Max, a German Jew who lost his wife and child in the Holocaust, has gotten a job with the Nuremberg water supply department in the aftermath of World War II. While rebuilding the war-ravaged facilities, he comes across a blueprint of the entire system. Using his artistic skills, he quickly copies it on paper and brings it back to a secret Jewish group that’s plotting a massive act of revenge for the Shoah.
It may sound like a larger-than-life thriller, but this story is actually true — and it’s the subject of a new film, “Plan A,” by Israeli fraternal directors Yoav and Doron Paz.
While Max is a fictional character created for the film, he’s based on Abba Kovner, leader of the underground group Nakam.
The group — whose name means “revenge” or “vengeance” in Hebrew — aimed to poison the water supply in several German cities, including Nuremberg, and kill millions of Germans in retribution for the dead of the Holocaust.
The plan ultimately failed, and Kovner became more famous for his Israel Prize-winning poetry than his plotting. Now, the Paz brothers are retelling the grim narrative of these “avengers” in “Plan A,” which is currently on the festival circuit and streaming online via the Boston Jewish Film Festival through November 21.
“Of course, in today’s [perspective] it was a horrible plan… killing innocent civilians, women and children,” Yoav Paz told The Times of Israel in a joint Zoom conversation with his brother. “For so many years, they kept it a secret. They know how it sounds today, how horrible it sounds.”
A dish served old school
According to Yoav Paz, the members of Nakam “wanted revenge on a biblical scale.”
“Revenge is a subject that is still relevant, unfortunately, today,” Doron Paz said. “And not just in Israel. You can see revenge… reading the news around the world — a vicious cycle of violence, endless violence going on. We want to raise the question about this subject.”
“Our goal in the movie was trying to portray the human side of the revenge,” he said. “A perspective that was not too much the [Quentin] Tarantino kind of revenge, shallow. There’s a lot of depth in revenge. It’s what you were feeling, what the people were feeling, living among Germans killing everyone around them, suffering, all the pain having gone through. This interested us.”
The Paz brothers first came across the subject of revenge in the Holocaust many years ago through the personal account of a friend’s grandfather, who had lost his family in World War II after a man betrayed them to the Nazis. After the war, the grandfather tracked down the man and killed him. Having never previously heard a story of people taking revenge during or after the war, the brothers looked for other such accounts. They learned about Nakam through a book by Prof. Dina Porat, the Alfred P. Slaner Chair for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, as well as the chief historian at Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, Yad Vashem.
The brothers interviewed surviving members of Nakam, although many of them have since died during the years it took to make the film — which Yoav Paz describes as a historical thriller and not a documentary.
“Plan A” tells its story in large part through Max — portrayed by actor August Diehl, whose credits include the Tarantino Holocaust revenge film “Inglourious Basterds.” Initially, Max just wants to find his missing wife and son. He uses his talent for drawing to create an evocative portrait of them that he posts publicly in the hope that someone will recognize them. Max’s character was inspired by Kovner’s background as a former art student. His sensitive artistic skills, Yoav Paz explains, indicate that he is anything but a natural born killer.
However, Max learns that his wife and son have perished. He’s already reeling from finding out that his home is now occupied by a German family, who violently turn him away when he tries to return. Homeless and alone, Max falls in with a friend, and they serendipitously stumble upon the encampment of a unique British army unit — the Jewish Brigade.
The soldiers take in the wanderers and encourage them to go to what was then British Mandate Palestine. Yet Max becomes intrigued by their secret project of taking revenge on Nazi war criminals. He starts helping them with the bloody reprisals, but during one such undertaking, he encounters another group with revenge in mind — Nakam.
“For us, we were really lucky to find in our research that the two groups met on one special night,” Yoav Paz said. “Abba Kovner went to see the Jewish Brigade. He asked them to help with his plan. They refused. They knew his plan was much bigger and darker than their revenge.”
In the film, one member of the Jewish Brigade, Moshe Mishali (Michael Aloni), is particularly horrified by Nakam’s goal and entrusts Max with infiltrating the group and spying on its plans. As Max moves into their safehouse in Nuremberg, his allegiance shifts and he gets to know a member of the group named Anna (Sylvia Hoeks, whose credits include “Blade Runner 2049” and whose character is based on Kovner’s wife Vitka Kempner). Max bonds with Anna after learning that both lost a child to the Holocaust and they develop a romance. With a project to rebuild the bombed-out city underway and the Nuremberg Trials approaching, Anna and Max both land jobs working for the water supply company.
According to the film, Nakam plotted to poison the water supply in five German cities — Nuremberg, Munich, Weimar, Cologne and Hamburg.
“[Nuremberg] had the most advanced cell,” Yoav Paz said. “That’s why we concentrated our film on Nuremberg. There’s the importance of Nuremberg — everything started there, the Nazis, the trials of course. It’s a very symbolic city. It’s why we decided to focus on the Nuremberg cell, people working undercover in the cell, waiting for the poison to arrive.”
Kovner had gone to pre-state Israel to acquire the poison with which to carry out the plan, but was forced to jettison half of it from the ship he was sailing on back to Europe when British authorities called his name over the public address system. He gave the rest to a co-conspirator, who successfully conveyed it to Nuremberg where Nakam implemented its “Plan B” — the poisoning of thousands of loaves of bread served to German prisoners of war in the Langwasser internment camp.
Roughly 2,000 German POWs were reportedly sickened, but none were said to have died as a result of the poisoning. In the end, it’s not clear if Kovner was even questioned by the British in relation to Nakam, and he was released after two months. He did not resume his vengeful activities.
“The leadership in Israel, David Ben-Gurion… disagreed with [Kovner’s] approach,” said Yoav Paz. “It would be a big mistake if successful, even partially [successful]… Some historians say Ben-Gurion snitched and told the British authorities about Abba Kovner and that’s why he was caught.”
“The majority of Holocaust survivors took their revenge through positive situations,” even former members of Nakam, he said. “For them, the real revenge was starting a new family, having careers, seeing the State of Israel moving forward. That was the real revenge.”
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