'Gripping and even inspiring' Sunday Times When they were not yet twenty years old three young Jews left their families in Western Poland and came to the Lithuanian ghetto of Vilna. Abba, leader of the young people in the ghetto and Rushka and Vitka were his deputies. Together they organised the first underground movement in Europe, mapping the sewers and using the tunnels beneath the city to smuggle food and weapons into and out of the ghetto. In 1943 they escaped the ghetto and led their band of resistance fighters deep into the forests of Poland, where they lived for the remainder of the war. From here, they bombed the occupied city they loved. When the war was over Abba, Vitka and Rushka went to Israel, but they did not forget what they had learned in Vilna and in the forest.
I used so many post-it tabs on this book. I used so many that I can run my hand over them like an instrument and make music. I tabbed the damn afterword more than once.
There's a pervasively singular narrative surrounding the Holocaust of Jews being led to their deaths by the Germans and of the Allies as their liberators. This is true — but as with most truth, it's more nuanced than that. Cohen writes in the afterword, "Yes. This is an important story; maybe the most important. It is what happened to the majority of Jews in the War. And yet: It is not the only story." The Avengers shifts the narrative onto the Jews who resisted. Since the back of the book isn't on Goodreads I'll quote it here, since I wouldn't be able to write a better synopsis:
This true story of World War II starts in the Lithuanian ghetto of Vilna, where a small band of underground Jews fight with unending cunning and courage. At the heart of this resistance are Abba Kovner, a fiery poet and leader, and two fearless teenage girls, Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczak. When the ghetto is liquidated, these three flee to the forest and fight alongside Russian and Polish partisan groups—dynamiting bridges, derailing trains, and destroying power plants and waterworks. Their actions eventually lead them down a winding path to Palestine, where a struggle for independence awaits the weary yet fiercely indomitable avengers. It is a side of the war not often seen—Jews fighting the Nazis on their own terms. It is also the story of three remarkable people able to call themselves comrades, lovers, friends.
Cohen was related to Ruzka, and much of this story was told to him firsthand since his childhood (the three of them, with their complicated personal history — though Cohen doesn't label it as such it's clear the three were involved in a poly relationship — remained close in relationship and proximity until their deaths), with clear due diligence when in pursuit of writing this book as an adult. As such his admiration for them is hard to miss, but he also doesn't shy away from telling and examining some of the complicated decisions they made. I'd go so far as to say this is a strength of the book: it's a fascinating and relevant look at the paths that war and persecution push people down. The fighters themselves didn't tell all of the history here until they reached old age and their stories — and their fight — were in danger of dying with them. It doesn't aim to be a comfortable narrative, just to reframe it, and it's incredibly effective at doing this. The author was born and raised in America, but the first time any American soldiers are mentioned in the book is not towards the end, and by then the story so thoroughly belongs in the hands of the fighting Jews at the center of the book that the soldiers' importance seems incidental. Their part exists outside of this narrative.
All three of them were remarkable, eloquent people, but Abba was the wordsmith. Cohen may not have been Abba's descendant, but he certainly inherited his talent for insight and poetry, which just makes this an incredibly smart, engaging, moving read. I'll leave you with one more quote to demonstrate this and then leave it at that, because hopefully if you have any interest in the history and relevance of World War II I've managed to impress upon you that this one is essential reading.
Some of the Jewish refugees . . . walked out to visit the camp. Abba never made the trip. Perhaps he did not have the strength to go, perhaps he did not need to. Though Abba had never seen Majdanek, he already understood it; he understood it the way Einstein understood the black hole—as a theory, as something the numbers suggested. His calculations, rhetoric and fears had long told him such a place must exist, that somewhere, on the edge of the universe, a hole must have opened, a void that swallowed up all energy, even light. The trains had to be going somewhere—right?