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Dec. 23, 2005, 5:45PM
Holocaust Survivors Recall Revenge on Nazis

JERUSALEM — A group of elderly Holocaust survivors came forward Friday with accounts of a death squad they formed after World War II to take revenge on their Nazi persecutors, recounting a brazen operation in which they poisoned hundreds of SS officers.

In a broadcast on Israel Channel Two TV, the survivors _ some of whom fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising _ recounted hunting down former SS officers at night. Disguised as British or American officers, they dragged the men out of their homes and killed them, they said.

Members of the group, code-named "the Avengers," said they received a large amount of arsenic from Paris and laced loaves of bread fed to hundreds of SS officers imprisoned in an American camp after the war. Many were reportedly hospitalized but it was unclear if any died.

They said they were also planning a broad operation in Dachau and Nuremberg, but the Jewish leadership in what would soon become Israel forced them to abandon the plan.

"I didn't see myself as a murderer, not then and not today," Simcha Rotem told Channel Two.

The broadcast focused on a rare reunion of the group earlier this month in a Tel Aviv suburb. With most of the "Avengers" either dead or in their late 70s and 80s, Rotem told The Associated Press they gave into family pressure to recount their experiences to children and grandchildren and other relatives.

Reports of Jewish death squads have surfaced over the years, and several books have been written. Earlier this year, Israel's government refused a request from Poland to extradite a suspected death squad member.

Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said the tale of the bread-poisoning plot was plausible.

"This is not a story that somebody is telling out of a hat. There was such a plan. We just don't know how close they got," Breitbart said.

The revelations coincide with the release of Steven Spielberg's film "Munich," which has drawn attention to another story of Jewish revenge _ Israel's campaign to hunt down members of the Palestinian group that attacked Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics.

The attackers killed two Israelis and kidnapped nine others at the Olympic village in Munich, West Germany. All the hostages died later during a botched German rescue attempt.

Some Jews and Israelis have complained "Munich" distorts history and is too sympathetic to the Palestinian terrorists, though the widows of two of the slain athletes have praised the film.

With their actions part of history, the elderly survivors of the "Avengers" feel they have nothing to lose by speaking publicly about their operations.

One of the few surviving fighters in the Ghetto Uprising, Rotem, now 81, spent all of World War II battling the Nazis. At the end of the war, he went to Bucharest, Romania, where he met Nava "Abba" Kovner, the head of a group of Avengers from eastern Poland.

"We walked around for two or three hours and we agreed to things and we began to work. It was very simple," Rotem said.

Rotem, who lives in Jerusalem, said he took charge of a plan to poison 28,000 SS officers imprisoned by the Americans at Dachau and Nuremberg in Germany.

"I wanted to finish off the SS officers who were held by the Americans ... unfortunately we did not succeed," he said.

Another plan, carried out in part by Joseph Harmatz, was more successful, they said.

Harmatz found work at a bakery that supplied bread to U.S.-run prisoner camps. He said he received arsenic in rubber bottles from Paris, which he then used to poison 3,000 loaves of bread.

He said about 2,280 SS men ate the bread, but he did not know if any died. News reports at the time said more than 200 people were hospitalized, but mentioned no deaths.

"We fled (the Nazis) and we took revenge," Harmatz told Channel Two. "We saw ourselves as obligated not to leave Europe so we could settle accounts with the Germans."

Michael Bar-Zohar, whose book "The Avengers" was published in 1967, said the bread poisoning was the biggest operation staged by the group.

It also considered an attempt to poison the water supply of five German cities but decided against it, Bar-Zohar said. Rotem confirmed some plans were called off because the group feared killing innocent people.

The group's 40 or so members were largely Jews who had not been sent to concentration camps and spent the war fighting Nazis, Bar-Zohar said.

"Their spirit hadn't been broken by the concentration camps," he said. The camp survivors "didn't have the will or desire to avenge."

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