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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

The Avengers

by Rich Cohen



The Avengers
Vintage Books
By Rich Cohen

Study Guide by Steven Steinbock, RJE


The Avengers tells the story of bravery and friendship during an inhumanly horrible time. It is the story of a group of Jews who didn’t go into the gas chambers quietly like sheep, but resisted, fought back, sought revenge, and ultimately survived to help build a new nation.

The Avengers were a band of survivors and partisans that operated after the war, driven by Zionist hopes as well as a need for vengeance for the deaths of their families. Cohen’s book focuses on the interwoven lives of three Avengers.

The People

Ruzka Korczak was born in 1921, grew up in Plosk, Poland, and joined HaShomer HaTza’ir as a teenager. She was small, alert, and had a quiet strength that caused people to look up to her. In 1939, when she was eighteen, Hitler entered Poland, and Ruzka left home and began her life of active resistance. She died in Israel in 1988.

Vitka Kempner came from Kalisch, Poland. She was tall, fair-featured and attractive, and could pass for a non-Jew. Because of her agility, her quick thinking, and her ability to blend in with non-Jews, she was an important reconnaissance scout. She married Abba Kovner around the time of Israel’s independence.

Abba Kovner was born in Sebastopol, Russia, in 1918. He was a thoughtful poet, a strong leader, and a powerful soldier. He led the Vilna Ghetto uprising, and, after the war, led the Avengers. He died in Israel in 1987.

About the Author: Rich Cohen

Rich Cohen grew up in Glencoe, Illinois, on the North Shore of Chicago, the setting for his 2002 memoir, Lake Effect. Cohen has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Harpers, and GQ, and is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. His 1998 book, Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams, chronicles the criminal careers of Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Seigel, Louis Lepke, and other members of the Jewish mob. He lives in New York.

As explained in his introduction, Ruzka Korczak is the cousin of Cohen’s mother. Cohen grew up with stories about Korczak and the Avengers. Over time, he met with Korczak, Kempner, and Kovner during his frequent visits to Israel, and when they visited the States. Having defied the stereotype of the docile Jew in his book Tough Jews, Cohen challenged similar stereotypes in The Avengers by telling the story of Jews who stood up to Nazi (as well as Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian) cruelty, and sought justice for the crimes against their people.


1. Cohen opens with, “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.” What kind of Holocaust story is Cohen referring to? How is his story different?

2. On page 7, Cohen describes the troika of Abba, Ruzka, and Vitka as “not an ordinary relationship, not the conventional idea of a married couple crossing the fence to visit a neighbor.” What made their relationship unique? What initially attracted Ruzka to Vitka? How did Abba enter the equation?

3. The three young people initially came into contact through HaShomer HaTza’ir – a left-wing Zionist youth group (referred to in the book as “The Young Guard”). Founded in 1913, HaShomer HaTza’ir remains active in Israel, Europe, and the Americas. Visit their websites at (US), (Canada), and (Israel). Has anyone in your group participated in HaShomer HaTza’ir? How is it different from NFTY or other Jewish youth programs?

4. In describing Ruzka Korczak’s entree into HaShomer HaTza’ir, Cohen tells us (page 14), “For Ruzka, Zionism became almost a religion. It gave her loneliness a context. The small story of the girl in Plosk was now part of the big story of the Exile.” In what ways was Zionism like a religious experience for Ruzka?

5. During a scouting mission, Vitka encounters a German soldier in Grodno (page 26-27). When he asks her nationality, and Vitka responds honestly, “I am a Jew,” the German runs away in fright. How is this story contrary to the image of Jews as weak and victimized? How is this account emblematic of the entire book? How does it show a shift in Vitka’s self-identity as described at the top of page 27?

6. The Mother Superior at the convent where Abba had been hiding tells Abba and Vitka, “In this situation, a Jew is the only decent thing to be” (page 40). What does she mean? Why did she say it? How did her actions demonstrate her own decency?

7. Without the benefit of hindsight, is it fair for us to say that Jacob Gens was wrong? (See pages 69-78). Did he have the best intentions for helping the Jewish community of Vilna, or was he a willing accessory to the Nazi atrocities? Do you think he would have acted differently if he had known what was happening to the Jews at Ponar?

8. Abba uses Psalm 94 (page 189) to justify his plan for revenge. Read through the Psalm. Why did he choose that piece? Why would a non-religious man choose a biblical poem as an anthem?

9. Who were the Avengers? They are described as a mix of “believers and atheists, intellectuals, partisans, survivors” (page 191). Why did they join Abba’s cause?

10. The total number of dead German prisoners resulting from the Avengers’ activities is disputed. But Cohen suggests (page 212-213) that the death-count is immaterial. How can this be true? Cohen goes on to say “to Abba, it was never really a matter of leaving corpses behind, but instead of leaving a story behind.” What does he mean by this?


Other Books by Rich Cohen

Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams (1998)

Lake Effect (2002)

Books by Abba Kovner

A Canopy in the Desert (1973)

My Little Sister and Selected Poems, 1965-1985 (1986)

Scrolls of Testimony: A Nation Fighting For Its Life: Fifty Two Chapters of Jewish Martyrology (1981)

Sloan Kettering: Poems (2002)

Books about Holocaust Resistance

The Bravest Battle: The Twenty-Eight Days of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Dan Kurzman

The Brigade: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation, and World War II by Howard Blum

Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec

Fighting Back by Harold Werner

The Last Days of Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps 1939-1944 by Herman Kruk

Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter: Critical Essays by Simhah Rotem

Mila 18 by Leon Uris (a fictional recounting of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising)

Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman

Words to Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto by Michal Grynberg


To order The Avengers
Vintage Books


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