The Avengers: A Jewish War Story
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The Avengers: A Jewish War Story

4.16 of 5 stars 4.16  ·  rating details  ·  306 ratings  ·  47 reviews
Rich Cohen, author of the acclaimed Tough Jews, again narrates a little-known episode of Jewish history, this time altering what we thought we knew about the Holocaust.

Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner, Ruzka Korczak-comrades, lovers, friends. In the Lithuanian ghetto of Vilna, they were the heart of a breathtakingly courageous underground movement, and when the ghetto was liquid...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published October 9th 2001 by Vintage (first published September 19th 2000)
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Jan 21, 2009 Russell is currently reading it
I know it’s going to take me a long time to read this book. Not because it’s not well-written, or because it’s not a gripping tale. It is both well-written and gripping.

It will take me a long time simply because I find reading (or watching) anything Holocaust-related draining and enervating. A few pages a day is as much as I can manage. I know these stories need to be told, particularly those about the few who were able to make the leap and find the courage and the means to fight back.

Why do I f...more
Rich Cohen did an excellent job of transcribing the story of other people in history in an unbiased, loving fashion. He presents a "different Holocaust story," without disparaging what happened before, during and after the war. He does a great job of making known his subject's opinions without forcing them down the reader's throat, showing positive and negative sides of each internal and external struggle.
WIth his simplistic writing style, he conveys the unobscured fighting and decisions that...more
The Avengers tells a vital story. The facts of the Jewish resistance born in the Vilna ghetto in Lithuania and led by Abba Kovner are grim, moving, inspiring.

While most of the Vilna Jewish community allowed itself to be both divided and subdued by the Nazis, with the SS-appointed Jewish police fostering denial (if we comply, some Jews will survive, the community must be preserved at all costs, etc.) Kovner understood from the beginning--even before the Nazis themselves made it official policy--...more
This is the second book of Cohen's that I have read, and I intend to read at least one more (Tough Jews). I tend not to read a lot of full-length non-fiction; I find non-fiction tends to drag and become dry after 200 pages. Cohen manages mostly to avoid this in his retelling of a select few Jewish partisans during WWII (though the narrative does slow down in parts, especially the second act). The story is engaging, interesting, and heartening (despite its dark subject matter).

Obviously, this is...more
This is a very interesting book! It's the story of Jews who fought back during World War 2, a perspective you normally don't hear about. When Germany invaded Vilna, Poland, they relocated all of the Jewish citizens into a small ghetto. Every so often, the Nazis would ask for a thousand or so volunteers to leave the ghetto for another work camp where they would have better living conditions with more food and better clothes. But in reality, they were taken to concentration camps for mass slaughte...more
Rachel Brown
Fascinating, unsettling story of three young Jewish partisans-- two women and a man-- who escaped the destruction of the Vilna ghetto and fought the Nazis from their forest hiding place. (Vilna is where my family is from. Had my ancestors not fled earlier anti-Semitic persecution, that's where I would have been during WWII. About 40,000 Jews were forced into the Vilna ghetto; a couple hundred survived.)

The heroism of women and Jews is often ignored or disbelieved, so I particularly appreciated t...more
Sherwood Smith
This was one tough book to read--it took me months. Some of it was so horrific I could only read a page or two, then I had to put it down.

At the center are Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner, Ruzka Korczak, three young Jews when the war broke out who ended up as fighting partisans. As their families, neighbors, and cities were systematically obliterated around them, they determined to fight back, not march passively to death as millions did.

After the war, Abba and Vitka bent their experience and skills...more
Interesting. Obviously this topic is really difficult to read about, but worth it. The details of life - ongoing survival through the strongest, most horrible pressures of our recent history are fascinating as well as scary and sad. Although none of my ancestors were members of this particular group of partisans, my grandfather was in the French Resistance and some of my family members were killed by the Nazis. All my family of that generation were irrevocably scarred and had the course of their...more
What an incredible book. As the grandchild of survivors (the only ones in their extended families), I grew up with stories of the Holocaust. But I had little knowledge of the heroic efforts in the Vilna ghetto and of the partisans. We hear so much about tragedy and inhumanity but rarely do we hear of out and out fighting, resistance, saying no in the face of no choices. This book really touched me and I loved how it carries the reader from the beginning of the atrocities, through the worst and t...more
Excellent history of "the avengers', a group of Jewish partisans who lived in the Vilna ghetto, and escaped to the surrounding forest before the liquidation of Lithuania's Jews. Fascinating inside look at partisan life, its many fractured and conflicted groups (Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Jewish). Also a peek into the psyche of the collectively abused. The "avengers" went on to hatch plans to poison German and Polish towns following the war, and succeeded in poisoning an allied prison camp, kil...more
A fascinating account of Jewish partisans who fought the Germans in the Vilna Ghetto and in the Lithuanian forests during WW2. It follows the leader of the fighters and his two female friends. The author had access to their stories as he's related to Abba Kovner, the leader of the troupe. Kovner was considered a hero in Israel after the war. My only quibble with the book is the author's choppy writing style, more suitable to newspapers, which stunts the narrative with constant use of short, decl...more
My roots are Lithuanian, and I've spent five years living in the Baltics. I find it deeply uncomfortable that the Holocaust was at its most lethal in this corner of Europe. All the more reason to read this book. I can't help remembering visiting the site of a concentration camp in Latvia. There is some powerful (Soviet) statuary and a sign reading, "Behind this gate, the earth moans." Yet the place is always strangely deserted. Local friends told me that after fifty years of having Communist pro...more
that cute little red-eyed kitten
I first heard about Abba Kovner last summer, when I asked a Jewish friend of mine if there isn't any Jewish resentment. She's very much into music, and gave me a song for an answer: Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird's song about Kovner, "Nakam, Revenge". (Try it, it's pretty good.)

