Amid the ruins of Bucharest in Romania, a group of partisans gathered in secret — a battle-hardened, sinewy crew who had made a daring escape through sewers from the Vilna Ghetto in Vilnius, Lithuania, then spent two years attacking German forces from the forests of Eastern Europe. This would be a Passover celebration like no other.
The audacious plan they hatched that night would stay secret for decades.
They would call themselves the Nokmim, Hebrew for ‘Avengers’.
Taking inspiration from Psalm 94 — ‘He will repay them for their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness’ — these young men and women, most in their early 20s, vowed revenge on their enemies.
Their goal was to kill six million Germans, one for every Jew who had perished in the horror of the concentration camps.
‘The idea was to cause mass murder of men, women and children. Everyone. Like a biblical plague,’ said one later.
The group’s weapon of choice would be mass poisoning, first of the water supply serving thousands of German civilians, followed by contamination of food for imprisoned SS officers.
Both ideas sound fantastical in retrospect, but the Nokmim’s ingenious schemes came within a hair’s breadth of success.
Revenge squad Nokmim, Hebrew for ‘Avengers’, hatched a plan to kill six million Germans, one for every Jew who perished in the concentration camps. Pictured: Children at Auschwitz
Their leader, Abba Kovner, was a charismatic writer and thinker who would go on to become Israel’s greatest poet, holder of the Israel Prize, the state’s highest cultural honour.
The Nokmim’s intent — Nakam, or ‘Revenge’ — is a little-known part of the Holocaust story, rarely spoken of outside academic circles.
Indeed, Kovner’s group took a vow of silence which was not broken until the mid-1980s. Even then, information about their membership and plan was kept under wraps.
Now, Kovner and his irregulars are about to take centre stage as the inspiration for Plan A, a new thriller film released in Britain this weekend.
It is a fictionalised version of the Nokmim’s plan to poison the water supply in five German cities, and stars August Diehl, who played a Gestapo major in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Israeli writer-directors Yoav and Doron Paz happened upon the story of the Nokmim after a friend told them that his grandfather, before starting a new life in Israel, had sought out and killed the man who had denounced his family to the Nazis.
The man concerned had moved into the family home in Eastern Europe when they were sent to the death camps.
‘This aspect of personal revenge really blew our minds,’ Doron, 42, said last week. ‘We were amazed, as we had never come across these revenge stories. They are not part of the educational system here in Israel.’
Few who encountered Kovner as a literary elder statesman, living at the beautiful Ein HaHoresh kibbutz in central Israel — described as being ‘like a garden from which many artists in the fields of painting, writing, music and acting have emerged’ (and which, bizarrely, has a pub named after Kovner) — would have guessed at his malevolently violent past.
But along with his comrades, he was half-maddened by years of destruction, cruelty and loss. There had been 80,000 Jews in his home city of Vilnius when he was growing up. After the war, just a handful survived.
‘It affected him deeply. It turned his world upside down,’ his son, Michael Kovner, an acclaimed landscape painter, has said. ‘He was a man on the edge of madness. The fire was burning in his bones.’
Although the end of the war was in sight by the time of that Passover meeting in Bucharest in April 1945, Kovner did not believe an Allied victory would mean Jews were safe. Only retribution would show the world that people could not attack Jews with impunity.
‘The act should be shocking,’ he said. ‘The Germans should know that after Auschwitz there can be no return to normality.’
Soon afterwards, the group began to move into place. The original plan — to hit five cities, including Munich and Frankfurt — was narrowed down to Nuremberg because it had been the stronghold of the Nazi party.
Their leader, Abba Kovner (pictured), was a charismatic writer and thinker who would go on to become Israel’s greatest poet, holder of the Israel Prize, the state’s highest cultural honour
The Nokmim financed its operations by buying British £5 notes that had been forged in the concentration camps at the Nazis’ behest, selling them on the black market in Italy and pocketing the difference.
By paying bribes, Kovner’s right-hand man, Joseph Harmatz, managed to get a Polish engineer a job with the water company.
Together, they studied a plan of the Nuremberg water system and the main control valve, working out where to place the poison so as to kill the largest number of people.
Meanwhile, Kovner set off to Palestine —then a British mandate — to acquire the poison.
After several false starts, he was introduced to sympathisers (including the Katzir brothers, one of whom was later Israel’s fourth president) who persuaded the head of chemical storage at The Hebrew University to give Kovner a suitable poison.
The Katzirs later said they believed the poison was to be used against war criminals, not indiscriminately against civilians.
In December 1945, Kovner set sail for France, carrying a duffel bag with gold stuffed into toothpaste tubes and the poison in cans made to look as if they contained condensed milk.
During the voyage, Kovner and three others were called over the public address system. Rightly fearing that he was going to be arrested, he threw the poison overboard.
In the event, he was questioned not about poison but on suspicion of helping to smuggle Jews to Palestine.
With Kovner out of the picture, the Nokmim changed to Plan B. This time, instead of targeting civilians, they would concentrate their efforts on Nazi prisoners of war.
The American-run prison camp Stalag XIII-D, on the old Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg, was an ideal target, as it was packed with more than 12,000 former SS officers and prominent Nazis.
Another of Kovner’s colleagues, Leipke Distel, a fellow survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, took the lead, posing as a displaced Pole who had worked in his uncle’s bakery.
