Abba Kovner’s resistance activities during World War II made him a symbol of heroism to generations of Israelis. After leading the partisan resistance in Vilna and Lithuania, Kovner helped organize clandestine Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael; enabled the transit of almost 300,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors there; was a key witness in the Eichmann trial; served with distinction in the Israeli War of Independence; and deeply influenced Holocaust and Israeli historiography. He was also one of the greatest Hebrew poets of modern Israel and was awarded the Israel Prize for literature (1970).
Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Crimea on the shores of the Black Sea and raised in Vilna, Kovner (1918-87) was educated at the Tarbut Hebrew gymnasium and attended the University of Vilna as an art student. Committed to Zionism since boyhood, he became a member and then leader of the 1,000-member local branch of HaShomer HaTzair.
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and captured Vilna in June 1941, they ordered all Jews to be confined to the Vilna Ghetto, but Kovner escaped and received refuge in a Benedictine convent. However, concerned about the nuns’ safety and feeling guilty about leaving his first love, Hadassah, behind, he returned to the ghetto to be with his fellow Jews and to organize the Jewish resistance.
He would soon learn that Hadassah had been murdered by the Nazis in Ponary, an abandoned Soviet oil storage facility chosen as a prime execution site because it had large pits convenient for the disposal of bodies.
Kovner was one of the very first people to comprehend that Hitler was planning a “final solution” pursuant to which all Jews would be slaughtered. Accordingly, at a meeting of delegates of all Jewish Youth Movements in the Vilna Ghetto on the night of December 31, 1941, he read aloud his “Ghetto Manifesto” in which he coined the now-famous phrase, “We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter.” He explained that all their relatives had been murdered in the Ponary Massacre; that the Nazis intended to execute every last Jew; and that the only possible response was organized resistance.
Within weeks, Kovner had formed the United Partisan Organization (UPO), an integrated militia that was perhaps the first armed underground organization in the Nazi-constructed Jewish ghettos, and personally led the UPO’s celebrated HaNokmim (“the Avengers”) unit in training fighters, manufacturing bombs, smuggling weapons into the ghetto, and engaging in acts of mass armed resistance and sabotage against the Nazis and their allies.
After Kovner tried, but failed, to galvanize the broader Jewish community in Vilna to join the UPO in a mass uprising, he sent about 300 of his partisans into the forest while he and the few remaining fighters fought the Nazis. However, when the Nazis commenced the final deportations from the ghetto to the crematoria in 1943, Kovner directed the escape of the surviving fighters to the Rudnicki Forest, where they compiled an enviable record of destroying power, transportation, and water infrastructure; killing German soldiers; and rescuing Jews. Certain that the Jewish road to self-respect was through combat and convinced that Jews must fight as Jews, he refused all offers to be absorbed into Lithuanian or Russian partisan groups.
Returning to Vilna with the Red Army on July 7, 1944, Kovner and his Jewish partisans helped recapture and liberate the city about a week later and were distraught to find that only about 600 of the original 87,000 Jews had survived. He subsequently organized clandestine Jewish immigration as a founder of the Bericha (“escape”) movement, which successfully transported 300,000 Jews from post-Holocaust Europe to Eretz Yisrael.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Kovner traveled through the liberated countryside, making stops in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek and, staggered by the extent of the Nazi killing machine and its industrialized mass-murder, turned his all-consuming desire for revenge into action. He formed an underground organization called Nakam (“revenge”), which was also known as Dam Yisrael Noter (“The blood of Israel avenges”), with the acronym DIN, meaning “judgment.”
Kovner’s first plan for revenge included killing six million Germans – one for each Jew murdered in the Holocaust – by poisoning German reservoirs in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, and Nuremberg. While Nakam members infiltrated water and sewage plants, Kovner traveled to Eretz Yisrael to secure an effective poison. Although he apparently did not receive hoped-for support from Yishuv leaders, Kovner claimed that Chaim Weizmann supported the plan and referred him to famed scientist Ernst Bergmann, who in turn assigned responsibility for preparing the poison to Ephraim Katzir, a biophysicist who later served as Israel’s fourth president, and his electrochemist brother, Aharon Katzir, who was later murdered by Arab terrorists during the May 30, 1972 Lod Airport Massacre.
