Abba Kovner, partisan leader, writer, and activist, dedicated his entire life to the preservation of Jewish lives and culture. As an influential leader throughout WWII, Kovner is most famously known as the very first Holocaust victim to publicly identify Hitler and Nazi Germany’s plans to commit genocide against the Jews. From youth, and well into his final years, Kovner remained committed to his political causes and beliefs: for the better part of the 20th century, embodying an untiring loyalty to Jewish and Israeli causes.
Kovner was born in 1918 in the town of Ashmyany, Belarus, then known as Oszmiana. During his teenage years, he and his family moved to Vilnius, Lithuania, then considered the "Jerusalem of Lithuania". He was educated in the Hebrew Tarbut Gymnasium, as well as the Stefan Batory University’s Faculty of Arts. While studying, Kovner joined the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, which called for the freedom and refuge of Jewish youth through immigration to Palestine.
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When the Nazis invaded Vilnius in August of 1941, forcing the Jewish community into the Vilna Ghetto, Kovner and some friends found shelter in a local Dominican convent. Like many other Jews throughout the war, the youths were harbored by nuns.
Over the course of the Nazi occupation, thousands of Jews from the Vilna Ghetto were tricked into thinking they were being transported to labor camps, then executed in the Ponary forest. Hearing rumors of the executions, activists from the Zionist youth group, including Kovner, began to organize, realizing the full intent behind the Nazis' operations. Kovner himself was able to identify that what was happening in Vilnius was likely happening in other occupied parts of Europe, and that if the Nazis were to succeed, all of Europe's Jews would be killed. He constantly snuck in and out of the ghettos, manufacturing bombs and other weapons in the hopes of disrupting the Nazis' plans.
In early 1942, Kovner and his fellow youth leaders held a meeting, serving as the first official call for resistance in the Vilna Ghetto. It was at this convention where Kovner famously read aloud his manifesto, Let us Not Go Like Lambs to The Slaughter House. Kovner warned of Hitler’s true plans, and urged the Jews to rise up in resistance: “Jewish youth, do not be led astray. Of the 80,000 Jews in the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” [Vilnius] only 20,000 have remained…Where are our brothers from the second ghetto? All those who were taken away from the ghetto never came back…Ponary is not a camp—all are shot there. Hitler aims to destroy all the Jews of Europe…Let us not go as sheep to slaughter! It is true that we are weak and defenseless, but resistance is the only reply to the enemy! Brothers!...Resist! To the last breath.”
Three weeks later, Kovner and other youths officially organized the United Partisan Organization, also known by its Yiddish abbreviation, FPO. But despite their hopes to inspire resistance, Kovner soon realized that the downtrodden and oppressed community inside the ghetto would likely not produce a united insurrection. Determined nonetheless, members of the FPO assembled a guerrilla group called Nokmin, meaning Avengers, and orchestrated several small attacks on the Nazis.
Shortly after the surrender of Germany in 1945, Abba Kovner stood at the site of the Ponary Massacre, where more than 100,000 Jews had been murdered. Enraged, and well aware of the rumor that several millions of Jews had been killed in concentration camps, Kovner began to further investigate. He interviewed several fellow Holocaust survivors, including those from Auschwitz, and heard testimonies of the horrific executions we are all familiar with.
While conducting the interviews, Kovner successfully recruited approximately 50 Holocaust survivors, all united by their desire for vengeance. They named themselves Nakam, meaning revenge, and decided that they would poison the biggest water supply in Germany to achieve their goal: a death toll of six million Germans, an equivalent figure to the amount of Jewish people who had been killed. Kovner was ultimately unable to secure the poison they needed, and sent word back to the rest of Nakam to put into motion their smaller, less ambitious plan.
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Instead, the group would target an American war camp near Nuremberg that was holding several high-ranking Nazi officers. They began to acquire a large supply of arsenic through local pharmacists, while simultaneously infiltrating the bakeries which sold bread to the camp. About 2,300 German war prisoners became sick from the poisoned bread, and about 200 were hospitalized. In the end no one was killed, and the Nakam had failed at both of their plans. Ultimately, many Jews, including Kovner himself, redirected their efforts toward the building of the new Jewish nation of Israel. He eventually joined the Israeli Defense Force, and served in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Kovner spent most of his years after the war writing poetry, delivering speeches, and raising a family in the Ein Hahoresh kibbutz in Israel. He became known for his poetry and other literature about the war, including Panim el Panim, meaning "face to face" and Megilot Ha-‘edut, meaning "scrolls of testimony". In 1970, Kovner was awarded the Israel Prize in literature, and even took part in the design and development of many of the Holocaust museums we visit today. These many contributions before his passing in 1987 are a testiment to the incredible name Abba Kovner left for himself, and the enormous impact he made on Jewish and Israeli history.
Sources: The New York Times