German Authorities Investigate
Post-War Jewish Death Squads
By Gordon Thomas c. 2002 All Rights Reserved

German legal authorities have begun an unprecedented murder investigation into Jewish death squads responsible for the assassination of suspected Nazis after the Second World War.
Many of the assassins became founder members of Mossad.
When two elderly Israelis admitted on German television that they had been part of a death squad controlled from Tel Aviv who, half a century ago had tried to poison with arsenic thousands of suspected Nazis held in an American prison camps near Nuremberg, the city's senior public prosecutor, Klaus Hubmann, decided he could not ignore the startling claim.
The result is an unprecedented legal investigation that Hubmann admits could have consequences even he cannot foresee.
Ultimately it could involve Israel's former prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, being questioned, along with Rafi Eitan, the former director of operations for Mossad.
Both had been involved with Nokim, the Hebrew word for Avengers. Founded by Holocaust survivors from World War Two, Nokim consisted of Jewish death squads who roamed through Europe and the Middle East hunting down Nazis.
"They didn't bother with legal trials. They just executed any Nazis they found," Rafi Eitan has said. "For them their actions were justified by the Biblical rule of 'an eye for an eye'."
Two of those who followed that rule are Leipe Distel and Joseph Harmatz. Both were Holocaust survivors who had made their way to Israel in 1945. They became founder members of Nokim. A year later they returned to Germany. They found work in a bakery that supplied an American prisoner-of-war camp. Another member of Nokim provided them with sufficient arsenic to coat 3,000 loaves of bread.
Bread was the staple diet the Americans provided to their prisoners.
But Distel, now aged 77, has publicly admitted on German television that he had failed to ensure the loaves had been sufficiently impregnated with arsenic to kill the prisoners. Instead thousands experienced severe stomach ache - and hundreds were admitted to US army hospitals in Nuremberg.
Recalling the episode, Distel said his only "regret" was that "we failed to kill those Germans".
His self-confessed collaborator in the plot, Joseph Harmatz, a sprightly 74-year-old, said from his home outside Tel Aviv that "the aim of our action in Nuremberg was to show the world that we Jews were not prepared to silently accept all the murdering that the Germans did to us. We Jews acted with morality on our side. The Jews have a right to take revenge on the Germans."
The survivors of the Nokim groups have become legendary folk heroes for generations of Israelis. Just as Nazi SS members meet in the Bierkellers of Bavaria to recall their killing work, so do the Nokim meet on Israel's kibbutz. Scattered now throughout Israel, the old men keep in touch, passing the hours reminiscing about when they hunted down Nazis.
While principally operating in Europe, they made trips to Damascus, Cairo and Morocco where former Nazis felt they were safe. The Nokim rallying call was "vengeance has no boundaries".
A similar justification governed the actions of Yitzhak Shamir. Learning that German rocket scientists were working in 1960 to provide Egypt with long-range weapons capable of destroying Israeli cities, he sent members of Nokim - by then enrolled into Mossad - to assassinate the scientists.
The methods they used to eliminate the scientists were more sophisticated than those devised by Distel and Harmatz.
In a rare interview with me some years ago, Shamir justified his actions in words chillingly similar to those used by Distel and Harmatz. "Revenge is all that matters. Do not talk of morality after what happened to my people," he said.
The view is not shared by Nuremberg's senior public prosecutor, Klaus Hubmann.
As he had his team of prosecutors press on with the painstaking task of gathering evidence about Nokim's activities over half a century ago, he will only say, "This is not a question of morality. Like murder, attempted murder does not lapse. Neither will my office be influenced by the fact that members of Nokim had been persecuted by the Nazis. This is not an investigation into Holocaust survivors. It is an investigation into what those survivors may have done.
"Our law says it is the duty of the public prosecutor to investigate crimes, no matter how long ago they happened. And no matter who the suspects or perpetrators are." In Berlin and Tel Aviv, the German and Jewish authorities are watching closely the progress of the investigation - and maintaining a firm policy of silence.
But in Israel, former members of Nokim are taking an aggressive stance. One of its leaders, Itzhak Awidow, defiantly said this week: "So the Germans are investigating? So what? No one who served in Nokim would recognise the validity of such an investigation - let alone lend it any support. Where were these German public prosecutors when we wanted them to prosecute known Nazi war criminals?"
Support for such defiance comes from a surprising quarter. Arno Hamburger is chairman of the small but influential Nuremberg Jewish community. He believes that the city's public prosecutor is right to pursue men like Joseph Harmatz and Leipe Distel.
"By their own admission these men broke the law. If they had succeeded, they would have killed perhaps thousands of people. They have no proof that all those prisoners were proven Nazis. Such acts of revenge are no compensation for the proper process of law."
In Tel Aviv, Harmatz dismissed the German investigation as "ridiculous. These people are stupid. Anyway, I don't recognise Germany. And I certainly have no intention of going there. And there is no way that the Israeli authorities will allow them to come here and question us. We have all had too much of being questioned by the Germans."
But such outbursts have little effect on the dogged determination of public prosecutor Klaus Hubmann to investigate the activities of the Nokim over half a century ago. Sources close to the investigation suggest that soon Hubmann may make a formal request, through the German Ministry of Justice, for the right to question former Nokim members still alive and living in Israel.
A reliable estimate suggests they number no more than a hundred. But if two of them had not chosen to speak out on German television, the chances are that their past activities would have remained long forgotten.
This material is Copyright Gordon Thomas © 2000 Gordon Thomas

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