TEL AVIV (AP) — Holocaust survivor Joseph Harmatz, who led the most daring attempt by Jews to seek revenge against their former Nazi tormentors, has died. He was 91.
His son, Ronel Harmatz, confirmed the death Monday.
Harmatz was one of the few remaining Jewish “Avengers” who carried out a mass poisoning of former SS officers in an American prisoner-of-war camp in 1946 that sickened more than 2,200 Germans, but caused no known deaths. Still, the message echoed into a rallying cry for the newborn state of Israel — that the days when attacks on Jews went unanswered were over.
Harmatz, who was born in Lithuania and lost most of his family in the Holocaust, spoke to The Associated Press shortly before his death and remained unapologetic for his actions and those of his group Nakam, Hebrew for vengeance.
“We didn’t understand why it shouldn’t be paid back,” he said.
Despite a visceral desire for vengeance, most Holocaust survivors were too weary or devastated to seriously consider it, after their world was shattered and six million Jews killed during World War II. For most, merely rebuilding their lives and starting new families was revenge enough against a Nazi regime that aimed to destroy them. For others, physical retribution ran counter to Jewish morals and traditions. For even more, the whole concept of reprisals seemed pointless given the sheer scope of the genocide.
But a group of some 50, most young men and women who had already fought in the resistance, could not let the crimes go unpunished and actively sought to exact at least a small measure of revenge. The Nuremberg trials were prosecuting some top Nazis, but the Jewish people had no formal representative. There was a deep sense of justice denied, as the vast majority of Nazis immersed themselves back into a post-war Germany that was being rebuilt by the Americans’ Marshall plan.
The group set out with a simple mission.
“Kill Germans,” Harmatz said flatly.
“As many as possible,” he quickly replied.
After discarding their initial plan to poison the water supply of the entire city of Nuremberg the group attempted to carry out Plan B, a more limited operation that specifically targeted the worst Nazi perpetrators. Undercover members of the group found work at a bakery that supplied the Stalag 13 POW camp at Langwasser, near Nuremberg, and waited for their chance to strike the thousands of SS men the Americans held there.
It came on April 13, 1946. Using poison procured from one of Kovner’s associates, three members spent two hours coating some 3,000 loaves of bread with arsenic, divided into four portions. The goal was to kill 12,000 SS personnel, and Harmatz oversaw the operation from outside the bakery.
According to previously classified files from the US military’s Counter Intelligence Corps, which investigated the 1946 incident and which the Nuremberg prosecutors did not have access to, the amount of arsenic used should have been enough to cause a massive number of deaths. The files were obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Archives.
To this day, it remains a mystery why the poison failed to kill Nazis. The prevailing theory is that the plotters in their haste spread the poison too thinly. Another is that the Nazi prisoners immediately sensed something was off with the bread and therefore no one ingested enough of it to die.
After the war, Harmatz worked at the Jewish Agency and was director general of World ORT, a Jewish educational organization.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.