Tough Jews

As twilight descended upon the forest of Ponar, Rich Cohen gazed upon the green canyons where the Vilna Jews died in the Shoah. He took photographs of the treetops, thinking of a survivor who had stared at the same trees while feigning death in one of the mass graves. “I knew that the roots of everything growing were in ashes,” says Cohen, the 32-year-old author of the Jewish-gangster tome, “Tough Jews.”

Chicago-bred Cohen was researching a book on a very different kind of tough Jew: the partisans who blew up Nazi trains and poisoned thousands of former SS solders after the war. “The Avengers: A Jewish War Story” is the tale of the cell led by Abba Kovner, Kovner’s future wife, Vitka, and Cohen’s cousin, Ruzka, for whom Ponar was the call to arms. “Abba never visited Ponar, but he knew it was there,” says Cohen, who began his career in the mail room of The New Yorker. “For me, going there was like reaching the place the world ended.”

The story has preoccupied Cohen since he was 9, when he first encountered the Avengers after a dusty ride down a bumpy trail to a kibbutz. There he met Ruzka, his grandmother’s niece, the sole survivor of her Polish family; she was a slight, rugged-faced woman who immediately introduced him to a steely thin man who “looked like an Old World prophet,” Cohen writes. By his side, never out of whispering distance, was the lanky Vitka; as the day passed, their stories emerged of outlandish plots carried out against the Germans. Cohen stared at a black-and-white photograph of the trio wielding machine guns (it now graces the cover of “The Avengers”) and knew he would write about it one day. “The sky outside filled with stars. Constellations wheeled,” he recalls. “I suppose I was obsessed.”

For Cohen, the Avengers offered a version of history different from what he saw in the popular culture; the same media that depicted Jews as nebbishy white-collar types. A short, cocky kid who learned how to bully the bullies on the ice during hockey games, he was more riveted by the stories his grandparents told about the Murder, Inc. mobsters who had frequented their Brooklyn diner. They were guys like Tick-Tock Tannenbaum and Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. Reles chivalrously drove Cohen’s grandma to the hospital when she went into labor; later he was thrown out a window at the Half Moon Hotel. If the story of the gangsters is connected with the story of the Avengers, it’s that both act outside the Jewish stereotype, Cohen says.For decades, the story of the Avengers remained secret; Abba worried their actions could be used by Israel’s enemies to excuse terrorist attacks. But one evening on the kibbutz in the late 1990s, Vitka was ready to talk. She led Cohen to two graves on the edge of the cooperative’s cemetery: Abba and Ruzka, buried just a few feet apart, next to a third, empty plot – her own. She didn’t want the story to die with her. For several months in 1998, Cohen moved into a kibbutz guest cottage and interviewed Vitka and other Avengers on neighboring kibbutzim. If they refused to talk, Vitka had only to utter the magic words: “Rich is a cousin of Ruzka’s.”

While Vitka refused to accompany Cohen to Ponar, “The Avengers” helped her achieve another closure of sorts. All her life, she had hated Jacob Gens, the Jewish Vilna ghetto chief who had cooperated with the Nazis. “But she said the way I wrote the book enabled her to see Gens in a different way, as a good man living in the wrong time,” Cohen reports. “She said she didn’t hate him anymore.” – Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor