This Time It’s Personal? | Sanders Isaac Bernstein | The Hypocrite Reader

Sanders Isaac Bernstein

This Time It’s Personal?

Louis Français, advertisement for The Count of Monte Cristo

I didn’t come to Berlin looking for revenge. Revenge, after all, seems such a hoary concept, dreadfully out of place in our increasingly rationalized modernity. It evokes ideas of honor, scenes of a dagger in the ribs in a garden at night or a duel before the court. That is, at least, how it had long existed for me, raised as I was on Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and the adventure fiction of Rafael Sabatini. Later, it was a subject of academic investigation—abstract, ideal, characteristic of genre or type. It was a Shakespearean preoccupation, or an element bound up with melodrama and the ideology of interwar fascism. I couldn’t deny it was part of our world, but it existed at least one intellectual remove away.

Perhaps it was naive to come to Berlin to write about fascism, and not expect a personal reckoning with revenge. But it was only as I trod over the brass plaques that memorialized earlier Jews and other former denizens deemed undesirable by the Nazis with the dates and places of deportation and murder that I began to wonder. What did my presence in this city actually mean? I thought I had moved here from Los Angeles because I could and because I wanted something new, or at least to live in a real city—but had I? If I squinted, I could see it differently: as a political choice. I could have, indeed, come for revenge. I know about the letters to my grandfather’s family that stopped arriving between 1941 and 1942, his aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents never to be heard from again. I know the stories and the sadness that were passed down to me. And I know people who do walk through this city holding onto such thoughts. Outside a reading not too long ago, I found myself in a conversation with another Jewish American, a friendly enough guy. “I love being here,” he said to me, his amicable tone turning somewhat harder, “and I love being Jewish and being like, yeah I speak your language, and, yeah, I’ve learned Yiddish, and yeah, I am here even though you tried to get rid of us—and… fuck you.”

The venom on his tongue—which I cannot claim is unjustified—sharpened a growing sense in me that revenge has hardly gone away. Rather, revenge continues to haunt us and pull us back into the past—in the name of righting that past. It’s become a dynamic of feeling that political positions across the spectrum seek to mobilize. It is a salve for the current moment—granting us the satisfaction of purpose, establishing us in our private personal selves on the side of the right and the just. And yet, by structuring life around past injury and dividing the world into perpetrator and victim-avenger, revenge obscures our vision of a future that might be more just than the present we uneasily inhabit.

I’ve come to this conviction through considered reflection. Indeed, I’ve been forced to stop and think about it more often than I’d like to—whenever the history of this city tempts me to proclaim, as the avengers say in the worst films, “this time, it’s personal...” I know it is a cliché—the awakening of an American Jew to the marked nature of his Jewishness in Berlin—but, then again, so is revenge.


I do think more about being a Jew in Berlin. In part, that’s because when I registered my presence here, first with the certification of my residence, then with my visa, and finally with my tax forms, I was asked each time to register my religion. Like many other Jews who live here, I have chosen not to do so. According to German government records, then, I am no Jew; I am not officially part of Germany’s “Jewish Community.”

It is not only that I didn’t want my income to be tithed to support the conservative institution that purports to speak for all the Jews of Germany, the Central Council of Jews. And it is not only that my family taught me to keep the fact of my being Jewish rather close to my chest. (I’ve never used the phrase, but my father did tell me I could ask someone if they were a “landsman” rather than give myself away by asking if they were a fellow Jew.) Nor is it only that there might be something unheimlich about registering one’s religion in Germany. I think the truest way to say it is that I come from a place where, though Jewish culture is widespread enough that an antisemite might speak in the patter of a Borscht belt comedian, to be Jewish was fundamentally a private matter. My relationship to being Jewish there was not, as it is here, shadowed by the state or its narrative of itself. Definitions of Jewishness were not something debated in national newspapers. Jews did not primarily exist in the surrounding consciousness through public memorials to their murder.