Most historians doubt Kovner’s account, particularly because it is indisputable that Weizmann was overseas at the time. However, the Katzirs confirmed that they provided the lethal poison to Kovner, a step they were highly unlikely to have taken unless they had received permission from Jewish leadership to do so or, at the very least, their superiors knew about it. In any event, while returning to France on a British ship, Kovner was arrested by the British, but not before he was able to heave the poison overboard.
Many historians believe that Yishuv leaders who opposed Kovner’s plan sold him out and reported him to the British authorities, who arrested him and imprisoned him for a few months in a Cairo jail. Upon his release, he turned to implementing a new revenge plan against the Germans, a plan that met with only limited success: a scheme to poison thousands of Nazi prisoners in a POW camp.
In early 1946, Nakam infiltrated the kitchens of Stalag 13-D, an internment camp at Nuremberg under American auspices and, in the early hours of April 13, 1946, laced with arsenic 3,000 loaves of bread to be used to feed S.S. prisoners there. The New York Times reported that 2,238 Nazis were sickened, but there are widely differing accounts regarding how many German prisoners fell victim to the attack. Recently declassified documents suggest that there were no fatalities, which seems most improbable given that Nakam used enough arsenic to kill many thousands of Nazis.
In any event, although Kovner never came close to achieving the grandiose Nakam goal, he played a fundamental role in telling the story of Jewish rebellion and keeping alive the tales of Jewish heroism during the Shoah.
Kovner made aliyah in 1945; joined the Haganah in December 1947; became a captain and served as education officer in the famous Givati Brigade of the IDF in May 1948; and fought during Israel’s War of Independence on the southern front. He became particularly famous – or infamous – during the war for his “Battle Pages” (headed “Death to the Invaders!”), which contained news from the Egyptian front and essays designed to boost the soldiers’ morale.
However, his pages called for revenge for the Holocaust and referred to the Egyptian enemy as vipers and dogs, which upset many Israeli political and military leaders. His first battle page, which accused the Nitzanim garrison of cowardice for surrendering to an overwhelming Egyptian force, continues to be controversial to this day. During the War of Independence, approximately 80 such Daf Kravi (“Order of the Day”) leaves were printed by the IDF, the most important being those of the Givati Brigade written by Kovner.
Exhibited here is one of the more interesting Order of the Day pages from my collection. The translation is somewhat imprecise because of Kovner’s extensive use of poetics, including poetic reference to the Jews’ previous defeat of Egypt during the biblical Exodus, the Ten Plagues, etc.
…DEATH TO THE INVADERS! SOUTHERN FRONT GIVATI BRIGADE
July 17, 1948
THE PLAGUE OF STENCH
[Background: Negba, a kibbutz founded in 1939, had a strategic position overlooking the Majdal-Bait Jibrin road, and was a target of two major assaults by the Egyptians in June and July 1948, both of which Israel successfully repelled. Negba went on to serve as a key forward base for Israeli attacks against Egyptian forces.]
It is difficult now for the defenders of Negba to hold their positions – because piles of Egyptian corpses stink from beyond.
King Farouk – so he explained yesterday on Radio Cairo – is arranging a visit to the hospitalized injured Egyptians and expressed his satisfaction over the high morale of his noble fighters. King Farouk, King Farouk! Perhaps you will attempt to remove your royal clothes and come to the fields of Negba to gather the piles of stinking morale? Because our lives are very difficult – because we got used to breathing fresh air, crisp and pure, in this birthplace of ours. [In other words, remove your stinking Egyptian carcasses.]
King Farouk – he will not come to gather his excrement. Because many years indeed have passed since the time of Moses and the Ten Plagues of Egypt – including the great-grandson [i.e., descendants] of Pharaoh becoming accustomed to the plagues.
– He became accustomed to Lice. And he is okay with it.
– He became accustomed to Boils. And he is okay with it.
– He became accustomed to Pestilence. And he is okay with it.
– And he became accustomed to Wild Beasts. And to Frogs and Locusts he became accustomed – his royal chariots are harnessed with these.
Only the Plague of Blood he will learn! And it will come:
First, for the descendants of Moshe [i.e., the Jews currently battling the Egyptians] it is different today – the Plague of Darkness. It is the night of the attack by the Yahud [the Arabic term for Jews]. After that came the Plague of Stench. He is the rot in the fields. And to this Great Plague of Blood our hands [and weapons] are still raised.
