Why you should care
Vitka Kempner led a group bent on vengeance in postwar Europe.
In theory, the plan was simple: Sneak into the bakery, where thousands of loaves of bread were being prepared for German prisoners of war, and lace them all with arsenic. For the rest of the world, the war had ended. But for steely Jewish 20-something Vitka Kempner and her co-conspirators, it wouldn’t end until every last Nazi was dead.
Ultimately, the scheme failed. Sort of. Despite the fact that some 2,280 inmates fell ill, none of them died. Together, with wartime partisan leader Abba Kovner, her future husband, Kempner quickly ditched Europe for then-British Palestine, where they’d spend the rest of their lives in relative peace. And though morally questionable, the 1946 poisoning episode in Nuremberg — the final in a short but storied career packed with brazen resistance — highlighted her dedication to fighting for an oppressed people.
But how did a young woman from provincial Poland morph into one of the war’s most notable resistance fighters? Firsthand experience with the murderous regime itself: Soon after the Wehrmacht entered her hometown of Kalisz in 1939, they rounded up its Jews inside a local church to prepare them for expulsion from the city. Kempner said she witnessed the act herself: “I decided the same night that I cannot stand it — the humiliation,” she said in a 1996 interview.
Hearing rumors that Jews were leaving for Palestine from Vilnius, Lithuania, she escaped to the Baltic city (then a hub of Eastern European Jewish culture) through bitter cold and against her father’s recommendation. That, Kempner said, was her “first act of resistance.” But as the Soviets arrived from the east to occupy the small country, thereby ending its several-decade stretch of independence, her foreign travel plans were scrapped. Then came the Germans again, trundling toward Moscow during their invasion of the Soviet Union.
Amid the multiple occupations endured by Eastern Europeans throughout World War II, the Jews were in a particularly precarious position. Already fighting for their own survival, local Jews — who experts say weren’t likely to have close neighborly relations with Lithuanians — were largely on their own as the latter focused on their own fight to regain independence. “I’m not sure they could rely on cross-ethnic networks,” says Roger Petersen, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies ethnic conflict.
When the Soviet Army finally liberated the city in mid-1944, she and her fellow combatants were there to greet them.
In early 1942, the 20-year-old Kempner joined a Zionist youth group under the United Partisan Organization (FPO) resistance movement, led by Kovner; as the city’s Jews were herded into a ghetto, they began taking action. Sneaking in and out of the neighborhood, they smuggled weapons, trained partisans and built bombs. That led to Kempner’s first real act of resistance: Ferrying out homemade explosives from the ghetto, and eventually affixing them to a Nazi train line in what’s believed to be one of the earliest acts of anti-Nazi sabotage on the eastern front. As Kempner later recalled, the explosion took her enemies — who reportedly thought the Poles had done it — by surprise: “The Germans were very astonished that in Vilnius there were partisans.”
As the Nazis cracked down more heavily on Vilnius, eventually liquidating its ghetto, the FPO began funneling fighters out to a forest outside the capital, from where the partisans staged a broader resistance campaign. According to the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, they blew up five bridges, destroyed 40 train carriages and more than 180 miles of tracks, killing 212 enemy soldiers in the process. It was Kempner who led the final batch of fighters into the woods. When the Soviet army finally liberated the city in mid-1944, she and her fellow combatants were there to greet them. It’s said that a Yiddish folk song was dedicated to her exploits.
Then came the next phase of hers and Kovner’s activities. Now free of Nazi tyranny, but still facing heavy-handed Soviet rule, the Zionist activists began organizing an exodus of their peers from Eastern Europe — where they believed there was no future for Jews — to Palestine. But they had darker intentions: Parallel to that effort, Kovner formed a unit called “Nakam,” which aimed to exact revenge against Nazis, even long after the war had ended. Think Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but in real life. The Nuremberg bread plot was actually only set in motion when the group realized they wouldn’t quite be able to fulfill their real goal: To kill 6 million Germans by poisoning the water supply of Germany’s major cities.
But after authorities grew wise to the Nuremberg plot, Kempner and Kovner reached the end of their violent resistance. After moving to Palestine, they married and started a family, while Kempner pursued a career in child-focused special education. Upon her death in 2012, the chairman of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, called Kempner’s story “one of struggle, courage and determination, not only to survive but to triumph.”