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"Fascinating... His language is spare and muscular, his descriptions evocative, his technique suspenseful. He is moved by this story and he moves us."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Rich Cohen has done a first-rate job."
—The Denver Rocky Mountain News
1. "It is like no Holocaust story I have ever heard. There are no cattle cars in it, and no concentration camps. It takes place in underground hideouts and forest clearings, and in the ruins of German cities after the Second World War" [p. 3]. So begins Rich Cohen's book The Avengers. Clearly Cohen is drawn to the story of Abba, Ruzka, and Vitka because of its powerful difference from most Holocaust stories that Jewish children are told. What is the effect, particularly upon a child's mind, of having the Holocaust as a formative narrative of identity?
2. As in Tough Jews, Cohen is driven by a discomfort with the idea of Jews as passive victims. Does The Avengers alter the impression that Jews were led "like sheep to the slaughter"? Why were the partisans largely unsuccessful in getting Jews to join them in resistance to the Nazis? Is it troubling that Abba, Vitka, and Ruzka left members of their own families behind in ghettoes that would eventually be taken by the Nazis?
3. What are some of the possible ethical responses to the genocide the Nazis engineered? Is the Talmud's "an eye for an eye" a more appropriate response than the Christian concept of "turning the other cheek"? Was Abba Kovner's plot to poison Nazis in the Nuremberg camp a sensible and moral response? On page 213, Cohen calls Kovner a "fanatic, " the leader of a group of avengers whose "mere existence was their victory." Should Kovner be considered a fanatic, a hero, or both?
4. Cohen implies that for the partisans, fighting back put them in a strange position at times. With the massacre of civilians carried out in thepro-Nazi town of Konyuchi, the line between the partisans and the Germans became blurred: "The rebels sat for hours at the campfire, asking themselves, 'Who are we?'"[p. 145]. How did this conflict of identity affect the partisan cause? How were they able to justify their own use of violence?
5. The Catholic nun who helps the partisans tells Vitka, "In this situation, a Jew is the only decent thing to be" [p. 40]. Who are some of the other quietly heroic people who come into play in the story? Does The Avengers give a sense of why such people were ultimately helpless in changing the tide of events as the Nazis liquidated ghetto after ghetto throughout Europe?
6. Rich Cohen occasionally uses the techniques of fiction in telling his story, manipulating narrative point of view and verb tense. See, for instance, the first full paragraph on page 177, or the final full sentence on page 188. What effect do these moments have? On whose testimony does the factual basis of the story rest? How much imaginative reconstruction, in the interest of telling such a riveting tale, might Cohen have had to do?
7. Photographs of the story's three protagonists appear on pages 151-52. Cohen writes, "You can reconstruct a moment from this picture: the fading light, the shock of return, the sense of no victory" [p. 152]. What in fact can be gathered from the photographs--here and elsewhere in the book--of Abba, Vitka, and Ruzka, in various poses and at various times of their lives? What sense does the reader get of their different personalities, and the ways in which their individual characters were shaped by experiences during the war?
8. To what degree did a youthful commitment to Zionism shape the choices made by Abba, Vitka, and Ruzka? How important was the political ideology of Zionism to their lives in Israel? How did their commitment to Zionism change over the years?
9. When Ruzka departed for Palestine, Cohen says, "For the first time, [Abba and Vitka] lived as a couple, perhaps sensing the life they would spend together. . . It was the end of the life they had lived with Ruzka and the beginning of something new" [pp. 166-67]. What role might their triangulated relationship have played in the motivations of Abba, Vitka, and Ruzka, both during the war and afterward? Is there, as Cohen suggests, an element of romantic drama in this aspect of the story?
10. Given that Jewish leaders in Palestine, immediately after the war, were caught up in their struggle to found a Jewish state, is it surprising to find that they had little interest in Abba Kovner's plan for revenge against the Germans? How did Kovner himself come to realize that it was time to turn his energies toward the future of Israel and away from his desire for retribution?