Growing up in New Jersey, being Jewish felt no more marked than being Greek or Italian. Call me an ideological dupe, but as a child, I remember understanding the melting pot less for the final dish (coercive assimilation) than as recognition that to be American was definitionally to also have backgrounds that differed from one another. I might have wrapped tefillin with one grandfather and talked about Isaac Bashevis Singer with the other, stayed home from school on Rosh Hashanah, when we’d dip apples and honey, and Yom Kippur, when we’d fast and go to temple. I listened to our family’s immigration stories again and again. But this distinct background mattered little in the schoolyard—where the major category of differentiation among white kids was if you could or couldn’t catch a football. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how many Jews were in my elementary class at school (five), or even that there weren’t minor incidents—like a child whose name I forget not being allowed to play with me because my family was Jewish—but any prejudice felt incidental, a strange residue of some ancient history. My experiences largely bore out how Jews had already been alchemized into American whiteness. Until Bernie Sanders ran for President, Jewishness was, in my lifetime, rarely raised as a public, political issue.

Yet, as the forms that welcomed me to Germany suggest, Judaism in Germany is always a public—and indeed political—issue. It has often been through its relationship to Jews that first West Germany and, since 1990, the unified Bundesrepublik has narrated itself as a modern, tolerant nation. The German-Canadian sociologist Y. Michal Bodemann has argued that German public commemoration of the Holocaust “brings the Germans to the point of appropriating the Shoah.” Through ceremonies of remembrance, such as national recognitions of the Kristallnacht pogroms on November 9 or the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, he writes, “Auschwitz and Kristallnacht turn into a romanticized horror suffered jointly by Germans and Jews.” Thus, what Bodemann calls the German Theater of Memory affirms a new national character that places Jews alongside “the decent new Germany against evil forces in society.”

However, while the Jew exists as a public idea, most Germans—even in Berlin—don’t really expect Jews to be around. While there has been a lot of work on comparative memory culture of the US and Germany in relation to race slavery and the Holocaust, the situation of Jews seems to me to be more like that of the “myth of the vanishing Indian”; where there are certainly many differences, the similarity lies in that Jews are often thought of mostly as people that were here and then were killed. It is true that there are only something between 118,000 and 275,00 of us in the whole country, but it is surprising how little anyone suspects a Jew might be present. As part of the conditions of a state-funded stipend I received, I had to visit the Sachsenhausen camp. When I and the other American, both of us Jewish, decided we didn’t want to look at the fantasy concentration camp any longer, lingering in the back of the group, the well-intentioned administrator insisted we press our nose against the window to look into the barracks, “you can’t believe how many people would have been stuck in there. It’s just so interesting.” And young leftists aren’t always so much better. At a friend’s birthday, a young DJ from the former east, sweet and combative by turns, insisted that he was so, so PROUD that he and all his friends knew that their grandparents, their nation, had done the worst thing in the world—and he was so, so PROUD that they could admit to this. He was basically banging the table. There is no act in all of history that measures up to this, he shouted. And it’s so cool that they can lay claim to it. “You have no idea how high he is right now,” said a friend, trying to excuse him.

On the other hand, the mention of my Jewishness can evoke a certain kind of defensiveness. There can be an immediate turn to the Holocaust if you’re a Jew, because, naturally, that is what you want to chat about at a cocktail party. And, the admission, yeah, my grandfather was a Nazi, but not, like, a big one. There can be a pause, a certain kind of calculation, and then a homogenization, where to be Jewish can only mean to be Israeli. Upon learning I’m Jewish, there have been folks who, despite knowing very well that I’m from the US, keep asking me about how the health care in Israel is. But mostly, it’s a kind of exoticization. When I registered to receive my first vaccination, the young, friendly attendant behind the glass kvelled over my name. “Ah, Bernstein,” he said, “what a lovely name. I love the Jewish names. No, don’t worry, I only mean good things by it. I have a friend, Yoni Mandelbaum, it just rolls off the tongue. Yoni Mandelbaum. So poetic.”

For me, this treatment remains largely novel—and, often, not uncomedic. Never in these situations have I felt in danger. And it is not as if I am surveilled in the way persons of color can be in this city or in this nation. And yet, as many contemporary German Jews are also writing, Jews in Germany remain something else. They are structuring Others in this society, which continues to define itself through a white Christian core. Jews, then, are present as political images, but not expected as private beings. And it is at this juncture—where a sense of lived injustice, carried from the Shoah to the present, attempts to articulate itself in the public sphere—that revenge emerges.


In Berlin, revenge is undergoing rehabilitation. Max Czollek, a millennial German-Jewish intellectual and poet, is the loudest among the voices of the young Jews on the Left in this city calling for a new conception of the nation known as Germany. He urges a reconsideration of revenge, a reconsideration he initiated with his first polemic, Desintegriert Euch!, translated in February into English as De-Integrate!: A Jewish Survival Guide for the 21st Century. It argued that Jews should embrace the idea of revenge as a form of self-empowerment. Last year, Czollek also co-curated an exhibition at the Jewish Museum Frankfurt that insisted on the place of revenge in the Jewish cultural tradition, “Revenge: History and Fantasy.”

The problem is Germany’s memory culture. For too long, he writes, building on Bodemann’s idea of the Theater of Memory, Germany has defined itself through a pageantry of mourning the Holocaust that assigns to Jews the limiting role of victims. For too long, Jews, in a bid to be recognized by the dominant German culture, an implicitly white Christian culture, played these roles and performed as meek, peaceful pawns to be protected by today’s good Germans. It is against this image of Jewishness that Czollek writes. Don’t let them define you, he writes. Flex on the dominant culture and take up the mantle of the avenger. “An attitude of vengeance does not let the grandchildren of the offending community find peace and disappoints their hopes of overcoming the past,” he has written. “And if the figure of the avenging Jew refuses to collaborate in the Theater of Memory, he intervenes against integrating ‘the Jew’ in the discourse of German exoneration.”

Czollek proposes revenge as a way toward a post-identitarian Germany. By acting as avenger instead of victim, Jews can disrupt Germany’s self-narrative and create greater space to exist as full human beings, not only for themselves but also for other minoritized peoples. Across his three polemics, he suggests various acts that might have this disruptive effect, ranging from creating art that inveighs against antisemites, “condemning them to literary hell,” to a kind of performative trolling. In the face of a resurgent far right, he argues, “We cannot only be the bunny rabbit before the snake, but rather must become a little bit snake [sic] ourselves.” For Czollek, to be “a little bit snake” includes an appeal to a “Judeo-Muslim guiding culture,” an alternative to the Judeo-Christian tradition invoked in German culture wars against Muslim migrants from the Middle East and Africa. He also wrote the script for a set of satirical YouTube videos called Jews News Today. One of the videos is about how Berlin’s Holocaust memorial monument had begun to charge an entrance fee and donate it to Jewish institutions; another is about how Deutsche Bank had instated a Jewish quota to improve its business performance. These provocations seek to unsettle the idea of Germany so that a new, radically diverse nation can come into being.

But it is not only Czollek who broaches revenge as a kind of future-facing project. Even when I went to the cinema to watch a fanciful film about an East German poet, I was confronted by a trailer that broached vengeance. It asked me, “What if I told you that your entire family was killed, your children, brothers, sisters—simply everyone?” It teased a tale of vengeance, the attempt of a group of Jewish resistance fighters and Shoah survivors to poison the wells of Nuremberg right after the war, as part of a plan to kill a German for each murdered Jew. “What would you do?”

Unable to understand the motivation behind this film with the tagline, “What would you do?”, I had to watch it. Was it a kind of guilt pornography, a cinematic fantasy of revenge that would enable Germans to feel (first worse and then) better about themselves—or a kind of Inglourious Basterds knockoff, a wham-bam exploitation flick? It was Plan A, a German-Israeli coproduction directed by two Israeli brothers, Yoav and Doron Paz. Yoav has said he wanted to make this film about Nakam, the group that plotted to kill six million Germans, because Jews have rarely seen themselves on screen in such roles. “When we came across this story about the group of Jews, Holocaust survivors, trying to take revenge after the war, it blew our minds because we never got to hear this kind of stor[y],” he says. “Revenge is the most primal feeling and the most basic of cinema.”

However, rather than the story of the poisoners’ plot, Plan A is more the story of the attempt to stop it by an agent of the Haganah (a precursor of the Israeli Defense Forces), who is part of the British Army’s “Jewish Brigade” stationed in Germany. I was struck by a climactic scene where a Haganah agent confronts the would-be avengers in Nuremberg and holds them up at gunpoint to explain to them what “real revenge” is. He demands they cease their actions, fearful that if Nakam carries out the poisoning “the world will look at us differently, and we will not get our country.” As the camera zooms in on his face, the handsome Haganah agent declares in soft tones, as if he is not threatening the people before him with a weapon: “Right now, far from here, people are working in the field, planting trees, building houses. A whole generation that knows no fear. That’s the real revenge.”