So... Six million Germans. Mind-blowing enough for me.

I didn't know the rest of the story, but picked up a little on wikipedia and a few other sources, and noticed that I was s...more
Nikki Golden
This was not a well-written book, but the plotline was interesting enough to warrant a high star rating.

It is hard to read a book about WWII, especially as a Jew, and not wonder what I would have done in any and all situations. It's amazing to me the levels that people were able to rise under such circumstances.

This book centers on three people who ended up in Vilna who created the Jewish resistance from within the ghetto and then from joining with other partisians in the forests around Vilna...more
My Dad bought this book for me a Christmas or so ago... It took me a year or more to get around to reading it. I wish I had read it immediately. What an amazing story of a small band of "Partisan" Polish World War II Jews! A story of courage, conviction and strength. A story where a few proud souls determined that they would rather die as free men (and women) than be "lead as lambs to the slaughter." This fantastic read primarily follows three rugged "Avengers" through the horrors of the Jewish...more
Fascinating, dark, grim, sad - a true history of Holocaust survivors seeking revenge for 6 million others who did not survive. This story about Abba Kovner and his brigade is one of the most interesting stories to come out of the post Holocaust era.
This is the story of Polish Jews who fought back against the Nazis during WWII. The author is the great-nephew of one of the principle figures in the book, which was created largely from personal interviews.

For some reason I had a hard time getting into this book. I think it's because I didn't really identify with the main people in the story--not because of their ethnicity or place in history, but because of their ideals and attitudes.

There are many horrible Holocaust stories, but I didn't find...more
The story of the Vilna ghetto and Abba Kovner's group of Jewish patriots is amazing. The story makes me wonder was Kovner passionate or on the edge of insanity? Many of the Holocaust stories focus on the work and death camps but the stories of resistance movements, particularly in Eastern Europe, are quite thought provoking. Maybe it's hindsight but this book makes it clear that the only way for Jews to survive the war was to fight against odds that were far from in their favor. Kovner and the o...more
Todd Miles
Cohen masterfully narrates the story of Abba Kovner’s mustering of Jewish opposition to the Nazis in Lithuania. Kovner and his band of Jewish militants continued to fight after escaping from the ghetto in Vilna, joining the partisans. At the wars end, the Avengers were responsible for poisoning Nazi prisoners awaiting trial in Nuremberg. Eventually, they made their way to Israel where Kovner played a significant role in the Israeli War for Independence. Cohen tells a grand story of Jewish resist...more
Sep 22, 2007 Laura rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everyone!
Books, movies, and the history I was taught in school all gave me a clear impression of what Jewish people did to fight against the Holocaust: nothing. This book is fascinating because it gives the lie to this perception: the true account of a small group of underground Jews who blew up bridges, derailed trains, and fought Germans. The book focuses on the actions and lives of three fighters in particular: Ruzka, Vitka, and Abba. How they survived the ghetto, how they fought the Nazis, and how th...more
I learned a lot but it is a hard read.
Bryan Bobrick
We all know the tragic story of the millions of Jews who were put to death in concentration camps but you may not know this story. The Avengers tells the true story of a group of youth from the Vilna Ghetto in the Soviet Union - how they created an underground resistance that thwarted the Germans as much as possible. Young men and women who chose to fight. An amazing story.
Nov 11, 2008 Morgan is currently reading it
So.. I've read about half of this book and it's one of the best WW2 books I've read, not to mention general historical creative non-fiction. But it was giving me nightmares. Horrible, middle of the night panic, nightmares. So I'm putting it on hold for a bit. Be prepared. have a loved one close because I had to make more than one 4am phonecall.
Ture story of the WW II Lithuanian partisan unit headed by Abba Kovner, who was later recognized as Israel's poet laureate. Filled with testimonies of the German occupation and early days of Israel's statehood. Most moving are stories of the common, average person who was transformed when faced with the need for survival.
I really liked this book, which despite the heavy subject, never felt that way. The story that the author researched and heard from the people involved really drew me in. My only complaint would be that I like to have accurate maps when so much of the story involves moving from one place to another.
Diane C.
Riveting tale of homeless Polish Jewish teenagers from the Warsaw ghetto during WWII, and the freedom fighters deep in the forest that they join to blow up bridges and sabotage Nazi camps and tanks.

These kids eventually help establish Israel.
Beautiful story, beautifully told.

Wonderful balance of explaining his personal impetus for exploring the subject with a vibrant non-fiction prose style that illuminates a chapter of Holocaust/WWII history rarely told.
Michael Stuart
The story of a Jewish underground resistance group in WWII is not as compelling as Cohen's "Tough Jews," but it's great to read a story about that period that doesn't take place in a concentration camp.
The story of the jewish underground fighters in Lithuania. Not the romantic stuff you see depicted in movies, this is hardcore fighting for life-and-death on the eastern front. Fascinating.
Easy to read! I found the last few chapters especially fascinating. No footnotes or sources are supplied, though, and I wished for comparisons to other accounts of partisan life.
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RICH COHEN is the author of Sweet and Low (FSG, 2006), Tough Jews, The Avengers, The Record Men, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in many major publications, and he is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives with his family in Connecticut.

For more information, please see
More about Rich Cohen...
Sweet and Low: A Family Story The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football Israel is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History

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