THE HOUSE OF THE MUFTI HAS BEEN DESTROYED
The House of the Mufti [Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who had fled to Iraq in October 1939] in Idnibba [a town about 18 miles south of Ramallah] was “gathered today to the dynamite” with great acts of purification that was conducted by our units in the Wadi Sarar area…
A BOLD RAID ON ISHDOD
[Background: After occupying Yad Mordechai, Israel’s general staff determined that the Egyptian forces based in Ishdod – including 2,300 men, 25 pound cannons, and 3.7 Howitzers – planned to either attack Tel Aviv or reinforce the siege of Jerusalem. They decided to send the Givati Brigade to attack the Egyptian forces there.]
On the evening of July 16, an exceptionally bold attack was carried out against the heart of the Egyptian army to the north of Ishdod. Our forces breached the gates of their camp, entered inside, and caused great enemy casualties. The battle continued for over an hour. More details are forthcoming.
Deep are the nights of Tammuz. A full moon is overflowing [i.e., is everywhere]. A light wind blows over the southern hills. People are moved to return home. And the heart is turned toward his wife and mother and the song of children far away. But around you the stupid eyes of the dogs of the Nile [i.e., the Egyptians] are sparkling – INTO THE NILE, DOGS! INTO THE NILE!…
AND TO THE INVADERS LET THERE BE NO HOPE
Following the war, Kovner returned to Ein HaChoresh, a leftist-atheist Kibbutz where he served for many years as “rabbi,” preached a Zionism enhanced by its Jewish roots, and instilled spiritual depth to its celebration of Jewish holidays and ceremonies. He became a prolific and renowned Hebrew and Yiddish writer and poet; traveled widely, visiting Eastern European Jewish communities; and was active in HaShomer HaTzair and the Mapam party (but never assumed a formal political role).
Throughout his post-Holocaust life, Kovner vociferously challenged all claims that the Jews had acted passively and dishonorably. He famously testified at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem (1961) about the brutality of Germans and their collaborators in the Vilna Ghetto and about reprisals meted out by Jewish partisans against captured German soldiers. He – and many others – believed that his seminal testimony at the trial created a “spiritual earthquake” that eased the ability of many survivors to open up for the first time about their Holocaust experiences.
Kovner emerged from the trial as one of the most important and authoritative witnesses to the Holocaust and as a much-respected moral figure. His constant emphasis on Jewish morality and historical justice led him to attack the Soviet regime – the much beloved darling of Israeli socialists and leftists – and he strongly advocated against accepting a “rehabilitated” Germany before it could offer some broad accounting of, and restitution for, its Holocaust crimes.
In this December 20, 1978 correspondence written from his home on Kibbutz at Ein HaChoresh, Kovner writes to painter Mordechai Kellner:
I am already committed to lecture in Haifa on January 18 in the evening and, to my regret, I cannot participate in the evening of commemoration for my friend, Azriel [Uchmani], may he rest in peace. In any case, I would find it difficult to write anything different than what I have already said at the shivah in Ein Shemer.
Kibbutz Ein Shemer, located in the Shomron region three to four miles from Chaderah, was known for its artists, including Azriel Uchmani (1907-78), an Israeli writer and literary critic who served as secretary of the labor council of the Kibbutz. He was also a rav, having studied at the yeshiva of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, and earned a degree in agronomy from the University of Toulouse.
Kovner’s poetry focused on his experience of the Holocaust in Vilna and his sense of isolation as a survivor; for him, the post-war Jewish and Israeli experience was also a material part of the ongoing Holocaust experience. He co-founded the Holocaust journal Yalkut Moreshet (1963); founded the Moreshet Holocaust Institute; served as chairman of the Hebrew Writers’ Association; and was the moving force behind the founding of Beit HaTfutsot (the Diaspora Museum) and the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Kovner was awarded the Israel Prize in Literature (1970), and his other awards include the Prime Minister’s Prize for Hebrew Literary Works and the Cultural Prize of the World Jewish Congress. He was also artistically inclined, as evidenced by his enrollment in art school as a young man and by this unusual drawing and note to “Ziv,” probably Yitzchak Ziv-Av, deputy editor of Haboker:
Alone in London,
Without “splendor” [a lovely pun on the word “ziv”]