For discussion of THE AVENGERS and TOUGH JEWS:
1."I've taken it upon myself, though not with any real plan, to challenge stereotypes of Jewish history, " Rich Cohen has said. "One is the idea of Jews as passive objects of history and the other is Jews as victims. . . . The Avengers was a natural outgrowth of the first book, part of the same project, which was to look back and tell history with the breadth with which it was lived. These weren't Jews that were saved when somebody else was saving the Jews, although those people are in my book too. These were Jews who saved themselves." What do Rich Cohen's two books have in common, and do they reflect their author's effort to challenge popular stereotypes? How, in each case, does he fulfill his desire to "tell history with the breadth with which it was lived"?
2. Cohen points out that several of the Jewish gangsters were strongly anti-Nazi during the war, and that Bugsy Siegel might have been involved in an assassination attempt against Goering and Goebbels. The gangsters "understood Nazis in a way most law-abiding adults could not" [p. 189]. Are there similar qualities of toughness--or a refusal to be bullied--in the protagonists of his two books? Why do some brave and nonconformist people become criminals, while others become heroes?
Posted December 16, 2010
I Also Recommend:
If you thought the holocaust was all about the Jewish people passively marching to their deaths then you need to read The Avengers by Rich Cohen. It speaks of a different side of the holocaust, the one in which the Jews fight back for their religion, freedom, and lives. This book brought to light for me the Jewish undergrounds that were established within, and outside, of the ghettos. The story of Abba Kovner's organization of plans for revolt, and concealment of Jewish families taught me how working together can create monumental outcomes. The author's accounting of numerous sabotages against the Germans by the organized revolts was an excellent way to put the Germans behind on their transports and supplies which harmed their war efforts. A large portion of the book is devoted to Palestine. I learned that this once was a promised land, Jewish paradise, but it was extremely hard to enter Palestine. Ruzka Korczak's trail to Palestine was made difficult because of capture by Germans, imprisonment at Atlit, and disbelief by others of the atrocities being committed. Though Ruzka seems like a small innocent woman she would give her life to save the Jewish people. I was also unaware of a place called Ponar and the description of this experience by a young girl sent a shudder through my body. "It was very cold and the bodies beneath her were frozen and she could see legs broken so that the bone showed and arms doubled-back and everywhere the faces of the old and young, ice forming around their lips." The courage and strength which thrived within the Jewish people was inspirational. I learned a new side to the holocaust and would hope that I too would fight for my rights under similar circumstances.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 2, 2010
Posted June 28, 2002
I am an avid reader. However, only two works have sufficiently kept my attention to read in one sitting: 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' (required reading in English 101 many years ago) and 'The Avengers.' Without diminishing Rich Cohen's fabulous storytelling ability, it is the story itself that renders the book a 'must read.' It's the story of Abba, Ruzka, and Vitka, three common folks, whose magnificent struggle give us the ultimate hope for humanity, the hope when compassion and courage merge and give birth to social justice. This is a story that should not be kept within the carefully drawn community of Jewish intellectuals and Holocaust historians. It must be made into a feature film so people from all walks of life may experience both the horrors and triumphs of humanity's darkest moment.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 6, 2001
I have now read 'The Avengers, a Jewish War Story' by Rich Cohen several times and believe that it is the single most stirring and meaningful book I have ever read on the Holocaust and the subsequent European jewish movement to Israel. The book, written by a journalist tells the story of 3 basically ordinary jewish persons caught up in the Vilna, Lithuania jewish ghetto who refuse to go to their deaths as sheep to slaughter. What is extraordinary here is the details of how these persons lead the struggle to save jewish lives and had the information and subsequent vision to see that every jew would be killed unless drastic action is taken. Their actions went beyond any personal prior experience and in the face of massive death and overwhelming odds against survival. The book also explains how they were able to pass through the ensuing insanity to build new lives in Israel. I don't think that I have the personal eloquence to explain the psycology in effect here. One must read the book for themselves to try to understand. Other writers, such as Primo Levi have