Abba Kovner and Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto

A picture of Abba Kovner, resistance leader of Vilna.
Abba Kovner holding a gun. Picture courtesy the USHMM.

In the Vilna Ghetto and in the Rudninkai Forest (both in Lithuania), Abba Kovner, only 25 years old, led resistance fighters against the murderous Nazi enemy during the Holocaust.

Who Was Abba Kovner?

Abba Kovner was born in 1918 in Sevastopol, Russia, but later moved to Vilna (now in Lithuania), where he attended a Hebrew secondary school. During these early years, Kovner became an active member in the Zionist youth movement, Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir.

In September 1939, World War II began. Only two weeks later, on September 19, the Red Army entered Vilna and soon incorporated it into the Soviet Union. Kovner became active during this time, 1940 to 1941, with the underground. But life changed drastically for Kovner once the Germans invaded.

The Germans Invade Vilna

On June 24, 1941, two days after Germany launched its surprise attack against the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), the Germans occupied Vilna. As the Germans were sweeping east toward Moscow, they instigated their ruthless oppression and murderous Aktionen in the communities they occupied.

Vilna, with a Jewish population of approximately 55,000, was known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" for its flourishing Jewish culture and history. The Nazis soon changed that.

As Kovner and 16 other members of the Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir hid in a convent of Dominican nuns a few miles outside of Vilna, the Nazis began to rid Vilna of its "Jewish problem."

The Killing Begins at Ponary

Less than a month after the Germans occupied Vilna, they conducted their first Aktionen. Einsatzkommando 9 rounded up 5,000 Jewish men of Vilna and took them to Ponary (a location approximately six miles from Vilna that had pre-dug large pits, which the Nazis used as a mass extermination area for Jews from the Vilna area).

The Nazis made the pretense that the men were to be sent to labor camps, when they were really sent to Ponary and shot.

The next major Aktion took place from August 31 to September 3. This Aktion was in pretense a retaliation for an attack against the Germans. Kovner, watching through a window, saw a woman

dragged by the hair by two soldiers, a woman who was holding something in her arms. One of them directed a beam of light into her face, the other one dragged her by her hair and threw her on the pavement.

Then the infant fell out of her arms. One of the two, the one with the flashlight, I believe, took the infant, raised him into the air, grabbed him by the leg. The woman crawled on the earth, took hold of his boot and pleaded for mercy. But the soldier took the boy and hit him with his head against the wall, once, twice, smashed him against the wall.1

Such scenes occurred frequently during this four-day Aktion - ending with 8,000 men and women taken to Ponary and shot.

Life did not get better for the Jews of Vilna. From September 3 to 5, immediately following the last Aktion, the Jews were forced into a small area of the city and fenced in. Kovner remembers,

And when the troops herded the whole suffering, tortured, weeping mass of people into the narrow streets of the ghetto, into those seven narrow stinking streets, and locked the walls that had been built, behind them, everyone suddenly sighed with relief. They left behind them days of fear and horror; and ahead of them were deprivation, hunger and suffering - but now they felt more secure, less afraid. Almost no one believed that it would be possible to kill off all of them, all those thousands and tens of thousands, the Jews of Vilna, Kovno, Bialystok, and Warsaw - the millions, with their women and children.2

Though they had experienced terror and destruction, the Jews of Vilna were still not ready to believe the truth about Ponary. Even when a survivor of Ponary, a woman named Sonia, came back to Vilna and told of her experiences, no one wanted to believe. Well, a few did. And these few decided to resist.

The Call to Resist

In December 1941, there were several meetings between the activists in the ghetto. Once the activists had decided to resist, they needed to decide, and agree, on the best way to resist.

One of the most urgent problems was whether they should stay in the ghetto, go to Bialystok or Warsaw (some thought there would be a better chance at successful resistance in these ghettos), or move to the forests.

Coming to an agreement on this issue was not easy. Kovner, known by his nom de guerre of "Uri," offered some of the main arguments for staying in Vilna and fighting.

In the end, most decided to stay, but a few decided to leave.