This moment from the film has stayed with me because of how this Haganah agent challenged the group’s aims. To frame it academically, that is, to analyze it rhetorically: the agent did not question the terms of Nakam’s argument. He did not question the need or use of revenge. Rather, he declared that the murder that this group was plotting was a less “real” revenge than this fearless future he invokes. In this framing, revenge is—whatever one might think of Zionism—a positive project: the creation of something new. Of course, as I saw this scene, I could not help but reflect on how the settler-colonial realities necessary to bring this new world into being must have been overshadowed by the darkness of the past and washed out by the blinding light of this idealized future. Still, what was interesting was how, in this film, revenge is the name of this better future. Revenge is the name of living without fear after so much fear. The idea of a good, healthy life somewhere far away from Germany—that, this film proposes, is revenge.


But if revenge can be, for Czollek, the kernel of an intersectional alliance, and, for Plan A, a project of nation building, what actually stands at its semantic core? We all know that revenge commonly refers to the action taken in response to prior injury that is designed to settle the score. Revenge is often described as personal justice—or as the Renaissance polymath Francis Bacon named it, “wild justice.” That is, it often takes place out of the legal institutions that normally handle the questions of injury in our social world. The core of revenge is wild; rather than resolve into a set of specific instances, it wants to radiate outward and contaminate other actions with its significance. Just as an act of revenge can spiral out of control, reproducing itself endlessly—René Girard calls it “an interminable, infinitely repetitive process”—so too can the concept of revenge describe a wide range of actions: living well, looking good, killing someone, writing a book. The specific action is less important than the structuring dynamic.

Revenge is a relation of feelings. It is not in itself an affect: vengefulness, after all, would be the feeling characterizing the desire for revenge, but anger, hurt, righteousness, purpose, and, even something like optimism, or, indeed, love can all be involved with the action. Still, it is the very emotionality of revenge that differentiates it from other attempts at something like justice. Revenge quivers with emotion. The action that the avenger takes satisfies a psychic need. The legal scholar Thane Rosenbaum calls it “life’s ultimate dirty little secret and guilty pleasure.”

Rosenbaum’s 2013 book, Payback: The Case for Revenge, argues that the psychic satisfaction of revenge is important to integrate into contemporary legal systems. For him, it is “like love…a human instinct that doubles as an addiction.” The philosopher Robert C. Solomon would agree with him, noting how the satisfaction of vengeance is an important underpinning of our world’s sense of justice. As Solomon writes, “to seek vengeance for a grievous wrong, to revenge oneself against evil—that seems to lie at the very foundation of our sense of justice, indeed, for our very sense of ourselves.”

And yet Solomon’s language might begin to highlight revenge’s seduction and speciousness. It is so easy for him to slip into absolutes—“grievous wrong” could be but is not always equivalent to “evil.” The idea that feeling might not be commensurate with the facts, or that the libidinous satisfaction that Rosenbaum recognizes in revenge might spur on the avenger beyond the original injury, is entirely absent from this particular formulation. Rosenbaum suggests that the legal system’s failure to account for emotional investment results in the revenge art that attempts to make up for the deficiency in our world. “Fictional stories of revenge” exist, he argues, as “our only assurance that justice is, indeed, possible. Courtrooms, after all, rarely showcase such emotional power and moral purpose; damaged dignity is scarcely, if ever, given a day in court.” And yet, part of my distrust of vengeance is because I’ve read too many of these fictional stories—and I’m not sure that is what they do, that is, assure us that justice is possible. Rather, they seem to cater to other, rather more grandiose, desires.


Revenge promises more than simply the restoration of dignity. It promises that you can grow as great as a god. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, a figure allied with the Frankfurt School, has written about our relationship with vengeance in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Because an avenger is substituting for a lack in the moral universe in which he lives—whether that means humanity’s legal system or a cosmos ruled by divinity—Fromm argues, “it is as if in his passion for vengeance he elevates himself to the role of God, and of the angels of vengeance.”

I remember encountering this dynamic in my favorite novel as a child: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. The 1844 novel is an archetypal example of a revenge plot. There is a great abuse or betrayal by a clear perpetrator. As a result, the protagonists, often men, enter into a kind of heightened experience of opposition. Their personality and existence take shape through their plotting for revenge. They bring into being an entire world focused on the crime committed that shall end with the perpetrator’s destruction.

