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The Avengers


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About the Author

Rich Cohen is the author of Tough Jews and The Avengers. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among many other publications. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City.


As a child visiting an Israeli kibbutz on a family vacation, Cohen met a relative who had survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Israel. Slight and gray-haired, Ruzka looked a lot like Cohen's grandmother, but her stories introduced him to a little-known, remarkable group of Jews: the Avengers, who fought Nazis in the gloomy forests of Eastern Europe and later battled for Israel's independence. As Cohen notes, these "were the kind of people who inspired Joseph Goebbels to write in his diary, `One sees what the Jews can do when they are armed.'" An ardent Zionist, Ruzka left her home in Poland in 1939, as German troops were occupying the country, and made her way to Vilna, Lithuania, where she hoped to find passage to Palestine. Arrested as an "illegal immigrant" upon her arrival, she was released through the efforts of a Zionist youth group who gave her shelter in their headquarters. There, Ruzka met Vitka Kempner, another young girl on her own, and Abba Kovner, a charismatic young man whose steadfast belief in resistance and canny strategies inspired the Avengers. In period-perfect detail, Cohen portrays scenes of ghetto life in Vilna, the efforts of a Jewish leader who thought he could help his people by collaborating with the Germans and, above all, the riveting story of the Avengers' escape from the ghetto, their acceptance of a renegade German officer who hated his army and their eventual emigration to Palestine. Cohen (Tough Jews: Father, Sons and Gangster Dreams) delivers a compelling story that not only amplifies the accepted version of Jewish experience in the Second World War, but also provides a terrific narrative of courage and tenacity. Photographs. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Having previously told the story of Jewish gangsters in America (Tough Jews) Cohen traces the plight of Vilna, Lithuania ghetto survivors who became guerrilla fighters in the Jewish Brigade. Led by a poet and saboteur named Abba Kovner, who shared a bed with his 17-year-old female lieutenants, these Zionist partisans took revenge on Nazis and other enemies of Jews throughout Europe at the close of World War II. The original Avengers were 50 strong, and at night they hit bridges, peasant farms, trains, and convoys on missions of revenge by kids who'd escaped the ghetto but whose relatives often had not. One of their grandest (but finally unsuccessful) schemes involved smuggling in arsenic to poison the bread of thousands of captured Nazis under American guard in Nuremberg. Many of the Avengers ultimately fled to Palestine, joined the Haganah, and fought to see the formation of Israel. This needed telling of their exploits is a great tribute to human spirit and a will to survive. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/00.]DMarty Soven, Woodside, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

"A tremendous story."
--The Washington Post "Fascinating... His language is spare and muscular, his descriptions evocative, his technique suspenseful. He is moved by this story and he moves us."
The New York Times Book Review "Rich Cohen has done a first-rate job."
--The Denver Rocky Mountain News

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