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"A tremendous story." —The Washington Post
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Rich Cohen's The Avengers, a riveting and powerful look at the intrepid individuals who fought against the Holocaust and the Nazi occupation of Europe.
In 1944, a band of Jewish guerrillas emerged from the Baltic forest to join the Russian army in its attack on Vilna, the capital of Lithuania. They called themselves the Avengers, and were led by a charismatic young poet named Abba Kovner. His chief lieutenants--who also shared his bed--were two seventeen-year-old girls, Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczak. Despite their youth, Vitka and Ruzka were utterly fearless partisans who were central in carrying out the operations of guerrilla warfare against the Nazis. When the ghetto was destroyed and its inhabitants sent to their deaths, the Avengers escaped through the city's sewage tunnels to the forest, where they lived for more than a year in a dugout beside a swamp, fighting alongside other partisan groups and ultimately bombing the city they loved, destroying Vilna's waterworks and its power plant in order to pave the way for its liberation. Later, Abba and his followers hatched a daring plan of revenge upon the Nazis, even as they also aided surviving Jews in emigrating to Palestine. Ruzka traveled to Palestine before the end of the war, and was the first to tell incredulous Jewish leaders there what had happened to the Jews in Europe.
Rich Cohen first heard Ruzka's electrifying story as a child visiting his father's relatives in Israel. From subsequent conversations with Ruzka and the other central characters, he has produced a fascinating piece of history that fills some of the gaps in our knowledge of how a handful of Jews survived the Nazi death machine, and how they fought back with fierce energy and resistance.
1. "It is like no Holocaust story I have ever heard. There are no cattle cars in it, and no concentration camps. It takes place in underground hideouts and forest clearings, and in the ruins of German cities after the Second World War" [p. 3]. So begins Rich Cohen's book The Avengers. Clearly Cohen is drawn to the story of Abba, Ruzka, and Vitka because of its powerful difference from most Holocaust stories that Jewish children are told. What is the effect, particularly upon a child's mind, of having the Holocaust as a formative narrative of identity?
2. As in Tough Jews, Cohen is driven by a discomfort with the idea of Jews as passive victims. Does The Avengers alter the impression that Jews were led "like sheep to the slaughter"? Why were the partisans largely unsuccessful in getting Jews to join them in resistance to the Nazis? Is it troubling that Abba, Vitka, and Ruzka left members of their own families behind in ghettoes that would eventually be taken by the Nazis?
3. What are some of the possible ethical responses to the genocide the Nazis engineered? Is the Talmud's "an eye for an eye" a more appropriate response than the Christian concept of "turning the other cheek"? Was Abba Kovner's plot to poison Nazis in the Nuremberg camp a sensible and moral response? On page 213, Cohen calls Kovner a "fanatic," the leader of a group of avengers whose "mere existence was their victory." Should Kovner be considered a fanatic, a hero, or both?
4. Cohen implies that for the partisans, fighting back put them in a strange position at times. With the massacre of civilians carried out in the pro-Nazi town of Konyuchi, the line between the partisans and the Germans became blurred: "The rebels sat for hours at the campfire, asking themselves, 'Who are we?'"[p. 145]. How did this conflict of identity affect the partisan cause? How were they able to justify their own use of violence?
5. The Catholic nun who helps the partisans tells Vitka, "In this situation, a Jew is the only decent thing to be" [p. 40]. Who are some of the other quietly heroic people who come into play in the story? Does The Avengers give a sense of why such people were ultimately helpless in changing the tide of events as the Nazis liquidated ghetto after ghetto throughout Europe?
6. Rich Cohen occasionally uses the techniques of fiction in telling his story, manipulating narrative point of view and verb tense. See, for instance, the first full paragraph on page 177, or the final full sentence on page 188. What effect do these moments have? On whose testimony does the factual basis of the story rest? How much imaginative reconstruction, in the interest of telling such a riveting tale, might Cohen have had to do?
7. Photographs of the story's three protagonists appear on pages 151-52. Cohen writes, "You can reconstruct a moment from this picture: the fading light, the shock of return, the sense of no victory" [p. 152]. What in fact can be gathered from the photographs--here and elsewhere in the book--of Abba, Vitka, and Ruzka, in various poses and at various times of their lives? What sense does the reader get of their different personalities, and the ways in which their individual characters were shaped by experiences during the war?
8. To what degree did a youthful commitment to Zionism shape the choices made by Abba, Vitka, and Ruzka? How important was the political ideology of Zionism to their lives in Israel? How did their commitment to Zionism change over the years?
9. When Ruzka departed for Palestine, Cohen says, "For the first time, [Abba and Vitka] lived as a couple, perhaps sensing the life they would spend together. . . It was the end of the life they had lived with Ruzka and the beginning of something new" [pp. 166-67]. What role might their triangulated relationship have played in the motivations of Abba, Vitka, and Ruzka, both during the war and afterward? Is there, as Cohen suggests, an element of romantic drama in this aspect of the story?
10. Given that Jewish leaders in Palestine, immediately after the war, were caught up in their struggle to found a Jewish state, is it surprising to find that they had little interest in Abba Kovner's plan for revenge against the Germans? How did Kovner himself come to realize that it was time to turn his energies toward the future of Israel and away from his desire for retribution?
For discussion of THE AVENGERS and TOUGH JEWS:
1."I've taken it upon myself, though not with any real plan, to challenge stereotypes of Jewish history," Rich Cohen has said. "One is the idea of Jews as passive objects of history and the other is Jews as victims. . . . The Avengers was a natural outgrowth of the first book, part of the same project, which was to look back and tell history with the breadth with which it was lived. These weren't Jews that were saved when somebody else was saving the Jews, although those people are in my book too. These were Jews who saved themselves." What do Rich Cohen's two books have in common, and do they reflect their author's effort to challenge popular stereotypes? How, in each case, does he fulfill his desire to "tell history with the breadth with which it was lived"?
2. Cohen points out that several of the Jewish gangsters were strongly anti-Nazi during the war, and that Bugsy Siegel might have been involved in an assassination attempt against Goering and Goebbels. The gangsters "understood Nazis in a way most law-abiding adults could not" [p. 189]. Are there similar qualities of toughness--or a refusal to be bullied--in the protagonists of his two books? Why do some brave and nonconformist people become criminals, while others become heroes?
Yitzhak Arad, Ghetto in Flames; Isaac Babel, Collected Stories; Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just; Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews; Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After; E. L. Doctorow, Billy Bathgate; James Ellroy, My Dark Places: An L. A. Crime Memoir; Albert Fried, The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America; Allegra Goodman, Kaaterskill Falls; Philip Gourevitch, A Cold Case; Abba Kovner, et al., Scrolls of Testimony; Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory; Primo Levi, The Reawakening; Nicholas Pileggi, Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family; Mario Puzo, The Godfather; Luc Sante, Low Life; Tom Segev, The Seventh Million; Burton B. Turkus, Murder, Inc.
Rich Cohen has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and GQ, among many other publications. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. Cohen is also the author of Lake Effect. He lives in New York City.