Edmond Dantès, a Marseillaise first mate about to become ship captain and marry his beloved, is arrested as a Bonapartist and sentenced to life in prison on the day of his wedding. By the time he escapes prison 14 years later—he pretends to be a corpse and is thrown into the sea—he has become a learned man, discovered the conspiracy that resulted in his imprisonment, and gained possession of the treasure of Monte Cristo. The world to which he returns is full of iniquity—his father dead of hunger, his beloved married to one of his enemies, and his dear, former employer near bankruptcy—and he sets out to punish his persecutors and reward those who treated him justly, dedicating all his now-vast resources to this pursuit. His punishments cut to the false cores of the conspirators: for the banker, he bankrupts him; for the soldier, he destroys his honor; and, through his subtle means, he turns the home of the chief magistrate lawless and murderous.

The text plays with the idea of the Count as a divine force. He passes through death and out the other side, and in some of his last words, in a letter addressed to a man he regards a kind of stepson, he writes: “Tell the angel who will watch over your life to pray sometimes for a man who, like Satan, momentarily thought himself the equal of god.” But the Count not only thought himself equal—in the world of the novel, he is. Through his manipulations, he creates the realities in which the other characters live. He moves through the world in various guises. And, as with the true name of Zeus or YWVH, the pronouncement of his real name and identity, “I am Edmond Dantès,” strikes his enemies with awe and madness. In the final scene of his revenge, the magistrate responsible for the Count’s prison time, almost effectively names him as a deity: “Who are you? Then who are you? My God!”

I loved this novel as a child. Though pure fiction, it spoke to real desires. What little boy, wholly dependent on adults and subject to their arbitrary rules, does not dream of rising from the shadows and becoming a terrible god, whose very presence inspires fear and respect? What little boy does not dream of such agency? My love for this book was rooted in part in the desire for control.

I recognized this when reading revenge tragedies of the English Renaissance in graduate school. Scholars spoke of “the villain as playwright” or “revenger as dramatist.” There was Vindice of The Revenger’s Tragedy, convincing his enemy to believe a rotting skull, its bony lips smeared with poison, was a beautiful woman that he should kiss. Or Barabas, the protagonist of Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, whose proclamations of this or that “plot” come to pass after his wealth has been confiscated. He sends his daughter to the nunnery to recover his lost wealth, organizes duels of his enemies, poisons all of the nuns after his daughter joins them, kills the friars who learn of his arrangement of the duel, poisons his servant and his servant’s co-conspirators, betrays Malta to the Ottomans, and then prepares to sell it back to the Christians. Seemingly, the avenger could create entire realities.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Czollek too frames himself as a kind of avenging poet. Czollek recalls his childhood dreams of substituting for divine vengeance. “I lay in bed imagining hacking off the arms of Nazi soldiers, kicking them to the curb, gathering a stockpile of weapons, and holding their forces at bay. I dreamed of killing Hitler, Goebbels, and their whole concentration camp team,” he writes. “I dreamed about fighting back. Hitting harder. If I couldn’t stop what had happened, I at least wanted my revenge.”

And Czollek is hardly the only millennial German-Jewish writer who has fantasized about becoming an avenger. In 2017, Mirna Funk, then a collaborator with Czollek in their “Deintegration Congress,” a festival at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater, wrote about how she has come to translate earlier fantasies into her work as a writer: “I remember reading about the Nazi-hunter Chaim Miller and imagined being born seventy years earlier, and arming myself and striking down every single Nazi I could find. Without remorse and without guilt. But because I was born seventy years too late, together with other Jews of my generation, I hunt down their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Our revenge is our existence. Our weapon is our language. And you will not get rid of us.”


In noting that there is a grandiosity to be found in revenge, I do not mean to discount the gravity of the injury. The Shoah is not something that can be dismissed or simply gotten over. But to reckon with the significance of revenge’s presence in our world, we also have to own up to revenge’s satisfactions and even pleasures.

Yet, what is the significance of revenge when it leaves image and fantasy and actually takes place in the world? The desire for vengeance emerges from a situation of so-called reconciliation in Germany between perpetrator and victim—and yet, the underlying problems of German society have gone unaddressed. A recent article about Jewish intellectuals of my generation, written by an Israeli-born Berliner, is titled “Generation Wütend”—“the angry generation.” It describes the editors behind the magazine-turned-book series, Jalta, whose anger has to do with Germany’s refusal to adequately reckon with the underlying tendencies that manifested in the Shoah and move beyond a self-definition by way of a white Christian core. It takes issue with the too-frequent insistence that racism and antisemitism exist only in Germany’s past rather than remaining features of daily life.

