Why you should care
Because dishes sometimes served cold are all we really want.
In the immediate post–World War II scramble for cover, with the Allies moving in from the west and the Soviets from the east, Germany and its now-scuttled Nazi machinery faced a reckoning. Hitler had ordered a Nero Decree in the face of what he claimed to Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer was Germany’s failure: Everything within their waning power and reach should be destroyed. Factories, bridges, farms, buildings, everything.
While Speer refused Hitler’s order so as to preserve what little would be left of Germany, he had correctly guessed that an accounting was afoot. Hatred of Jews was Hitler’s focal point, Speer explained in a testimonial a few years before his 1981 death from a stroke. “The German people, the German greatness … they all meant nothing to him. For this reason, he wished in the final sentence of his testament to fixate us Germans, even after the apocalyptic downfall, on a miserable hatred of the Jews.”
“I killed a lot of people … and to this day, I don’t have any feeling of unease.”
That hatred could only be returned in kind. Not in the political realignment that followed, which was postwar business as usual. Not in tending to victims or even rebuilding the affected countries. Not in anything but the only currency that really counts in war: blood. “All of my father’s family, other than two brothers, were murdered, and also my mother’s family was destroyed,” said Moshe Tavor in an interview in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. But Tavor, who moved to what’s now Israel at age 7 in 1925, was hellbent on payback. “I killed a lot of people … and to this day, I don’t have any feeling of unease.”
Tavor, dead just four weeks after giving this interview back in 2006 at the sprightly age of 89, was speaking specifically about his time as a member of the Jewish Brigade, a Winston Churchill–directed subunit of the British Army that chased Germans out of Italy in that last year of war. For them, the war continued as Tavor, along with eight other soldiers from the brigade, rendered judgment in a way that best suited the crime: with executions.
“My job was to be the executioner,” Tavor said. “And believe me, my hands didn’t shake.” Dressing up in British MP uniforms, they’d show up at the homes of Nazis, collaborators and coconspirators and secret them away — or not: A lot of their actions were filed away as “suicides” or “accidents” — and once they had established guilt, “justice” was served — in Italy, France, Belgium, wherever they could find war criminals and known associates.
Most famously? In Buenos Aires, this time as part of an Israeli team, where Tavor helped nab Adolf Eichmann, a major contributor to the Nazi actualization of the Holocaust. Eichmann was executed in Jerusalem after a trial. Dozens of others? With much less flash. And at the conclusion of hastily convened field courts, they received very much the same, with the goal being to stop when they hit six million — roughly the number of Jews who had succumbed to Hitler’s Final Solution.
Houses were bombed, and suspects were run over by Jewish Brigade cars, Tavor claimed. And the Jewish Brigade was not alone. The Nakam, which means “avengers” in Hebrew, was a Jewish partisan militia that worked long after the war, sometimes with the Jewish Brigade, sometimes with some of the other so-called Din Squads, revenge-fueled militias. British writer Jonathan Freedland points to other revenge groups in his novel The Final Reckoning, which, albeit fictional, points to plots to poison German water supplies and actual Associated Press accounts from 1946 describing SS men falling ill and dying from arsenic-laced bread in POW camps. It also highlights Poland’s 2005 attempt to extradite 86-year-old Salomon Morel from Israel and charge him with crimes against humanity for, in a twist, postwar revenge killings of almost 1,500 German prisoners.
Though political objectives eventually shifted to securing Israeli statehood and then ensuring its survival — leaving Nazi hunting to those more interested in actual trials — the very real weight that for a time had been brought to bear against Nazi war criminals codified revenge as closure. “Generally, revenge as a motive has suspect origins,” says M.G. Sheftall, author of Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze and commentator on History channel’s Dogfights series. “But if ever there was going to be one time that it was OK, this was probably it.”