Biography - Abba Kovner - Hero of the Vilna Ghetto Uprising
On June 24, 1941, two days after Germany launched its surprise attack against the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, the Germans occupied Vilnius or Vilna, now in Lithuania. Kovner and other members of Hashomer Hatzair, an underground movement in the USSR, escaped from Vilna and hid for a time in a Dominican convent outside the city.
As the Germans swept east, they began the oppression and ultimately the
liquidation of the Jews in the areas they occupied.
The next major Aktion took place beginning August 31, supposedly in retaliation for an attack against the Germans. The Germans then crowded tens of thousands of Jews from surrounding areas into Vilna.
Kovner, who was to lead the ghetto revolt, 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.
During the four day Aktion. 8,000 men and women were shot at Ponary.
The fate of those taken to Ponary was masked by the Germans as "resettlement," but the truth got back to the ghetto. Most did not believe it was possible, but a few understood that the Germans were out to exterminate the Jews, and decided to resist.
In December 1941, activists held several meetings, where they decided to resist and to remain in the ghetto rather than trying to escape. They managed to hold a meeting on New Year's eve. In front of the 150 Jews at 2 Straszuna Street, in a public soup kitchen, Kovner proclaimed:
A meeting was held three weeks later, January 21, 1942, at the home of
Joseph Glazman. Representatives from the major youth groups met: Abba Kovner of
Hashomer Hatzair, Joseph Glazman of
Betar, Yitzhak Wittenberg and Chyena Borowska of
the Communists and Nissan Reznik of Ha-No'ar ha-Ziyyoni
Meanwhile, Kovner was writing. His poems were published by Hashomer Hatzair in Vilna, and in 1943, a smuggled poem was published for the first time in Palestine, by the newspaper Haaretz, after being smuggled out by the partisan post. It was signed Uri, Kovner's name in the underground.
In July 1943, Wittenberg, the commander of the F.P.O., was arrested at a meeting with the head of Vilna's Judenrat, Jacob Gens probably due to treachery of Gens under Nazi threats. He was freed by other F.P.O. members, and went into hiding. The Germans threatened that if he were not released, the entire ghetto would be liquidated. 20,000 still remained alive. Pressure against the FPO was organized by the Judenrat. Wittenberg eventually gave himself up, and 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 join the deportation because they were being sent to their deaths. They proclaimed:
Most ghetto residents did not heed the proclamation.Most of these transports were being sent to labor camps in Estonia, chiefly the HKP and Kailis camps. Most of the transportees at those camps were eventually killed by the SS.
The HKP camp was commanded by Wehrmacht Major Karl Plagge, who managed to shield some of his workers from the SS. Of all the Jews of the Vilna ghetto, the 250 survivors represent the largest group of those who were transported and survived the war.
On September 1, 1943, fighting broke out between the F.P.O. and the Germans. The F.P.O. shot at the Germans, and the Germans blew up their buildings. The Germans retreated at night and allowed the Jewish police to round up the remaining ghetto residents for the transports, at the insistence of Gens, the head of the Judenrat (Jewish council).
The F.P.O. realized further resistance was pointless, as they were alone in the fight. They escaped to the forests through the sewers. They created a partisan group, destroying power and water infrastructures, freeing groups of prisoners from the Kalais labor camp, and even blew up some German military trains. Kovner wrote:
Abba Kovner survived. He organized the Beriha to Palestine. In July 1945 he arrived at the Jewish Brigade base in Italy, and from there traveled to Palestine to gather equipment. While returning to Europe, he was arrested by the British and deported to Egypt, where he was held briefly. In 1946 he joined his wife and partner in the F.P.O., Vitka Kampner, and arrived with a few more partisans at kibbutz Ein Hahoresh. During the Israeli War of Independence. Kovner was an officer in charge of cultural activities in the "Givati" brigade and issued a daily battle sheet.
Following the war Kovner returned to Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh and began to write. He published several collections of poems and a prose trilogy. His book of poetry Ad Lo-Or, ("Until there is no more iight"), 1947, describes the struggle of the partisans in Eastern Europe. The poem, Ha-Mafteach Tzalal, ("The Key Drowned"), 1951, also about his partisan experiences is included in Mikol Ha'ahovot (1965). Preidah Me-ha-darom ("Departure from the South"), 1949, and Admat Hahol (Sandy ground), 1961, are additional poetry. His prose trilogy Panim el Panim ("Face to Face"), 1953, She'at Ha'efes (zero hour) and Ha-Zomet (the junction) immortalizes the Givati brigade in the Israeli War of Independencee,
In 1970, Kovner was awarded the Israel prize and elected Chairman of the Hebrew Writers' Association.
Kovner died in September 1987 at the age of 69.
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