Israel’s first president supported a Jewish group’s plans to murder Germans immediately after World War II, according to the man who led the group of avengers.
Details of the plan, which included poisoning bread at a bakery, were unveiled by Lithuanian-born Joseph Harmatz, 73, in an interview published last week in the British newspaper the Observer.
Harmatz, who lost two brothers in the Holocaust, led an organization — Din, or Judgment — made up of survivors of the Vilna Ghetto. Their overall objective: the deaths of 6 million Germans as vengeance for the Jews who died in the Holocaust.
The idea for the organization apparently came from the poet Abba Kovner — a leader of the Lithuanian partisans who is credited with describing Jews as “being led like lambs to the slaughter” — and Vitka, his partisan girlfriend and later 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.
David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency and later Israel’s first prime minister, was appalled by the idea of mass killing and was worried that it would prejudice the chance of establishing a state.
Zalman Shazar, who later become Israel’s third president, was also hostile to the plan.
Said Harmatz, who from 1960 to 1994 was the head of the World ORT network of Jewish-sponsored vocational institutions: “His idea of revenge was the reparations that Israel would later exact from the Germans.”
But Israel’s president, 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 Institute in Rehovot, which later became the Weizmann Institute.
In fact, Weizmann was not explicitly identified by Harmatz in his book “From the Wings,” which is slated to be published in May in England by The Book Guild. 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 the Zionist leader was integral to Din’s operation.
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.”
At their meeting, Kovner told Weizmann that the group was planning to poison a few thousand loaves of bread intended for former SS guards who were being held at the jails and concentration camps where they had served during the war.
The story was only partly true — that was a back-up plan. Din also wanted, among its other plans, to poison the water supply of the German city of Nuremberg. But, recalls Harmatz, he did not tell Weizmann about this plan because “we did not want to frighten” Weizmann.
Eventually, the Rehovot professor recommended by Weizmann produced an odorless, colorless substance that he said would be sufficient to poison one night’s production of bread at the bakery that supplied four prisons and concentration camps, including Dachau.
But Kovner did not make it back to Europe with his lethal cargo. Returning on a British ship, Kovner was arrested by British police, who apparently 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 to an Egyptian jail.
Harmatz took over the leadership of Din. To this day, he is uncertain who betrayed the plan, but suspects that it was some members of the Zionist leadership who he believes feared that Din’s success would have jeopardized their hopes for statehood.
With their stocks of Rehovot poison lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean, Harmatz abandoned the idea of poisoning Nuremberg’s water supply, the group acquired a small quantity of arsenic and reverted to the more modest, bread- poisoning plan they had outlined to Weizmann.
One Saturday night in April 1945, members of Din broke into the Stalag 13 camp at Nuremberg and, with a artist’s brush, Harmatz painted 3,000 loaves of black bread with poison.
“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,” he said.
At the time, he estimated that 12,000 people would be killed. 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.”
The plan called for them to move to Czechoslovakia. But the plan was only partially successful: They made it into the country, but the poison was not as strong as they had expected.
Only about 300 and 400 former guards at Nazi jails and concentration camps were killed, according to Harmatz.
Soon thereafter, the organization called off its plans.
The head of the research institute at the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem cast doubts on Harmatz’s recollection of events.
Yehuda Bauer, a retired professor of Holocaust history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he had read accounts of the event and described the story as “old hat.”
“It did happen and it is likely that many people got sick,” he said, “but I believe the number of people who were killed has been exaggerated.”
After the state was established, Harmatz decided that the burden of retribution had passed to Israel’s new leaders, and he declined Kovner’s appeals to launch a fresh revenge attempt. Kovner followed his lead and gave up dreams of vengeance, becoming one of the great poets of the new state. He died some 10 years ago.
As for Harmatz, he eventually settled in Israel. He studied law and then ran the Israel end of a French shipping line.
For the last 13 years of his work at ORT, Harmatz was based in London, where the British government consulted him about setting up vocational schools. He also advised the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris and served on various U.N. committees. He even went to Germany to consult on overseas aid projects.
Harmatz, now living in a suburb of Tel Aviv, harbors some regrets.
“It didn’t work out,” he says. “The 300 or 400 we poisoned was nothing compared with what we really wanted to do.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.