picked up on some of the themes. I am a little bothered by how Mr. Cohen can understand the detailed thoughts of each of the 3 main characters, Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner, and Ruzka Korzcak; although it is clear that he met with these persons numerous times and had a special opportunity to gather information, as one of these persons (Ruzka Korzcak) was an actual relative of his. However, through checking of some of the details through other sources, I have become aware that Mr. Cohen has simplified some of the information and also sanitized the stories a little. It seems to me his technique is legitimate in creating a story as powerful as this one and to help explain how these persons were able to go on for literally 4-6 years of struggle. Yet, I still think more details would be helpful. For example, I would like to know how many actual deaths were caused by the poisoning of prisoners' bread at Nurenberg after the war by members of the Avengers. What is truly miraculous is that each of these persons survived to live a full life in Israel (and a few others at various other places in the world) after WWII, to have families and to create a legacy for the future so others can understand and learn from this unprecedented time in world history. In short, I would suggest that every jew needs to read this book to help understand part of their history. The book is also highly appropriate reading for any huministically minded non-jew as well.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 26, 2001
A beautiful book that shows any one who reads it how a group of people survived one of the most terrible experiences of the 20th century. This history demonstrates not only the courage and strength of the partisans but the softer and more compassionate side of WW2.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 12, 2000
The Avengers Rich Cohen¿s book, ¿The Avengers¿, is the true tale of three leaders of the underground resistance fighters in the Vilna ghetto: Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczak. It is a tale of three people with passion and courage, with intelligence and foresight. It is a tale not of people being led into camps, but of people fighting in hideouts, sewers, forest bunkers. Mr. Cohen grew up hearing this story from Ruzka, his cousin, and later from Abba and Vitka and others during visits to Israel from the age of 10 on. While there is an extensive bibliography, the story is primarily told not as one would write a research thesis, but as one might hear an oral history. It reads like a novel with details and ¿color¿ of the moment. The following paragraph occurs when German troops are rounding up Jews for relocation in 1943 and are blowing up buildings to root out the underground: ¿Through the window, Ruzka saw the German with the case (bomb) and mustache walk into her building. She ordered the unit to retreat. They raced down the stairs and jumped through a window into the courtyard. Ruzka twisted her ankle. Getting to her feet, she remembered the bag of ammunition in the bunker. She pulled herself through the window and started back upstairs. He ankle ached. She could not find the bag. The German with the mustache ran out of the building. The soldiers sprinted down the street. Ruzka found the bag and ran downstairs. As she hit the landing, she heard a click and dove through the window. While she was still in the air, she felt the explosion and its violence wear through her and then Vitka was dragging her into 15 Straszun.¿ Mr. Cohen carefully explores the relationship between the underground and other Jews especially the Jewish leadership. Second to the bravery and political wisdom of the resistance fighters, it is the most interesting part of the book. Jacob Gens, the Jew appointed ghetto police chief by the Germans, capitulates to the Germans repeatedly and at every turn, handing over whatever Jews were asked for. An eyewitness to the mass shooting in the forest returns and Gens calls her crazy. He and the vast majority of the ghetto Jews refuse to believe that the great number of people who were ¿relocated¿ had been killed. Abba Kovner understood the truth from the early days of the ghetto but few were converted to this understanding. Gens even sent Jewish thugs to fight the underground. Yet Mr. Cohen declines to make the ultimate moral judgement of this chief of police who felt he was doing his best to save as much of the ghetto as possible and even allowed his own arrest without escape for this purpose. The tale continues by painting the life of the partisans in the forest: their organization, their means of survival, and their successes. It continues through postwar Europe and the early days of the State of Israel. Through this engaging book we gain a good understanding of the Vilna resistance fighters, an important but less well-known aspect of the ¿Jewish War¿.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 26, 2014
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Posted January 13, 2010
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