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Passing Judgment on the Nokim (Israeli Assassins)

I first began researching the Nokim over ten years ago for a mystery/thriller I was writing called Prague Spring (Mystére Press, 2009).  At the time, very little information was available on this group of Jewish assassins.  To this day, when most people think about Jewish assassins, the film Munich comes to mind, with highly trained Mossad Kidon targeting Arab terrorists.  However, before the Mossad was created as Israel’s security service in 1951, the Haganah fulfilled that function.  And for a period of about six years following World War II, the Haganah employed the Nokim, a secret band of assassins who killed only Nazis.    

The Nokim probably would have remained relatively unknown if two of its former members, Leipe Distel and Joseph Harmatz hadn’t appeared on Israeli TV and confessed to having poisoned thousands of loaves of bread shipped to a D.P. camp in Nuremberg, Germany.  This disclosure sparked an investigation by the Germans that threatened to include the former Prime Minister, Yitzak Shamir, and Rafi Eitan, the former director of the Mossad, both alleged Nokim members.  Once the Nokim had become front-page news, the question of whether they were reprehensible terrorists or heroic justice seekers became a hot topic on the internet and in the press.

This was exactly the question I wrestled with in Prague Spring.  I made the hero, Inspector Simon Wolfe, an ex-Nokim member and assigned him a murder to solve that resonated with his past, so that I could explore moral shades of gray.  Yet as a fiction writer I could create morally ambiguous characters without having to pass judgment on their guilt or innocence.  In Simon Wolfe’s case, I dealt with him as a tragic figure, just as if he were a Greek protagonist tangled in the inexorable web of history woven by the Fates.

Although the Nokim was not a fictional group, I believe that viewing its members through the lens of tragedy is the only way to judge them fairly.  They were caught up in an historical cataclysm of Biblical proportions, and their actions cannot be extrapolated from that historical context.  It is also important to realize that as history progressed, so did the Nokim; it was a very different organization when it was disbanded by the Mossad in 1952 than when it formed in 1946.       

The most notorious act by the Nokim was the aforementioned poisoning of three thousand loaves of bread that were shipped to a D.P. camp holding 36,000 German SS.  This was also one of the earliest acts of the Nokim.  According to Michael Bar-Zohar, who wrote The Avengers (Vintage Books, 1970), it occurred on April 13, 1946. 

The men who planned and carried it out had belonged to the Jewish Brigade, a group of partisans who met in Lublin, Poland and marched west across Europe.  At the time of their escape from Eastern Europe, it was an utterly lawless place.  Russian soldiers were raping and pillaging, retreating SS were murdering indiscriminately, anti-Semites were killing Jews and there was virtually no governmental control.  The only protection someone could count on were partisan groups like the Jewish Brigade.

On every level, post-war Europe lacked law and morality.  Even so-called civilized countries like the U.S. and Britain traded off defeated countries like chips at a poker table, without any regard for the fate of their populations.  U.S. troops sat outside of Prague (much to the consternation of the Czech people) waiting for Russian troops to march in as liberators.  I don’t have to explain the ramifications of that deal, which was made behind closed doors between Roosevelt and Stalin. 

Still, I believe that the poisoning of the bread by the Nokim was a crime, chiefly because the act was indiscriminate.  Although the camp held SS, not all SS were war criminals.  Yet I also believe that during that period the world had gone insane; crimes were happening everywhere, from the highest levels of government down to soldiers and individuals on the streets. 

Except for a double standard of morality that often seems to be applied to Jews, I do not see why the Nokim should be judged before anyone else who committed crimes at the end of World War II.  And since none of these others are likely to be judged, I think the crimes of this handful of Jews should be forgotten like the thousands of German war criminals who escaped justice under the (extra-legal) protection of everybody from the U.S. government to the Vatican.

After the poisoning of the loaves of bread, the Nokim evolved.  Order was being restored in Europe, and the Nokim followed suit.  They no longer attempted to kill indiscriminately, and for this reason I think they should be judged under a different set of criteria than when they committed that first desperate act of revenge.

The Nuremberg trials were held from November 21, 1945 to October 1, 1946.  For the Nokim, the trial of only 22 leaders from Nazi Germany meant that thousands upon thousands of war criminals would go free without any trial.  Despite all of the important legal precedent it established, Nuremberg was a show to assuage the guilty consciences of the U.S. and Western European governments who did nothing to help the Jews escape Hitler’s death machine.  As far as the overwhelming numbers of war crimes were concerned, there would be no justice; in other words, the system was irreparably broken. 

One argument against the Nokim is that the alleged war criminals they killed were never put on trial.  But there was no judicial system to try them.  Quite the contrary, most of the world’s governments were rigged to help these war criminals escape.  Under classified programs like “Bloodstone” and “Paperclip,” the U.S. imported useful war criminals.  The Germans did their best to obfuscate the crimes of their moguls and aristocracy, trying to “put the past in the past.”  And then there were openly sympathetic places like Spain and the Vatican who were actively helping ex-Nazis escape along the “ratline.”  None held trials to establish the innocence of those they helped.  Obviously they assumed their guilt or they wouldn’t have hidden them, helped them escape, or, as in the case of the U.S., secretly appropriated the German brain trust.

So the Nokim became an unsanctioned arm of the justice system to fill the void left by collaborating countries.  Their job was to exact justice on ex-Nazis that had been identified as war criminals.  The Haganah did the research to establish their guilt.  The Nokim carried out justice under a code of conduct set up by the Haganah: the accused could not be tortured; their families could not be hurt; and their property could not be stolen.  The Haganah wanted their justice clearly distinguished from the brand the Nazis handed out. 

Unspeakable crimes had been committed against the European Jewry while governments around the world stood by and refused to help.  When the war was over, these same governments did nothing to prosecute the vast majority of war criminals who had tried to destroy the Jews.  Would I consider a group of victims who carried out justice in the name of the Jews guilty of a crime?  Would you?

 If you would like more information, you can go to my website at and download the first chapter of Prague Spring, which talks about the Nokim.

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{ 1 } Comments

  1. Kouba | August 2, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Are you a professional journalist? You write very well.

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