done it. I must say, I was surprised that they acted like human beings. After all, they were SS officers.“ Up to one hundred Nazis are said to have been killed by the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade within the first six months after the war. There was general chaos.
In Poland, Jewish Partisans were even quicker to form a revenge group, since Poland was liberated a few weeks earlier. Their motto: „For us the war is not over. Our Jewish war against the Germans will continue.“ The leader of this group is Abba Kovner – poet, partisan, visionary and later member of the Knesset. And he is much more radical than the German Division with Miller, Giveon and Shenkal.
As a partisan fighting in the woods around Wilna, Kovner had seen thousands of Jews sent to the gas chambers. Kovner and his comrades are convinced that the whole of the German people are guilty. For each of the six million killed Jews Germans should pay with their own blood. His group plans to kill six million Germans by poisoning the drinking water. They chose the populations of Hamburg and Nuremberg. Years later Kovner told the Israeli historian Levi Aria Sharid in an interview: „It was supposed to be shocking. We wanted the Germans to understand that after Auschwitz there was no way back to normality.“ For the plan, which was named „Tochnit Alef“, Plan A, the avengers needed support. They were counting on the Hagana.
Abba Kovner arrives in Palestine at the end of 1945 in order to obtain poison; in the meantime, his deputy Pascha Reichmann, establishes a branch of the organisation in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Nuremburg and Munich. Moreover, Abba Kovner wants to win over the Jewish leadership for his revenge plans. He only talks to a few members of the Hagana. The historian and columnist Tom Segev commented on this in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz: „The Jewish leadership in Palestine asked Abba Kovner: What an obscene idea! Why would we want to poison six million Germans?’ The divide between the former partisan coming out of the woods, and the Jews in Palestine who did not experience the Holocaust was huge. It was painful, it was traumatic for the Jewish guerrilla.“
In Munich, Pascha Reichmann is waiting for the poison delivered by Kovner. Reichmann made all preparations for the great plan; his people had infiltrated the waterworks of Hamburg and Nuremberg. In December 1945, Abba Kovner wearing the uniform of a soldier of the Jewish Brigade joins a British troop carrier. His destination is Germany. His luggage contains the poison. The Hagana issues his papers; two of their soldiers accompany him. The Hagana, who has been informed about Kovner’s plan, is growing nervous. Nachum Schadmi, Supreme Commander of the Hagana in Europe, sends a courier to Munich. He is ordered to support Kovner’s group, but also detain them. The courier is inculcated to report back regularly on the activities of the group. His name is Dov Shenkal.
Benny Morris, a historian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, believes that the Hagana betrayed Abba Kovner. „The Jewish leadership in Palestine understood already in 1945, before the foundation of the State of Israel, that vengeance towards the Germans would be at least problematic. Not revenge was to dictate Jewish politics, but survival and the foundation of a Jewish state. Friends abroad were more important than dead Germans.“
Instead of fulfilling their revenge fantasies of historical dimensions, the avengers around Abba Kovner found themselves pushed aside. The historian Tom Segev states: „They regarded themselves as messengers of the Jewish people. As soldiers. And they believed that they were obliged to go through with this cleansing process in order to rule off the matter and start a new life. But they stood alone with this position.“
Dov Shenkal remembers: „I came to Munich at the beginning of December. I met Pascha and a further five or six people. They wanted to poison the drinking water of a major German city. Over and over again they pressured me into joining them. They said: ‚Six million Jews were slaughtered!’ I replied: ‚If we kill six million Germans, we become Nazis ourselves.’“
Abba Kovner never reaches Munich. Just before the ship reaches Toulon he is ordered via loudspeakers to report to the captain. When he shows up on deck, he is arrested and held for four months in a British military prison near Cairo. The poison is never found. Did Kovner throw it into the sea?
The members of the group are desperate, when they learn about Kovner’s detention. But they are ready for everything. Pascha Reichmann decides to go for „Tochnet Bet“, Plan B. They need to get arsenic. Now the avengers want to poison thousands of SS members in an American prisoners of war camp. Their goal is the Stalag XIII near Nuremberg.
„I brought them a backpack full of arsenic from Paris in April 1946“, Dov Shenkal admits. „I got the backpack from our Supreme Commander Nachum Schadmi. I don’t know where he got the poison. The amount? It was a heavy backpack, a very heavy backpack.“
On 14th April 1946, Reichmann’s men enter the bakery in Scheifweg No. 27 in Nuremberg, which supplies bread for 16.000 members of the SS in the POW Camp. They cover 3000 loafs of bread with arsenic before they are surprised by the guards. An excerpt from the monthly report of the Nuremburg mayor quotes: „After the break-in into the bakery, the following items were brought to the chemical examination laboratory in Nuremberg: 1 brush, 1 rubber glove, a particle scrubbed off the bakery floor, 1 loaf of bread and a sample of flour. The hair and handle of the brush contained an extremely high amount of arsenic. The rubber glove was covered in arsenic. The stain on the floor turned out to be pure arsenic. The bread contained 0.3 grams of arsenic – an outrageous amount!“
The messenger of the arsenic, Dov Shenkal was ordered by the leadership of the Hagana to make sure that the amount of arsenic used for Plan B would not be lethal. He also admits to have betrayed Abba Kovner to the British. On 23rd April 1946, the New York Times reports that 2000 members of the SS were poisoned. However, no one died. There is no proof that this information was actually correct, given the strict censorship rules of the Allies at that time. As a reward for Shenkal’s betrayal, the British released 5000 Jews from Belgian and French war camps. They were allowed to migrate to Palestine, provided with proper passports, despite the British efforts to otherwise restrict Jewish immigration into their mandatory protectorate Palestine.
Dov Shenkal has at least one pleasant memory of that terrible period: He was allowed to accompany those 5000 Jews to Israel, and when he talks about it, he appears very self-sufficient. Was it alright at that time to have nothing but vengeance in mind? „If I could travel back in time, I would rather do good“, he states. But like Chaim Miller and Olie Giveon, he insists that he has no regrets. He claims: „Our revenge was tiny and almost unimportant in the shadow of the industrialised mass murder.“