2017-07-12
The Avengers: A Jewish War Story
By Rich Cohen
Knopf, $25, 261 pp.

The proper punishment for war criminals and mass murderers--chief among them the Nazis--is a question that has perplexed world leaders and Holocaust survivors, historians, and philosophers. Even the execution of a monster like Adolf Eichmann, administered through careful judicial mechanisms within a liberal democracy, occasioned one of the century's great moral debates.

"The Avengers"--a tale of a band of Lithuanian Jews who set about murdering Nazis after successfully defending themselves during the war--shows no hint of interest in tackling such dilemmas. Its author, Rich Cohen, identifies himself, preposterously, as "one of the preeminent journalists of his generation"--apparently because he "recently co-wrote a film script with Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger." As you might suspect of a man who brandishes such a credential in a Holocaust story, Cohen's book drips with glassy-eyed hero worship and an alarming absence of moral reasoning.

The drama here never rises above the ominous knock-at-the-door variety: "In the evening, there was a knock on the door. Two soldiers told Vitka to gather her things," writes Cohen. This sort of creative-writing-class effect reduces lived experience to a prefabricated and rotely comprehended fragment. How did winter feel in rural Poland? "They slept side by side in one another's warmth or by a roaring fire, shadows flickering." Cohen's floorboards always creak under heavy boots. Jewish underdogs always take heart from rugged leaders.

"The Avengers" has all the moral complexity of a Sylvester Stallone script. Cohen recounts the story of Abba Kovner, a homely, bedraggled Lithuanian Jew who marshals his kinsmen to fight the Nazis rather than acquiesce in their own death. The bulk of the book retells the history of their guerrilla warfare in the European forests, as Kovner's small army resourcefully raided weapons, ambushed soldiers, and exploded enemy facilities. Cohen serves as their adoring chronicler, making sure at every turn that we note their bravery, instead of letting their manifest courage speak for itself.

The book's selling point is its account of the war's chaotic, disorienting aftermath, in which Kovner enlists several fellow fighters in a plot to murder Nazis in cold blood. As inventive as any spy thriller, Kovner's schemes involved such baroque maneuvers as the secret acquisition of cyanide and a break-in into a Nuremberg bakery to poison loaves of bread meant for a corps of arrested Einsatzgruppen officers. They make for a jaw-dropping read.

Unfortunately, these much-awaited episodes constitute too small a portion of the book, and they are overly dependent on other historians' work, especially Tom Segev's "The Seventh Million." Cohen supplements Segev's research with interviews of some of the effort's principals (one of whom was Cohen's first cousin, once removed). But nowhere does he indicate the source of his information--what came from documents, what from 50-year-old memories of aging survivors--and you don't know which parts to believe. When it comes to the subject of the Holocaust, such a cavalier approach to historical sourcing is troublesome, to say the least.

More troubling still is Cohen's attitude toward the revenge plot. Basically, he thinks it's grand. He writes approvingly that Kovner was "not satisfied with the work of international trials and military tribunals or...the courts of West Germany. The Germans, he said, must be killed in the same inhumane, factory-like manner in which they had killed the Jews." And Cohen not only denigrates the Nuremberg prosecutors, who sought to erect a fair, legitimate procedure for meting out justice; he also renders the Zionist leaders who refused to abet Kovner's half-cocked plans (e.g., David Ben-Gurion) as timid, self-serving stooges. Meanwhile, he accepts uncritically Kovner's claim, "No doubt we were taking the action that God himself, were there a God, would have taken."

Cohen concludes: "When I look at a picture of Abba in the forest, his eyes cold and hard, a gun in his hand, I think, 'I can't believe it's a Jew.'" As in "Tough Jews," he suggests that Jews naturally possess a docile nature and that it's a mark of progress that a precious few have transcended their natural wimpiness and learned how to commit extralegal slaughter.

This view is not only ignorant of Jewish history (the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible are one bad-ass conquering tribe), but it also amounts to an endorsement of vigilantism over justice. Most Jews--most sensate human beings--share an urge to kill Nazis. But we don't. And it's not because we're cowards.

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