Abba Kovner

Abba Kovner: Fighter, Leader and Renowned Writer

Abba Kovner was a legendary figure who was a Jewish partisan fighter, a leader and a man of letters. Born on March 14, 1918, in Russia, he moved as a teenager with his family to Vilnius (Vilna) in Lithuania.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union and soon captured Vilnius. Jews were required to live in the Vilna Ghetto, but Kovner managed to escape with several friends to a Dominican convent in the city’s suburbs. He soon returned to the ghetto and concluded that in order for any revolt to be successful, a Jewish resistance fighting force needed to be assembled. At the end of December 1941 he issued a sharp declaration:

“Jewish youth! Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe…We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!”

Abba Kovner

The manifesto was the first instance in which a target of the Holocaust identified that Hitler had decided to kill all the Jews of Europe. With these words, Kovner galvanized the divided factions of the Vilna ghetto resistance to join together and fight back against their would-be murderers. Three weeks later, the FPO (United Partisan Organization) was born. But the attempt to organize a revolt was not successful. Kovner fled into the forest, became a partisan fighter and survived the war.

From September 1943 until the arrival of the Soviet army in July 1944, Kovner, along with his lieutenants, commanded a partisan group called the Avengers (“Nokmim”) in the forests near Vilna and engaged in sabotage and guerrilla attacks against the Germans and their local collaborators.

At the end of the war, Kovner was one of the founders of a secret organization Nakam (revenge), whose purpose was to seek revenge for the Holocaust. Plans were made to poison German water supplies and to kill German prisoners of war, though neither was very successful.

After the occupation of Vilnius by the Red Army, Kovner became one of the founders of the Berihah movement, helping Jews escape Eastern Europe after the war.

Kovner came to pre-state Israel in 1947. There he joined the Haganah (the pre-state Jewish defense force) in Israel. Soon after Israel declared independence in May 1948 he became a captain in the Givati Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces.

Kovner continued to inspire people with his writing, much of it based on his war experiences Considered one of the greatest poets of modern Israel, he received the Israel Prize for literature in 1970.

From 1946 to his death, Kovner was a resident of Kibbutz Ein HaHoresh. He was active in the left-wing Mapam party, as well as in the HaShomer HaTzair youth movement, but never took on a formal political role. He played a major part in the design and construction of several Holocaust museums. In 1961, Kovner testified at the trial in Israel of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

Abba Kovner died at the age of 69 on Sept.27, 1987.