Mar 2001 Journal

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Fighters and visionaries

Rich Cohen, THE AVENGERS, Jonathan Cape, 2000

Rich Cohen's new book pays tribute to the Jewish resistance fighters whose contribution to the defeat of the Nazis has been insufficiently recognised. In the Rudnicki forest near Vilna where Jewish partisans had their base, he remarks: “A plaque identifies these dugouts as the home of Communists who fought the

Fascists. The Jews have been written out of history.” Behind his account of exploits of a courage born equally of vision and desperation is a determination to make an imprint on posterity.

Cohen's acquaintance with `The Avengers', or at least the three main protagonists, Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczac, the latter a cousin of his father's, gives the book a personal edge. He first met them as a boy of ten in 1977 and over the years heard sketches of deeds and happenings he felt compelled to bring to life. His extensively researched narrative is rich in action and moral purpose. The three young Jews from Poland and their associates formed a branch of the Zionist ‘Young Guard’ in the Vilna ghetto. The tall, slender Vitka led the group of underground fighters who blew up a German train, the first act of sabotage in occupied Europe. Her counterpart, the petite, dark-haired Ruzka became invaluable as an emissary and was sent to mandated Palestine to inform the Jews living there of the catastrophe in Europe. In the background was the frontman, Abba, a visionary and strategist consumed with a mission to resist and avenge.

More fascinating, perhaps, than Cohen's ably reconstructed landscape of struggle, breathtaking escapes, devastation and survival are conflicting moral perspectives that emanate from the attitudes and actions of various personalities. Ghetto leader Jacob Gens perceived the ghetto as a microcosm of the Jewish people; to preserve it any compromise with the German authorities seemed preferable to armed insurgence and certain death. David Ben Gurion, seemingly indifferent to the fate of the Jews in Europe, was single-minded in his objective of establishing a Jewish state.

Abba's plan to revenge the life of countless Jews by striking at random into the heart of Germany raises not only moral questions but calls into consideration the purpose of life itself. It is Meir Ya'ari, leader of The Young Guard in Palestine, who tells him: “You will never give up the war.... Please allow us to teach you how to live a life we can give to our children.” The moment of transformation when, in an Egyptian prison, Abba can focus for the first time on the future rather than the past, is particularly moving.
Emma Klein

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