These activists wanted to instill a passion for fighting within the ghetto. To do this, the activists wanted to have a mass meeting with many different youth groups in attendance. But the Nazis were always watching, especially noticeable would be a large group. So, in order to disguise their mass meeting, they arranged it on December 31, New Year's Eve, a day of many, many social gatherings.

Kovner was responsible for writing a call to revolt. In front of the 150 attendees gathered together at 2 Straszuna Street in a public soup kitchen, Kovner read aloud:

Jewish youth!

Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Out of the eighty thousand Jews in the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" only twenty thousand are left. . . . Ponar [Ponary] is not a concentration camp. They have all been shot there. Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe, and the Jews of Lithuania have been chosen as the first in line.

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!3

At first there was silence. Then the group broke out in spirited song.4

The Creation of the F.P.O.

Now that the youth in the ghetto were enthused, the next problem was how to organize the resistance. A meeting was scheduled for three weeks later, January 21, 1942. At the home of Joseph Glazman, representatives from the major youth groups met together:

  • Abba Kovner of Ha-Shomer ha-Za'ir
  • Joseph Glazman of Betar
  • Yitzhak Wittenberg of the Communists
  • Chyena Borowska of the Communists
  • Nissan Reznik of Ha-No'ar ha-Ziyyoni

At this meeting something important happened - these groups agreed to work together. In other ghettos, this was a major stumbling block for many would-be resisters. Yitzhak Arad, in Ghetto in Flames, attributes the "parleys" by Kovner to the ability to hold a meeting with representatives of the four youth movements.5

It was at this meeting that these representatives decided to form a united fighting group called the Fareinikte Partisaner Organizatzie - F.P.O. ("United Partisans Organization). The organization was formed to unite all the groups in the ghetto, prepare for mass armed resistance, perform acts of sabotage, fight with partisans, and try to get other ghettos to also fight.

It was agreed at this meeting that the F.P.O. would be lead by a "staff command" made up of Kovner, Glazman, and Wittenberg with the "chief commander" being Wittenberg.

Later, two more members were added to staff command - Abraham Chwojnik of the Bund and Nissan Reznik of the Ha-No'ar ha-Ziyyoni - expanding the leadership to five.

Now that they were organized it was time to prepare for the fight.

The Preparation

Having the idea to fight is one thing, but being prepared to fight is quite another. Shovels and hammers are no match to machine guns. Weapons needed to be found. Weapons were an extremely hard item to attain in the ghetto. And, even harder to acquire was ammunition.

There were two main sources from which the ghetto inhabitants could obtain guns and ammunition - partisans and the Germans. And neither wanted the Jews to be armed.

Slowly collecting by buying or stealing, risking their lives every day for carrying or hiding, the members of the F.P.O. were able to collect a small stash of weapons. They were hidden all over the ghetto - in walls, under ground, even under a false bottom of a water bucket.

The resistance fighters were preparing to fight during the final liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto. No one knew when that was going to happen - it could be days, weeks, perhaps even months. So every day, the members of the F.P.O. practiced.

One knock on a door - then two - then another single knock. That was the F.P.O.s secret password.6 They would take out the hidden weapons and learn how to hold it, how to shoot it, and how not to waste the precious ammunition.

Everyone was to fight - no one was to head for the forest until all was lost.

Preparation was ongoing. The ghetto had been peaceful - no Aktionen since December 1941. But then, in July 1943, disaster struck the F.P.O.

Resistance!

At a meeting with the head of Vilna's Jewish council, Jacob Gens, on the night of July 15, 1943, Wittenberg was arrested. As he was taken out of the meeting, other F.P.O. members were alerted, attacked the police men, and freed Wittenberg. Wittenberg then went into hiding.

By the next morning, it was announced that if Wittenberg were not apprehended, the Germans would liquidate the entire ghetto - consisting of approximately 20,000 people. The ghetto residents were angry and began attacking F.P.O. member with stones.

Wittenberg, knowing he was going to sure torture and death, turned himself in. Before he left, he appointed Kovner as his successor.

A month and a half later, the Germans decided to liquidate the ghetto. The F.P.O. tried to persuade the ghetto residents not to go for the deportation because they were being sent to their deaths.

Jews! Defend yourselves with arms! The German and Lithuanian hangmen have arrived at the gates of the ghetto. They have come to murder us! . . . But we shall not go! We shall not stretch our necks like sheep for the slaughter! Jews! Defend yourself with arms!7

But the ghetto residents did not believe this, they believed they were being sent to work camps - and in this case, they were right. Most of these transports were being sent to labor camps in Estonia.

On September 1, the first clash broke out between the F.P.O. and the Germans. As the F.P.O. fighters shot at the Germans, the Germans blew up their buildings. The Germans retreated at nightfall and let the Jewish police round up the remaining ghetto residents for the transports, at the insistence of Gens.

The F.P.O. came to the realization that they would be alone in this fight. The ghetto population was not willing to rise up; instead, they were willing to try their chances at a labor camp rather than certain death in revolt. Thus, the F.P.O. decided to escape to the forests and become partisans.

The Forest

Since the Germans had the ghetto surrounded, the only way out was through the sewers.

Once in the forests, the fighters created a partisan division and performed many acts of sabotage. They destroyed power and water infrastructures, freed groups of prisoners from the Kalais labor camp, and even blew up some German military trains.

I remember the first time I blew up a train. I went out with a small group, with Rachel Markevitch as our guest. It was New Year's Eve; we were bringing the Germans a festival gift. The train appeared on the raised railway; a line of large, heavy-laden trucks rolled on toward Vilna. My heart suddenly stopped beating for joy and fear. I pulled the string with all my strength, and in that moment, before the thunder of the explosion echoed through the air, and twenty-one trucks full of troops hurtled down into the abyss, I heard Rachel cry: "For Ponar!" [Ponary]8

The End of the War

Kovner survived to the end of the war. Though he had been instrumental in establishing a resistance group in Vilna and led a partisan group in the forests, Kovner did not stop his activities at the war's end. Kovner was one of the founders of the underground organization to smuggle Jews out of Europe called Beriha.

Kovner was caught by the British near the end of 1945 and was jailed for a short time. Upon his release he joined Kibbutz Ein ha-Horesh in Israel, with his wife, Vitka Kempner, who had also been a fighter in the F.P.O.

Kovner kept his fighting spirit and was active in Israel's War for Independence.

After his fighting days, Kovner wrote two volumes of poetry for which he won the 1970 Israel Prize in Literature.

Kovner died at age 69 in September 1987.

Notes

1. Abba Kovner as quoted in Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985) 192.
2. Abba Kovner, "The Mission of the Survivors," The Catastrophe of European Jewry, Ed. Yisrael Gutman (New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1977) 675.
3. Proclamation of the F.P.O as quoted in Michael Berenbaum, Witness to the Holocaust (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1997) 154.
4. Abba Kovner, "A First Attempt to Tell," The Holocaust as Historical Experience: Essays and a Discussion, Ed. Yehuda Bauer (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1981) 81-82.
5. Yitzhak Arad, Ghetto in Flames: The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Ahva Cooperative Printing Press, 1980) 236.
6. Kovner, "First Attempt" 84.
7. F.P.O. Manifesto as quoted in Arad, Ghetto 411-412.
8. Kovner, "First Attempt" 90.

Bibliography

Arad, Yitzhak. Ghetto in Flames: The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust. Jerusalem: Ahva Cooperative Printing Press, 1980.

Berenbaum, Michael, ed. Witness to the Holocaust. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1997.

Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985.

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. New York: Macmillan Library Reference U.S.A., 1990.

Kovner, Abba. "A First Attempt to Tell." The Holocaust as Historical Experience: Essays and a Discussion. Ed. Yehuda Bauer. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1981.

Kovner, Abba. "The Mission of the Survivors." The Catastrophe of European Jewry. Ed. Yisrael Gutman. New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1977.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Abba Kovner and Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto." ThoughtCo, Sep. 21, 2015, thoughtco.com/abba-kovner-and-resistance-in-vilna-ghetto-1779665. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2015, September 21). Abba Kovner and Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/abba-kovner-and-resistance-in-vilna-ghetto-1779665 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Abba Kovner and Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/abba-kovner-and-resistance-in-vilna-ghetto-1779665 (accessed November 23, 2017).