Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Issue of Revenge

     When it came right down to it, the practical thing to do was not so much about taking revenge upon Germans responsible for murdering and torturing Jews but caring for and organizing the survivors for resettlement to what was then Palestine. This was the primary task of what was left of the Jewish Fighting Organization in Warsaw at the end of the German occupation of Poland in 1945. Revenge was on the agenda but was not the main issue. For others, it was the most important thing.

Yitzhak Zuckerman

     "As for "Revenge", that subject kept me awake nights," stated Yitzhak Zuckerman in his memoir, A Surplus of Memory, "especially since, later, they came and asked me to lead "Revenge". But my notion of revenge wasn't theirs (some of the former Jewish partisans). I was "dying for revenge," but I was remote from their idea, which bordered on madness. Could you annihilate a German nation of sixty million? And if you did kill a thousand Germans, would that make you sleep better?

  "Could you think you had taken revenge for your nation? The issue kept pestering me, and even in Israel I couldn't get rid of it-but I realized that their method was wrong. If I had devoted myself to revenge, I would have done it in good conscience and with full responsibility. My argument was that it couldn't be done by separating functions, separating forces. He who builds, educates and shapes a force is also the one who devotes himself, partially, to the issue of revenge. For the emotional hygiene of those people (other partisans who lived for revenge), they should have been occupied with other things. In fact, they were given to dreams and visions for months, without relief, and without communication."    
     Zuckerman states that, as far as he was concerned, it was far more pressing to attend to the many Jews who were wandering around Poland after having been liberated from camps such as Treblinka, Auschwitz, Maidanek, and Sobibor or who returned from the Soviet Union. The often shattered survivors needed immediate attention and care and it was people like Zuckerman and his wife, Zivia Lubetkin, along with the few other Jewish fighters from the Warsaw Ghetto who remained to address their needs. They also had to rebuild Jewish youth groups for ultimate transport and resettlement-legally or illegally-in Eretz Israel (The State of Israel hadn't been born until 1948). Zuckerman was convinced that Jews had no future in Poland but rather should leave for Palestine. Instead of leaving for Palestine themselves, he and Zivia felt obliged to continue the movement they had built with others, growing the youth organizations and establishing bases in Eastern Europe to gather the remnants of the Holocaust for ultimate transport to Palestine. Zuckerman writes that his priority and major responsibility was organizing for the eventual exodus. Thus again he became a central figure for resettling Jews in Palestine as he was prior to the 1939 German invasion.
     Zuckerman was critical of the Jewish Avenger movement which formed under Abba Kovner (1918-87) a few months after the war and claimed their priorities were misplaced. He was against what he saw as a movement to kill Germans indiscriminately. 
Abba Kovner
  Holocaust Research Project

     Partisan leader in the forests and, previously, a commander of the Vilna Ghetto resistance, the first major Jewish revolt against the Germans, Kovner read the following proclamation before 150 people at a ghetto soup kitchen on New Year's Eve, 1941:

Jewish youth!

Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Out of the eighty thousand Jews in the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" only twenty thousand are left. . . . Ponar [Ponary] is not a concentration camp. They have all been shot there. Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe, and the Jews of Lithuania have been chosen as the first in line. We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!
 (Michael Berenbaum, Witness to the Holocaust, Harper
 Collins, 154)

Lithuanian Nazi policeman with captured Vilna Jews,
from Wikepedia Commons
 Abba Kovner remained with the Avengers until 1946, according to an undated article by Gad Narshon in the Jewish Post of New York. The article states: "At the end, because of many reasons, Kovner himself felt that he cannot accomplish his mission. It was already 1946 and things became harder to challenge. Kovner gave up but his partisans were so disappointed that they called him a traitor. Some of them went back to Germany and even were arrested over there by the new German police. Kovner, like a good member of his movement Hashomer Hatzir, essentially agreed to forget the mission and join the Givati Brigade in order to fight the Arabs who tried to destroy the new state of Israel which was born on May 14, 1948..."
     According to Zuckerman's memoir, Kovner's followers later asked him to head their revenge movement.
     In A Surplus of Memory, Zuckerman appears to be ambivalent-perhaps envious even-about Kovner's role in the Vilna resistance and later in the Vilna forests as partisan leader. "Abba Kovner was extraordinarily influential," Zuckerman states (630), "the life blood of Revenge. Of course he was an outstanding poet. But if I had to choose a commander for the Jews of Vilna, I'm not sure I would have chosen a poet for that job. In my opinion the commander could even have been a shoemaker. The quality of a poet or even the talent to compose a rousing proclamation wasn't necessarily the most important quality of a commander of the ghetto in such times." 
     Zuckerman claimed that the Avengers were blinded to the real demands and responsibilities of the times and instead focused on "dreams", "visions" and "mysticism." He continues, "As for that group, which was gripped by revenge, they were considerably influenced by their physical location. Those who stayed in Poland-in Lodz, Warsaw, Czestochowa-saw the destruction, the masses of Jews coming; and if they weren't corrupted, if they had a spark of humanity, they had to assist in the organization, clothing, consolation. But if you were in tranquil Bucharest, unemployed, with no real opportunity to emigrate to Eretz Israel, getting up in the morning, eating handouts, and talking endlessly, remote from Jewish reality-it's different.
     "By staying in Bucharest, they could cut themselves off from death lurking every day, from Jews returning from the camps, from Jews coming back from the east, from the whole Jewish existence of those days. The Romanian group, with its mysticism, is reminiscent of other periods in Jewish history. The war ended with a period like that of Shabbetai Zvi, of messianic yearning. Young Jews were gripped by every glimmer of faith. And here were walking skeletons, depressed and mournful people, inspired with the breath of life only by the Movement (apparently his Halutz movement). They didn't care about a few dozen "messiahs." They simply had to be lifted out of the dust."
    Zuckerman stated that he was against the killing of "every German indiscriminately. I don't hate every German; but I have to know who the person is..."
    In the end it appears that Zuckerman and Kovner may have had more in common than not. Both ended up in Israel fighting in their different styles for the new Jewish state.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a comment: