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The Avengers: A Jewish War Story [Hardcover]

Rich Cohen
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 19 2000
In 1944, a band of Jewish guerrillas emerged from the Baltic forest to join the Russian army in its attack on Vilna, the capital of Lithuania. The band, called the Avengers, was led by Abba Kovner, a charismatic young poet. In the ghetto, Abba had built bombs, sneaking out through the city's sewer tunnels to sabotage German outposts. Abba's chief lieutenants were two teenage girls, Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczak. At seventeen, Vitka and Ruzka were perhaps the most daring partisans in the East, the first to blow up a Nazi train in occupied Europe. Each night, the girls shared a bed with Abba, raising gossip in the ghetto. But what they found was more than temporary solace. It was a great love affair. After the liquidation of the ghetto, the Avengers escaped through the city's sewage tunnels to the forest, where they lived for more than a year in a dugout beside a swamp, fighting alongside other partisan groups, and ultimately bombing the city they loved, destroying Vilna's waterworks and its powerplant in order to pave the way for its liberation.

Leaving a devastated Poland behind them, they set off for the cities of Europe: Vitka and Abba to the West, where they would be instrumental in orchestrating the massive Jewish exodus to the biblical homeland, and Ruzka to Palestine, where she would be literally the first person to bring a first hand account of the Holocaust to Jewish leaders. It was in these last terrifying days--with travel in Europe still unsafe for Jews and the extent of the Holocaust still not widely known--that the Avengers hatched their plan for revenge. Before it was over, the group would have smuggled enough poison into Nuremberg to kill ten thousand Nazis. The Avengers is the story of what happened to these rebels in the ghetto and in the forest, and how, fighting for the State of Israel, they moved beyond the violence of the Holocaust and made new lives.

From Rich Cohen, one of the preeminent journalists of his generation and author of the highly praised Tough Jews, a powerful exploration of vindication and revenge, of dignity and rebellion, painstakingly recreated through his exclusive access to the Avengers themselves. Written with insight, sensitivity, and the moral force of one of the last great struggles of the Second World War, here is an unforgettable story for our time.

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From Amazon

Rich Cohen, author of Tough Jews, has written what he calls "a Holocaust story without a concentration camp" about Jewish resistance fighters during World War II. The Avengers: A Jewish War Story describes how three young Jews--Cohen's cousin Ruzka Korczak, her friend Abba Kovner, and Kovner's future wife Vitka Klemperer--created an armed, underground movement behind the German lines in Poland with the goal of sabotaging the Nazis and helping the Russians advance. Cohen reports that Kovner described the group's dilemma this way: "If we act cowardly, we die; if we act courageously, we die. So we might as well act courageously." The group's fighting outlasted the war to exact revenge on the Nazis held in Nuremberg and finally to fight for Israel in the 1948 War for Independence. Researching The Avengers, Cohen spent time with the surviving resistance fighters in Israel and in Eastern Europe. The result is a deeply personal and impassioned defense of a movement that some readers will view with pride and others will condemn as vigilantism. This book, like Tough Jews, is a lively, intelligent, and heartfelt work of Jewish history. --Michael Joseph Gross

From Publishers Weekly

As a child visiting an Israeli kibbutz on a family vacation, Cohen met a relative who had survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Israel. Slight and gray-haired, Ruzka looked a lot like Cohen's grandmother, but her stories introduced him to a little-known, remarkable group of Jews: the Avengers, who fought Nazis in the gloomy forests of Eastern Europe and later battled for Israel's independence. As Cohen notes, these "were the kind of people who inspired Joseph Goebbels to write in his diary, 'One sees what the Jews can do when they are armed.'" An ardent Zionist, Ruzka left her home in Poland in 1939, as German troops were occupying the country, and made her way to Vilna, Lithuania, where she hoped to find passage to Palestine. Arrested as an "illegal immigrant" upon her arrival, she was released through the efforts of a Zionist youth group who gave her shelter in their headquarters. There, Ruzka met Vitka Kempner, another young girl on her own, and Abba Kovner, a charismatic young man whose steadfast belief in resistance and canny strategies inspired the Avengers. In period-perfect detail, Cohen portrays scenes of ghetto life in Vilna, the efforts of a Jewish leader who thought he could help his people by collaborating with the Germans and, above all, the riveting story of the Avengers' escape from the ghetto, their acceptance of a renegade German officer who hated his army and their eventual emigration to Palestine. Cohen (Tough Jews: Father, Sons and Gangster Dreams) delivers a compelling story that not only amplifies the accepted version of Jewish experience in the Second World War, but also provides a terrific narrative of courage and tenacity. Photographs. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-written and fresh; has soul and immediacy June 2 2003
No doubt Rich Cohen felt the spirit of his late cousin moving through him as he related the story of her and her two close friends' experiences as Jewish partisans during World War II. In a world where Jewish people were antagonized, persecuted, and slaughtered in mass numbers by a dominant force of Nazi supporters who wanted to see all Jews dead, the three partisans endure seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their struggle for survival and fight for ultimate dignity and perseverance against their oppressors. Cohen captures all of this with the stung but valiant voice of a generation that was nearly lost to fascism and genocide, but held out and thrived.
The partisans' story begins like that of so many Holocaust victims who find that their rights are gradually being dismantled by the Nazi order that has overtaken their countries; and ends in Palestine immediately following the war, where, having lost families and friends, the three partisans rebuild their lives from scratch on the hot sands of what is to become Israel. Their story is painful at times, victorious at others, but always wrought with the tension of being one frantic step ahead of the Nazi enemy.
Cohen relates his cousin's story honestly--although he clearly regards his cousin and her friends as courageous and admirable, he does not portray the partisans as being perfect. In The Avengers, the partisans' world is filled with infighting, corruption, and another type of politics in which executions take place for partisans who don't toe the line of the commander in charge. His suggestions that his cousin and her two friends might have been a "love triangle" are a little salacious and tedious, but overall, the book is excellent and shouldn't be missed for anyone wanting to learn more about this much-ignored part of Jewish history during World War II.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent! March 6 2002
By Jay
This is an important story to tell. For all who continue to believe that the Jews didn't fight back during the Holocaust, I say, give them this book and tell them to read it to the end before commenting.
One interesting point that is also made is that there were so many who believed that if they allowed just one more indignity, their lives would be spared. But there was no bottom to that barrel, and they went from having some rights taken away, to living in a ghetto, to having to select people for transport, etc. Yes, there were many who didn't fight back, and this is, too, their story. How do people behave when civilization crumbles? In the clear lens of hindsight, we might all say, "Oh, I would fight back. I would run. I would hide. I wouldn't let them get me." But if you were there, perhaps you would be one of those who thought - just one more indignity will satisfy our tormentors. The book does not demonize those people, for they, too, are a part of what happened.
A truly powerful work. I look forward to other works by this author.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Out of the ashes Jan. 7 2002
I was drawn to this book by the story of Abba Kovner--a Vilna native, a partisan and a poet. Although Cohen's writing is fine, it offers little poetic value. But like other readers, I could not put the book down.
This novel-like non-fiction offers many layers. The book opens with the author's discovery of his family and roots in Israel. Cohen's grandmother--one of nine siblings in Plosk, Poland--immigrated to America in 1920. The family intended for everyone to follow, but like so many poor Eastern European Jews, ran out of money. No one else was able to leave.
Several years after World War II, Cohen's grandmother learned from a former Polish neighbor that nearly every Jew in Plosk had perished. But her eldest brother's daughter, Ruzka Korczak, had survived as a partisan in the forests near Vilna, fighting with Abba Kovner and Vitka Kempner. She was the only member of the family in Poland who survived.
The book swiftly transports readers to the Vilna ghetto and a tale of survival and great courage. Shortly after Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact and German divisions flooded her area and town, Ruzka determined to move to Warsaw, where she hoped to meet the Zionist Youth Guard, HaShomer HaTza'ir. She planned to return to Plosk a few months later, when things calmed down. About 10 miles outside Warsaw, with the city in flames, she ran into a friend who told her HaShomir had moved to Vilna, in the Russian zone. She traveled three weeks to reach Bialystok and then crossed at night into Vilna, where shortly afterwards she met Vitka Kempner and Abba Kovner.
At that time, 200,000 people lived in Vilna, a third of them Jewish.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An admission April 23 2001
Okay, I admit it. There is nothing scholarly about me. I find the books by Stephen Ambrose and other historians compelling in concept, but I end up skipping pages that recount the mundane details of matters past and now largely irrelevant. It is not without guilt or shame that I make these admissions, because no one is more aware of the skill and adeptness of those who retell what has transpired in the past. I WISH I loved to read it all. That much said, I will tell you that The Avengers kept me up, kept my attention, kept me engaged. Perhaps the fact that I read this book on an extended journey to Romania, and some of the action was in Bucharest made me more receptive, but I think it was the superb writing and storytelling of Mr. Cohen. He fooled me into thinking I was reading a novel of romance and intrigue, and only the photographs and documents provided brought the reality of this story back.
Cohen begins by talking about his relatives in Israel and the gradual unearthing of the story of an extraordinary group of militant young Jews who populated and led the resistance during the horrors of WW2. The courage and grit of these individuals, the occupation of the forest, the young women circulating as gentiles through the city, and the relationship between and amongst them is carefully documented and recounted, as is the ultimate reunification of the three central characters in Palestine. Neither glamorizing the role each played, nor downplaying their courage, Cohen tells a story that must be told, giving us, perhaps, role models for our young people who look back at the holocaust and see only the horror of helplessness and the seeming passivity of those who marched into cattle cars to their own death. These were Jews who fought in mind, body and spirit.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Captivating
Cohen kept this reader captivated . He is an excellent writer. I enjoy books that are narrated without a lot of dialogue . Read more
Published 7 months ago by Theresa
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most engaging and horrifying books I have read
The Avengers follows the life of Abba Kovner and his associates, through the horror of Nazism through attempts at revenge, and to a life in Palestine. Read more
Published on July 14 2004 by je
5.0 out of 5 stars Is it Resistance or Terrorism?
Cohen's story is brilliant and courageous in the way it forces the Reader to acknowledge their hypocracies with regard to terrorism. Read more
Published on Nov. 16 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars Kids who raged, "We won't go like lambs to slaughter!"
I'm a slower reader. I get bored by a lot of books but this was impossible to put down. Rich Cohen covers the pivotal story of young people confronted with outrageous injustice. Read more
Published on Feb. 7 2003 by toothygrin
5.0 out of 5 stars The Avengers
I picked this book up after watch "UPRISING" the mini-series. I can't tell you what a compelling and interesting story this is!!! I fell in love with the main characters. Read more
Published on Feb. 1 2002 by Sandra M. Pollack
5.0 out of 5 stars Fatalism of percevearance.
How do you react to people who see their own impending death?
The people in this book can clearly see their impending doom. Read more
Published on Nov. 14 2001
4.0 out of 5 stars A side not seen.
Cohen's story of the Jewish resistance fighters presents a side of the Jews in WWII not often seen. The story chronicles the resistance beginning in Vilna and follows it all the... Read more
Published on Aug. 15 2001 by "prbrock"
5.0 out of 5 stars Another success by a superb young writer
This is an amazing story about an amazing group of people. The story of Abba, Vitka, Ruszka and their comrades opened my eyes to a world that not enough has been written about. Read more
Published on Aug. 13 2001 by "dave in milwaukee"
5.0 out of 5 stars Forged in Fury
If you liked this book, you should also read "Forged in Fury" by Michael Elkins. It deals with a similar subject matter but more broadly deals with Jewish resistence... Read more
Published on April 27 2001 by MOT33
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