Hemmed in by representations of Jews in the official memory culture, writers like Czollek have looked back to find figures who did not wait for Germany to let them be heard, but seized that power for themselves. They write about them to recognize the full spectrum of Jewish personhood. They were not only, as one exemplary German politician declared in an attempt to defend Jews, “helpless people.”

DIN, “The Blood of Israel Remembers,” or “The Blood of Israel Avenges”—depending on your translation—was the real, historical group of avengers on whose story the film Plan A was based. In their testimony, recorded by Michael Elkins, Dina Porat, and others, these men and women credited revenge with returning them to the land of the living.

In the spring and summer of 1945, revenge, or its promise at least, led this circle of fifty men and women gathered around Abba Kovner, the charismatic poet and former member of the resistance in Poland, out of the shadow of the apocalypse. These Jews had fought in the ghettos and the forests. The few who hadn’t been part of a resistance group had agitated against the Nazis in the camps. They were willing to sacrifice their lives to carry out a vengeance that was supposed to signify to the world that genocide could not occur without consequences.

It was only revenge that kept them alive, they have since insisted. “Instead of suicide, after you arrived home and found that no one was left and the scope of the disaster was unbearable, came vengeance. Vengeance was a kind of suicide, because afterward there would certainly be no sense staying alive,” said a former member of the group, Yehuda Wasserman. Indeed, they could not imagine another response. As Pasha Avidov, another member of DIN, declared less than 30 years ago, “If Jesus had been through the Holocaust, he would have joined us.”

In a manifesto Kovner drew up in April or May of 1945, which cited the complicity of non-German nations in the Holocaust as evidence that Hitler’s end hardly meant the end of an existential threat for Jews, he insisted that “humanity must not retain the impression that Jewish blood is forfeit.” Due to the fact that they had “received no proper answer and no suitable restitution for the destruction,” DIN refused “reconciliation with the murderers, which is the norm today, [and which] means nourishing the plan for a new slaughter of the Jewish people.” It ended with a declaration of purpose: “Therefore we assume the duty to make forgetting impossible, and will do so by means of the necessary deed: reprisal.” “This will be more than vengeance,” this manifesto warned. “It must be the law of the murdered Jewish people!”

DIN planned first to poison Germany’s water supply—and kill six million Germans. However, they were unsuccessful in acquiring the poison they needed. They had acquired strychnine in Paris, but when they tested it on dogs, it was insufficiently effective. Kovner went to Palestine to acquire a lethal agent, but his ship was detained and boarded by British authorities and he threw the barrel of poison he had procured into the sea.

When it was clear that Plan A had failed, they turned to a second plan in April 1946, Plan B: a targeted poisoning of former SS members at a POW camp in Nuremberg. From Paris came the arsenic, transported by a member of the group, Dov Schenkel, who carried the bottles in the legs of his pants. “We raised a toast,” Mira Verbin-Shabetzky remembers. “We sat with him all night, and we felt wonderful, even though we knew in advance that we would need to run away immediately.”

Secreting men into the bread bakery for the POW camp, they lacquered the bread with arsenic. “When we finished the first thousand,” Verbin-Shabetzk remembers, “we kissed each other.” While accounts vary, it seems that thousands of former SS members were sickened. However, few actually died. Vitka Kemper-Kovner, who was Abba’s life partner, insisted that the effect was less important than the act of carrying out. Indeed, as one member of the group wrote in a letter, “We have accomplished an important deed that will be remembered forever. But with it, our path has not ended…we will return and continue.”

And yet, that was the last action. DIN had planned to also poison the SS veterans held at this camp, but, at the last minute, with poison in hand, aborted the operation. To this day it is still unclear why. They poured out the arsenic in the woods. “That was the hardest moment for me,” said Shlomo Kenet, who transported the arsenic. “To take that material and personally throw it away.”

I find it difficult to find the right tone to write about these figures. There is, no doubt, a heroism to their determination, one that does seem fit for a film. And yet, to see how attached they were to these terrible deeds and to imagine how destitute they felt fills me with great horror too. It is hard to imagine all the violence and murder that had left them with this as their recourse. Several of them continued to wish, to the ends of their lives, that they might have only succeeded in the murder they had planned. Eventually, all of the members of DIN left Europe, which had become a place only of hatred and destruction. They had not all been Zionists before the war, but Europe had become a project they could no longer believe in. They emigrated. They went to Palestine where they settled in kibbutzes and helped to establish Israel—which, as Plan A suggested, might be another kind of revenge.

