Small World / Global Affairs
April 6, 1998 / 10 Nissan, 5758

Holocaust scene


By Douglas Davis

A PLOT TO KILL six million Germans immediately after World War Two -- one for every Jew killed in the Holocaust -- has been revealed by the Observer newspaper in London.

Details of the plan, which apparently won the approval and support of Chaim Weizmann, Israel first president and uncle of current President Ezer Weizman, were unveiled by Lithuanian-born Joseph Harmatz, now aged 73, who lost two brothers in the Holocaust.

For 34 years -- from 1960 to 1994 -- Harmatz was the distinguished head of the Ort network of Jewish- sponsored vocational education institutions around the world.

But before that, he had led an organization -- Din ("Judgment") -- whose objective was far removed from the noble aim of providing young people with skills for life. Din comprised survivors of the Vilna ghetto who had sworn to avenge the Nazis. It was dedicated to death.

The survivors who escaped the ghetto went on to fight as partisans in the forests of Lithuania, and after World War Two they vowed to take revenge: one German life for every Jew who had been slaughtered during the Holocaust.

In the event, the organization did not realize its aims. It halted its campaign after killing between 300 and 400 former guards at Nazi jails and concentration camps by infecting the daily ration of bread with arsenic.

The idea for the organization came from the poet Abba Kovner, leader of the Lithuanian partisans who is credited with describing Jews "being led like lambs to the slaughter", and Vitka, his partisan girlfriend who would later become his wife.

As a first step, Kovner was sent to Tel Aviv to win the support of the Jewish leaders in Mandatory Palestine for a plan to poison Germans.

Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency and later Israel's first prime minister, was appalled by the idea of mass killing and worried that it would prejudice the chance of establishing a state.

Zalman Shazar, a future president of Israel, was also hostile to the plan, telling Kovner: "We have other priorities. We will take revenge on Germany as a state."

Said Harmatz: "His idea of revenge was the reparations that Israel would later exact from the Germans... It was not mine."

But Chaim Weizmann was more receptive: "He approved of our plans," said Harmatz, "and recommended a scientist who would make a poison for us." The scientist was a professor at the Sieff [later Weizmann] Institute in Rehovot.

In fact, Weizmann was not explicitly identified by Harmatz in his book, "From the Wings", which is to be published by The Book Guild in May. In his book, Harmatz refers to Weizmann simply as "an elder".

But Harmatz agreed with the Observer interviewer that the "elder" was actually Weizmann, and that Weizmann had formed the pivot of the Din operation: "I did not want the fact [of his identity] to have come from me," Harmatz explained.

Why did Weizmann agree to help? "I can only think that he was leader of the Jewish people," said Harmatz, "and, like many of these leaders, he had the feeling he had not done enough during the years of the Holocaust. I am sure of that."

At their meeting, Kovner told Weizmann that the group was planning to poison a few thousand loaves of bread intended for former SS guards then being held at the jails and concentration camps where they had served during the war.

The story was only partly true -- that was a fall-back plan. The real intention of Din was to poison the water supply of Nuremberg. But, recalls Harmatz, "we did not want to frighten him" and so Kovner told Weizmann only the bread-poisoning story.

Eventually, the Rehovot professor produced an odorless, colorless substance which Weizmann was assured would be sufficient to poison one night's production of bread at the bakery which supplied bread to the prescribed four prisons and concentration camps, including Dachau.

Kovner did not make it back with his lethal cargo. Returning to Europe on a British steamer, he was apprehended by British police who were on board and who clearly knew of the plot. The stocks of poison, concealed in cans of condensed milk in Kovner's cabin, were thrown overboard by other members of the group, but Kovner was arrested and sent back to jail in Egypt.

Overseeing the operation from Paris, Harmatz took over the leadership of Din. To this day, he is uncertain who betrayed the plan but suspects it was the yishuv leadership, which feared that Din's success would have jeopardized their hopes of statehood.

With their stocks of Rehovot poison lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean, Harmatz and the group acquired a small quantity of arsenic, abandoned the idea of poisoning Nuremberg's water supply and reverted to the more modest, bread-poisoning plan that had been outlined to Weizmann.

One Saturday night in April 1946, members of Din broke into the Stalag 13 camp at Nuremberg and, with a fine artist's brush, Harmatz painted 3,000 loaves of black bread with poison (knowing that the American guards would eat only the white bread that was made on Sundays).

As he carefully applied the arsenic to the back of the four- cornered bread, he estimated it "would kill about 12,000 people".

"On the bottom of the loaf there was always a little bit of flour, which we used as the base. We had worked out how many could eat it -- because we knew each loaf was cut into four pieces and each prisoner would get a quarter of a loaf. That means 3,000 loaves, good for 12,000 people.

"What was very important was that the material we used was arsenic, a poison which settles. So we had to have people mixing it all the time while I was smearing it on to the bread."

For Harmatz, the following day would be wonderful: "That morning, I thought of my family," he said. "I felt very good that a job was going to be accomplished. Excited? Not excited, because we had to think of all of us finishing the story and not being caught."

The plan called for them to clean out their apartment and leave for Czechoslovkia. But the plan was only partially successful: They made it across the border into Czechoslovakia, but the poison was not as strong as they had expected.

"We know 300 to 400 men were killed, but it should have been more," said Harmatz. "The newspapers later told of how the US hospital had pumped the stomachs of more than 1,000 Germans."

After the state was established, Harmatz decided that the burden of retribution had passed to Israel's new leaders and he declined appeals from Kovner to launch a fresh attempt at extracting revenge. Kovner followed his lead and gave up dreams of vengeance to become one of the great poets of the new state. He died some 10 years ago.

After settling down in Israel, Harmatz first studied law and then ran the Israel end of a French shipping line. In 1960, he joined the Ort organization, which he headed until his retirement in 1994.

For the last 13 years in that role, Harmatz was based in London, where the British government consulted him about setting up vocational schools. He also advised Unesco in Paris and served on various UN committees. He even went to Germany to consult on overseas aid projects.

Harmatz has waited until after his retirement from Ort to tell his tale of postwar revenge. Now, living quietly in Ramat Aviv, north of Tel Aviv, he still harbors regrets: "It didn't work out," says Harmatz. "The 300 or 400 we poisoned was nothing compared with what we really wanted to do."


02/25/98: Holocaust-denial fever

01/01/98: Not Quite Conventional

Douglas Davis covers European Jewry for JWR.

©1998, Jewish World Review