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The Avengers: A Jewish War Story Hardcover – September 19, 2000

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Amazon.com Review

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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; New edition edition (September 19, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375405461
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375405464
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (85 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #65,910 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Alyssa A. Lappen VINE VOICE on January 7, 2002
Format: Paperback
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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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Mark T. Sorna on April 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I have read many books about Jewish resistance during World War II and this one is among the best I have read. Once I started reading it, I could not put it down. The book covers the life of Abba Kovner, a Jewish resistance fighter from Vilna, through World War II and its aftermath. At the end of the war, Abba planned and executed acts of revenge against the Nazis. This is described in the book as well as Abba's participation in Israel's War of Independence. The book is well written and easy to read. It gives you two different pictures of Jewish suffering during the war. One picture is that of many of the Jews in the Vilna Ghetto.....one of fear and submission to the Nazi oppression. The other picture is that of Abba and his group of partisans.....one of resistance and hatred of the Nazi oppressors.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Matthew L. Cloner on February 6, 2005
Format: Paperback
Rich Cohen has written an extraordinary tale of heroism and survival during the most horrendous and brutal moment in mankind's history. The tale of these three individuals, Abba Kovner, Ruzka Korczak and Vitka Kempner, shine through as living testimonies in the dark night of the Holocaust. You will not be able to put this book down as you race through the pages of "The Avengers." It is so well written and well documented that you wish you had 20 more books just like this one. It really is amazing how these individuals actually survived this horrible time, but they did in fact prevail and triumph against overwhelming odds. Perhaps the greatest challenge that these people faced in the end was not to end up like the monsters who had persecuted them. Rich Cohen has done an amazing and tremendous thing by writing this book, sharing with the world the incredible testimony of these three courageous individuals. After you finish reading this book, you will never think about the Holocaust in the same way.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Jay on March 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover
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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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Rebecca S. Stoler on November 9, 2000
Format: Audio Cassette
Rich Cohen's book The Avengers truly amazed me. Prior to hearing him speak and reading his book, I had only heard one story of Jewish Life in Europe during the second world war. To hear this other story, the story of Jews who refused to go like sheep to the slaughter, the story of Jews who fought, gives new perspective, and a new understanding of the people that lived in those times.
Rich Cohen's book reads far more like a novel than like a historical text, and at times, I found that aggravating. I wanted more details, and fewer assumptions. But, for what this book is, it is trully amazing. I only hope someone will read this book and decide to do the historical research before it is far too late.
I highly recommend this book. It made me question what I am doing with my life.
"If you have not found something you are willing to die for, you have no reason to live."
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