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Friday, May 23, 2008

The Avengers: A Jewish War Story

I finished this book a few minutes ago and had to start writing about it immediately. This book was FANTASTIC! Ok, I'll back up and start over ...

My most recent read was The Avengers: A Jewish War Story, by Rich Cohen. It is the true story of three young Jews from Lithuania during and after World War II, two teenage girls - Ruzka and Vitka, and one young man, Abba. These three lived in the Vilna ghetto - along with 80,000 other Jews - and were part of a community of youth called the Young Guard.

Abba became the leader of the Young Guard in the ghetto and from early in the war he encouraged the Jews to fight back against the Germans. He could see that the Germans were trying to get rid of all the Jews, even when those around him could not. Little by little the Vilna ghetto was emptied of its population; thousands upon thousands were taken to the forests and shot, or deported to death camps.

When the ghetto was being liquidated, Abba, Ruzka, and Vitka fled with other members of the Young Guard to the forests and joined the partisan fighters there. Here too they met with hatred; the Russian and Polish partisans hated the Jews almost as much as the Germans did. So they formed their own Jewish Brigade and took on the most dangerous missions they could find.

As the war came to an end, the three worked together to take vengeance on the Germans. They hatched plots to slaughter thousands of German citizens en masse while planning for their future lives in Palestine. Eventually the three made their way - separately - to British-controlled Palestine and took part in the fight to create a Jewish state. Here they fought against yet another foe - this time the Arab world - intent on destroying the Jews. Come on! I mean just how much devastation can one people take?!

I'm a history buff and I like to think that I know a great deal about World War II but I learned SO MUCH from this book! It's given me an entirely new appreciation for the Jews who fought back during the war.

For example, I didn't realize the extent of the anti-Semitism that continued unabated after the war. I was raised in a world in which the Holocaust is a symbol of horrible evil and Jewish people are the ultimate survivors, to be respected at all times. But in the mid-1940s the majority of Europe despised the Jews. Shortly after the war, a riot broke out in a small Polish town. "A million Jewish children had been killed in Poland during the War and now, one year later, the people of Kielce were accusing the survivors of murdering a child." Forty Jews were killed in the riot surrounding this accusation. Many Jews made their way across Europe in an attempt to reach Palestine. On the way, they were often attacked by local peasants merely for being Jews. Former members of the Jewish Partisan Brigade served as guards for these refugees. "But the partisans who stood on either side of the refugees were not the same Jews the peasants had known in the past. These were instead the Jews the War had created, fighters and killers, once-gentle boys who had gone brutal in the forests of the East." The book makes a point of showing the post-war differences between the Jews who fought back and those who went into hiding or survived the camps. There was a hardness and a defiance about the fighters, an unwillingness to give in, that the others just didn't have.

And then, when the Jews finally get to Palestine and - eventually - establish the state of Israel, it's the Arab nations who try to wipe them out! Unbelievable! According to one member of the Arab League, the Arabs promised "a war of extermination and a momentous massacre." Hmm, sounds a whole lot like the Germans to me! My heart was aching for these people ... they made it through the horrors of the War in Europe - the ghettos, the camps, the forests - only to be faced with another war immediately after.

I also didn't know about the plots to avenge all the Jewish deaths by killing millions of Germans. Immediately after the war, while the situation in Germany was still chaotic, members of Abba's team (including Vitka) planned to poison all the inhabitants of several neighborhoods in major German cities. There was a backup plan that involved poisoning Nazi leaders being held as Allied prisoners - and this one did actually happen (in part).

For many Jews, this desire for vengeance was transformed once they reached Palestine. Instead of calling for the murder of Germans, they could begin to "think of revenge with a plow as we once carried automatic weapons and grenades." In other words, they began to LIVE and focus on life - and THAT was their revenge.

Can you tell I really enjoyed this book? It's definitely not a novel; it's told in brief blurbs, jumping from subject to subject, covering each story from various angles. That style works very well in this book. My husband wants to read this next, but as soon as he's done I'm including this in my first book giveaway. It just begs to be read and passed on!

And that was one of the goals of the author (who, by the way, is a relative of Ruzka). According to his comments in the Afterword,
"If the world remembers, then it [the Holocaust] will not happen again. In this way, some people believe, the future is under control .... But ... everyone living will soon be dead - people forget. What happens when the last survivor is gone? ... Right now we are at that key moment when the event moves from the recent past into history. Maybe that is why Abba, Vitka and Ruzka's story is so important. It proves that you can fight, no matter what people remember or forget. ... if you struggle, then win or lose, you win. ... One message of his [Abba's] story is this - whose who fought often survived."
I'll leave you with some quotes from the book that really caught me ...
Ruzka: "The War was strange that way - it took everything you had and gave back something in return."
During a secret meeting in the ghetto, the Jews could hear the Germans singing a Nazi anthem calling for Jewish blood. In reply, they began singing a Zionist song about enduring through the pain and keeping a spark of hope. "And the two songs ran together, words and melodies flowing through the wall, until it was one song, a single lyric blazing into the future."
"I am Anton Schmidt," said the [German] officer, "of the accursed German army." This was Abba's first meeting with the German office who would help him smuggle Jews from the ghetto.
Abba's last memory of his mother, as he left her behind in his escape from the ghetto: "In a voice Abba could barely hear, she said: 'What will become of me?'"
Crawling through the small, foul-smelling sewers on hands and knees in the pitch-blackness for hours: "At such times, the fighters were so close together they were like one being, each shiver moving from body to body. ... 'What's happening up there?' Ruzka whispered [after not moving for quite a while]. 'The boy is still passed out. Maybe he is dead.'"
Vitka: "In war, many things are acceptable.... You kill and there seem to be no consequences; but there are consequences - they just come after."
And finally,
"After a war in which the Jews were starved and degraded, in which millions of them were killed in factories, this ragged group, led by a fanatic named [Abba] Kovner, fought on. Their mere existence was their victory. More than anything, they left the legend of their struggle, a way to look back at history and say, 'Here there was a fight.'"


Nan - said...

Whew! What a great review of what sounds like a great book. I'm going to pass it along to my husband who teaches the Holocaust to his junior high students. It is so good this story has been written.

Heather Johnson said...

Nan - that's GREAT! As you can tell, I really loved this book. I've read about the Holocaust for years but there is just so much that I never knew. I'm sure your husband will find it fascinating.

Jenny said...

Heather, thanks for such a thoughtful post -- I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, so the subject is deeply personal to me. I haven't read this book, and can't wait to do so!

Heather Johnson said...

Jenny - thanks for stopping in. I sure hope that you (or someone) has written down the story of your grandparents survival. They are truly a treasure for the world.

When you do read this book, please link me up to your review!

Laura said...


What a great review. I wish I had the time, energy and focus to read more than trash.

Amanda said...

That's it...I'm sold. I'm reading this :)

Anna said...

I'm going to read this book based on your review. It sounds like an interesting read.

--Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

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