It is, in part, how the project of Israel has turned out that gives me great hesitation about the invocation of revenge. I do not write against violence as such. The tradition of the oppressed, running through Walter Benjamin and Frantz Fanon, teaches that violence is sometimes a necessary act to cast off the chains of the present and overturn the unjust structures of this world. I make no claim that I’d be the first on the street or on the front lines, but I do recognize that the status quo is, in itself, often violent—and only violence can change it. Revenge’s problem is, rather, that it is always fighting an impossible battle—with the past. And that can distort the present and future.

“The state of Israel,” Israel’s former Chief Rabbi, David Lau, once declared, “is revenge for the Holocaust.” He insisted that this revenge took shape through the flourishing of Jewish life in the nation. Indeed, Israel perhaps offers an exemplary test case of what it might mean to attempt a positive project within the frame of revenge. Dina Porat, an academic who has written on DIN, notes that after World War II, surviving Jews understood vengeance in varying ways. “The concept of vengeance, as the general Jewish public saw it following the war, did not specifically mean a physical counterattack in return for physical murder but rather struggling in different terms—building and continuity and creativity,” she writes, “in opposition to the dehumanization attempted by the Germans against the Jewish people.” Porat highlights a different kind of vengeance, what the historian Attina Grossman framed as: “find revenge in existence.” This is the dream that Plan A highlights as a kind of positive, perhaps even non-violent revenge.

Of course, it has turned out rather differently. (And from the beginning, as a project of settlement in an already-inhabited land, the idea of no fear for some meant fear and suffering for others.) In 1988, Yehuda Elkana, a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote in Haaretz about the danger of Israel’s holocaust memory. He called it “The Need to Forget.” He argued that there had emerged a cult of the dead in the nation that was killing off the possibility of democracy. He does not use the term revenge, but he gestures toward a displacement of vengeance where Israel’s memory culture helps to conflate Palestinians with Nazis.

“I see the tragic and paradoxical victory of Hitler,” Elkana wrote. “Two nations, metaphorically speaking, emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz: a minority who assert, ‘this must never happen again,’ and a frightened and haunted majority who assert, ‘this must never happen to us again.’ It is self-evident that, if these are the only possible lessons, I have always held to the former and seen the latter as catastrophic.”

For him, the motivation of Israel’s relationship with “the Palestinians” is “a profound existential ‘Angst’ fed by a particular interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust and the readiness to believe that the whole world is against us, and that we are the eternal victim.” In this context, he saw the school trips to Yad Vashem and the insistence to “Zechor! Remember” as “a call for continuing and blind hatred.” “What is a child to do with these memories?” he asked.

And this is hardly something that is only occurring in Israeli education, where teenagers have long toured the death camps to emotionally ready them for armed service. It is easy enough to see in unthinking films, like the recent Golda. There, at one moment, Helen Mirren’s Golda Meir, in conversation with Liev Schreiber’s Henry Kissinger, conflates Masada, pogroms, the Holocaust, and Arabs as existential threats to Israel and the Jewish people more largely.

The 2017 satiric novel Memory Monster by Yishai Sarid, a tale of a Jewish Israeli tour guide of the Nazi death camps in Poland, comments on this dynamic. It captures both this conflation and the response that Elkana was so fearful of. After the tour—which emphasizes every minute horror of the camp and functions as a reenactment of the experience—a student explains that what he takes from the experience: “I think that in order to survive we need to be a little bit Nazi, too.”

Rather than disillusion the student of this idea, the tour guide confirms it. “We could have taken you to eat candy in the markets of Marrakesh, to see a soccer match in Barcelona, or,” the tour guide says, “to hear singers performing tunes about broken hearts in Athens. But we brought you here, to the site of the murder. And I supposed we’ve accomplished our mission. We made you see that it’s all about power, power, power. I’m not going to play naïve or chaste. You’re right.

“You got the point, kids, well done.”


Could it be argued that revenge means something different within contexts? Might it be, like nationalism, as some would argue, a source of strength for minoritized groups—but something very different when it becomes the rallying cry of a dominant culture or nation? Sarid’s novel, which offers a form for a real dynamic in Israel’s memory politics, helps make clear that while revenge might be able to redescribe positive projects, it is not in itself one.

