A group of elderly Holocaust survivors came forward 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 Friday broadcast on Israel Channel Two TV, the survivors, some of whom fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, recalled hunting down SS officers in the dead of night. Disguised as British or American officers, they would drag the SS men out of their homes and execute them, they said.
In their largest operation, the group, code-named "the Avengers," 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.
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," group member Simcha Rotem told Channel Two.
The broadcast focused on a rare reunion of the group that took place earlier this month in a Tel Aviv suburb. Sixty years after the end of World War II, with most of several dozen "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 their children, grandchildren and other relatives.
Over the years, reports of such Jewish death squads have surfaced and several books have been written. The Israeli government has often turned a blind eye to the reports. Earlier this year, it 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 is 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" to carrying it out, Breitbart said.
With just a handful of Avengers left, and their actions part of history, the elderly survivors feel they have nothing to lose by speaking publicly about their operations.
One of the few surviving members of the fighters in the Ghetto Uprising, Rotem spent the entire war battling the Nazis. At the end of the war, he went to Bucharest where he met Nava (Abba) Kovner, the head of a group of Avengers from eastern Poland who spent most of the war as partisan fighters.
"I don't remember how I found out that they were thinking of this idea, but I also had this idea," Rotem said. "We walked around for two or three hours and we agreed to things and we began to work. It was very simple."
Rotem, 81 and living in Jerusalem, took charge of a plan to poison to death 28,000 SS officers imprisoned by the Americans in Dachau and Nuremberg in Germany.
"I wanted to finish off the SS officers who were held by the Americans ... unfortunately we did not succeed," Rotem said.
But another plan, carried out in part by Joseph Harmatz, largely succeeded. Harmatz found work at a bakery that supplied bread to American-run prisoner camps.
He said he received arsenic in rubber bottles from Paris, which he then used to poison 3,000 loaves of bread. About 2,280 SS men ate the bread, he said, but couldn't say how many, or if any, died. News reports at the time said more than 200 people were hospitalized, but made no mention of deaths.
"We fled (the Nazis) and we took revenge," the elderly Harmatz told Channel Two in a raspy voice. "We saw ourselves as obligated not to leave Europe so we could settle accounts with the Germans.
Michael Bar-Zohar, author of a book, "The Avengers," published in 1967, said the bread poisoning was the group's biggest operation.
They also considered an attempt to poison the water supply of five German cities but decided against it, Bar-Zohar said. Rotem confirmed they had other plans that were called off because they were afraid of killing innocent people.
The group, which included about 40 members, was largely made up of Jews who spent the entire war fighting the Nazis, Bar-Zohar said.
"Their spirit hadn't been broken by the concentration camps," Bar-Zohar said. The camp survivors "didn't have the will or desire to avenge."