He managed to get a job with the local baker by bribing him with cigarettes and alcohol and offering to work for free.
The Nuremberg cell did not want to risk poisoning American guards, so they decided to strike on a Sunday, when the prisoners ate black bread but the guards were supplied with white bread.
Over several days, Distel smuggled bottles of arsenic into the bakery, hiding it under the floorboards. On a Saturday night in April 1946, he and two accomplices painted the bottom of 3,000 loaves of bread with a mixture of arsenic and glue.
Each loaf would be divided into four, so it should be enough to poison every Nazi in the place.
Rachel Glicksman, a fighter who had been at school with Kovner, was sent to observe the result.
Now, Kovner and his irregulars are about to take centre stage as the inspiration for Plan A (pictured), a new thriller film released in Britain this weekend
At the camp, she stood among anxious prisoners’ wives who had heard that some sort of incident had occurred and saw prisoners being transferred to an ambulance.
‘I was happy. I thought we had succeeded,’ she said later.
But again, the Nokmim were unsuccessful. Even now, no one understands why. Harmatz later claimed that more than 300 prisoners died. Some SS men were certainly made ‘seriously ill’ from the food poisoning, but how many — if any — died was never verified.
A classified file from the U.S. military’s counter-intelligence corps, discovered under a Freedom Of Information request lodged by Associated Press in the 1990s, revealed that investigators had found enough arsenic in the bakery to kill 60,000 people.
What seems likely is that either the plotters spread the poison too thinly, or the prisoners sensed that something was amiss and ate too little for the poison to be fatal.
The Nokmim also took part in targeted assassinations, but eventually disbanded, its members directing their energy towards building the newly formed state of Israel.
No one said a word about what had happened until 1985, when Kovner was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Facing death, the poet gathered his former comrades together in an apartment in the Tel Aviv suburbs so they could record their wartime exploits for posterity.
The resulting conversation, on a reel-to-reel tape, was then given to a museum, where it was placed in a vault.
The film, Plan A, is based on a book by Dina Porat, chief historian of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem. She had access to the Hebrew transcript.
She tells the Mail that, although she cannot condone the Nokmim’s intentions, its aims have to be seen as part of a wider clamour for justice as the war came to an end.
‘It wasn’t only the Jewish people. All [the people of] Europe who had been under the Nazi yoke were obsessed with revenge,’ she says.
‘The Jewish Brigade, a unit of the British Army, executed 100 to 150 Nazi collaborators and criminals. The difference with the Nokmim was that they did not want to execute or punish based on identifying the person responsible.
‘This group did not want to kill at night in a forest or in a closed apartment. They wanted the world to know that Jewish history had known enough suffering.
‘From now on, anyone who harboured ideas of harming Jews would see that six million Germans had paid with their lives. They saw it as a call for justice on the largest possible scale.’
Now, Kovner and his irregulars are about to take centre stage as the inspiration for Plan A, a thriller film released in Britain this weekend. Pictured: Children at Auschwitz in 1945
The urge to strike back after the horrors of the concentration camps is easy to understand. In his book Living With The Enemy, Freddie Knoller, an inmate at Bergen-Belsen, recalls how he was sent to collect food from local farms a few days after the camp was liberated, accompanied by a British soldier.
In one farmhouse kitchen he found sugar, flour and tins of vegetables. A large portrait of Hitler was hidden behind a cupboard. Knoller found a kitchen knife and slashed it.
‘The farmer spat at me and shouted ‘Du sau Jud’ (‘You dirty Jew’). A rage such as I have never experienced seized me and I pushed the knife into his stomach,’ writes Knoller, now 100 years old and living in North London.
Knoller never knew how badly he had injured the farmer. A week later he was assigned on a transport to France, then made his way to Britain.
There were hundreds — probably thousands — of such spontaneous acts of violence as the camps were liberated and the true horror of the Holocaust emerged.
Many assassinations were carried out, some by Kovner’s group, others by the Jewish Brigade. Former Nazis were found dead by the roadside, apparently victims of hit-and-run drivers. Some were discovered strangled, others hanged in ‘surprise’ suicides.
The Avengers tracked former Nazis across Europe and beyond.
The Nokmim found Aleksander Laak, who was responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Jews in Jagala, an Estonian concentration camp, living in the suburbs of Winnipeg, Canada.
When Laak’s wife went to the cinema, they confronted him — then let him take his own life by hanging himself in his garage.
Chaim Miller, a member of the Nokmim, admitted abducting a suspected Nazi officer in Austria in June 1945 and driving him to Italy, where he faced a kangaroo court convened in woodland.
‘One shot and that was it,’ Miller said.
Kovner saw the justice in these individual acts, but wanted something bigger, something more spectacular: an act that would show the Nokmim meant business and stop attacks on Jews for ever.
Something that would ‘put the full stop on the sentence,’ as Dina Porat says.
But while some of the Nokmim regretted not killing more Germans for the rest of their days, most came to see an intention to kill civilians as an appalling aberration.
‘Years later, I couldn’t understand how I could think like that,’ said Nokmim member Hasia Warshawski. ‘Only crazy people can think such things. But we were crazy then.’
PLAN A is available to watch on streaming services including Amazon, Sky, iTunes and Google; and on DVD from September 13.