To take up vengeance is to root oneself in injury. As a dynamic, the only thing that is certain about revenge is that there was an injury—and the emphasis on this injury threatens to blot out the rest of the world. As the poet W.H. Auden wrote of figures like Ahab in The Enchanted Flood, “My injury is not an injury to me; it is me. If I cancel it out by succeeding in my vengeance, I shall not know who I am and will have to die. I cannot live without it.”

This is certainly what revenge tragedy tells us again and again. Avengers consume themselves in their vengeance, from Barabas, who perishes in his own cauldron at the play’s end, through Shosanna Dreyfus in Inglorious Basterds, who dies in the fire she has set to kill the Nazi high command. Amazon’s recent Hunters cannot envision a future for its protagonists unless structured around endless revenge. This has even played out in politics, where the history of Nazi Germany is also a bizarro revenge tragedy—ending in mass suicide. As Michel Foucault put it, Nazi Germany was “an absolutely racist State, an absolutely murderous State, and an absolutely suicidal State.” There is no future for revenge.

To abjure revenge might seem a weak response to the June 25th election victory of a member of the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), Germany’s far-right party, as the district administrator of Sonneberg—the first instance of the party achieving such a position of executive power. It is a watershed moment, the papers all proclaim, especially when AfD polls as the second largest party across all of Germany—with the support of just under a fifth of the survey’s respondents.

However, it is because the AfD functions through a logic of revenge—as do all the strains of the alt-right, our contemporary fascisms—that I insist we imagine another way forward. The alt-right in Germany has mobilized “against current politics,” an AfD voter describes it. To quote Bjorn Höcke, one of its chief ideologues and leaders, AfD is a “movement of the people against the social experiments of the last decades”—which include “multiculturalism” and “gender mainstreaming”—and “a resistance movement against the further erosion of Germany’s sovereignty and identity.” In 2018, he spoke about what he called a “violent process”: “the de-nationalization of the European peoples and the transformation of the nation-states into a multi-ethnic entity. The AfD does not state explicitly, as Donald Trump has done, “I am your retribution,” but this is what the AfD stands for when it declares it offers “normalcy.” Its aim, writes the academic Ralf Havertz, is “to reverse all those emancipations which modernity has brought for the German society.” Again, there is no future for revenge—only the return to the past where the wound lies.

This concern about how the prior wound might engulf the world informs Simone Weil’s famous consideration on the subject. “Revenge,” she writes. “Even if in fact we kill or torture our enemy, it is, in a sense, imaginary.” This is because, for her, “equilibrium” itself can never be realized—as but a human created idea of equivalence. While I believe our experience of life almost always takes place on the plane of imagination, revenge focuses our imagination on injury, distorting our possible visions of the future. This is part of why I have focused so much on the experience of fictional representations of revenge—not only do they offer central examples of revenge, but they also provide the ways through which we understand the world.

I am not writing in favor of reconciliation. Rather, between revenge and reconciliation lies an entire world in which one can build and dream and live, where the past exists but is not determinative. Revenge is, as Fromm calls it, “a magic reparation”—the weapon that shall heal the wound. But the work of repair, I believe, is no magic, but ongoing.


When I walk through the city, I do not think my presence is vengeance. I feel, rather, that I am a link in a chain that goes back 1700 years here. I think about writers and artists I admire, Walter Benjamin and Joseph Roth, Charlotte Salomon and Franz Kafka, Gabriele Tergit and Else Lasker-Schüler, whose streets I walk, whose homes I visit. I remember my father’s grandfather who swore off Europe because of a disagreement with the other rabbis in Berlin—possibly before he even set foot in the city. I wonder how it is exactly that my mother’s family bore the name of a southern German town, Günzburg, Ginzberg, Ginsburg, Ginsberg. I am not going away. I don’t intend to cede ground to the AfD, nor to be flattened by them. I am also curious about other things and feel lucky I can be.

On the weekend, there is sometimes a flea market on the canal near my apartment. I’ll walk by and look at the different objects people are selling. I cannot shake the feeling that vengeance is like some of the old coats I see there: threadbare and clearly worn out, but with an undeniable panache. Of course, when I touch one with my hand, the material is rougher than I expected and thinner, and I know it will leave me cold come the dark winter. Actually, I realize, I have already looked at it, the last time I walked through and was similarly disappointed. Besides, it’s hot in the city—it’s summer, a moment when the sun is out and one can imagine that, maybe, we won’t feel the need to wear such coats again.