Abba Kovner

Abba Kovner (Hebrew: אבא קובנר; March 14, 1918 – September 25, 1987) was a Jewish Hebrew and Yiddish poet, writer and partisan leader. In the Vilna Ghetto, his manifesto (he) was the first time that a target of the Holocaust identified the German plan to murder all Jews. His attempt to organize a ghetto uprising failed, but he fled into the forest, became a Soviet partisan, and survived the war. After the war, Kovner led a secretive organization to take revenge for the Holocaust, and made aliyah in 1947. Considered one of the greatest poets of modern Israel, he received the Israel Prize in 1970.

Abba Kovner
אבא קובנר
Abba Kovner at Eichmann trial1961
Kovner testifies at the trial of Adolf Eichmann
BornMarch 14, 1918
DiedSeptember 25, 1987 (aged 69)
Notable work
"Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!"
Spouse(s)Vitka Kempner


Abba (Abel) Kovner was born on March 14, 1918, in Oshmyany.[1] His parents were Rochel (Rosa) Taubman and Israel Kovner. In 1927 he moved with his family to Vilnius, which at this time was part of Poland, where he grew up and was educated at the secondary Hebrew academy and the school of the arts. While pursuing his studies, he joined and became an active member in the socialist Zionist youth movement HaShomer HaTzair. He was a cousin of the Israeli Communist Party leader Meir Vilner.[2]

World War II

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 headed by Anna Borkowska in the city's suburbs. He soon returned to the ghetto.[3] He concluded that in order for any revolt to be successful, a Jewish resistance fighting force needed to be assembled.

Ghetto Vilinus
Abba Kovner (standing, center) with members of the FPO in the Vilna Ghetto

At the start of 1942, Kovner released a manifesto in the ghetto, titled "Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!"[4], although the authorship has been contested.[5] 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, and the first use of the phrase "like sheep to the slaughter" in a Holocaust context. Kovner informed the remaining Jews that their relatives who had been taken away had been murdered in the Ponary massacre and argued that it was best to die fighting.[4] Nobody at that time knew for certain of more than local killings, and many received the manifesto with skepticism.[4] For others, this proclamation represented a turning point in an understanding of the situation and how to respond to it. The idea of resistance was disseminated from Vilnius by youth movement couriers, mainly women, to the ghettos of occupied Poland, occupied Belarus and of Lithuania.[6]

Kovner, Yitzhak Wittenberg, Alexander Bogen and others formed the United Partisan Organization ("Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye", or FPO), one of the first armed underground organizations in the Jewish ghettos under Nazi occupation.[7] Kovner became its leader in July 1943, after Wittenberg was named by a tortured comrade and turned himself in to prevent an attack on the ghetto.[8] The FPO planned to fight the Germans when the end of the ghetto came, but circumstances and the opposition of the ghetto leaders made this impossible and they escaped to the forests.[9]

From September 1943 until the arrival of the Soviet army in July 1944, Kovner, along with his lieutenants Vitka Kempner and Rozka Korczak, 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. The Avengers were one of four predominantly Jewish groups that operated under the command of the Soviet-led partisans.[10]

After the occupation of Vilnius by the Soviet Red Army in July 1944, Kovner became one of the founders of the Berihah movement, helping Jews escape Eastern Europe after the war.


At the end of the war, Kovner was one of the founders of a secret organization Nakam (revenge), also known as Dam Yisrael Noter ("the blood of Israel avenges", with the acronym DIN meaning "judgement")[11] whose purpose was to seek revenge for the Holocaust.[12][13][14] Two plans were formulated. Plan A was to kill a large number of German citizens by poisoning the water supplies of Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, and Nuremberg, Nakam intended to kill 6 million Germans.[15] Plan B was to kill SS prisoners held in Allied POW camps. In pursuit of Plan A, members of the group were infiltrated into water and sewage plants in several cities, while Kovner went to Palestine in search of a suitable poison.[11] Kovner discussed Nakam with Yishuv leaders, though it is not clear how much he told them and he doesn't seem to have received much support.[14] According to Kovner's own account, Chaim Weizmann approved the idea and put him in touch with the scientist Ernst Bergmann, who gave the job of preparing poison to Ephraim Katzir (later president of Israel) and his brother Aharon. Historians have expressed doubt over Weizmann's involvement, since he was overseas at the time Kovner specified.[14] The Katzir brothers confirmed that they gave poison to Kovner, but said that he only mentioned Plan B and they denied that Weizmann could be involved.[11] As Kovner and an accomplice were returning to Europe on a British ship, they threw the poison overboard when Kovner was arrested. He was imprisoned for a few months in Cairo and Plan A was abandoned.[13][14]

In April 1946, members of Nakam broke into a bakery used to supply bread for the Langwasser internment camp near Nuremberg, where many German POWs were being held. They coated many of the loaves with arsenic but were disturbed and fled before finishing their work. More than 2,200 of the German prisoners fell ill and 207 were hospitalized, but no deaths were reported.[14][16]


Abba Kovner 1948
Kovner (right) briefs members of the IDF in Yad Mordechai during the Israeli War of Independence

Kovner joined the Haganah in December 1947, and soon after Israel declared independence in May 1948 he became a captain in the Givati Brigade of the IDF.[17] During the Israeli War of Independence he became known for his "battle pages", headed "Death to the invaders!", that contained news from the Egyptian front and essays designed to keep up morale.[18] However, the tone of the pages, which called for revenge for the Holocaust and referred to the Egyptian enemy as vipers and dogs, upset many Israeli political and military leaders.[19] His first battle page started a controversy that still continues today when it accused the Nitzanim garrison of cowardice for surrendering to an overwhelming Egyptian force.[20][21]

From 1946 to his death, Kovner was a resident of Kibbutz Ein HaHoresh.[22] He was active in Mapam as well as in HaShomer HaTzair, but never took on a formal political role.[23] He played a major part in the design and construction of several Holocaust museums, including the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.[24] He died in 1987 (aged 69) of laryngeal cancer, perhaps due to his lifelong heavy smoking,[25] at his home in Ein HaHoresh. He was survived by his wife, Vitka Kempner, who married Kovner in 1946.[26]


Kovner's book of poetry עד-לא-אור ("Ad Lo-Or", English: Until No-Light), 1947, describes in lyric-dramatic narrative the struggle of the Resistance partisans in the swamps and forests of Eastern Europe. Ha-Mafteach Tzalal, ("The Key Drowned"), 1951, is also about this struggle. Pridah Me-ha-darom ("Departure from the South"), 1949, and Panim el Panim ("Face to Face"), 1953, continue the story with the War of Independence.

Kovner's story is the basis for the song "Six Million Germans / Nakam", by Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird.

Kovner testified about his experiences during the war at the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Awards and honors

Further reading

  • See The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself (2003), ISBN 0-8143-2485-1
  • See My Little Sister and Selected Poems, trans. Shirley Kaufman (1986), ISBN 0-932440-20-7
  • See The Avengers (2000), by Rich Cohen, ISBN 0-375-40546-1

See also


  1. ^ Irina Guzenberg "Where was born Abba Kovner"?: See facsimile of birth certificates in this paper.
  2. ^ Joffe, Lawrence (21 June 2003). "Obituary: Meir Vilner". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 January 2015.
  3. ^ Marcin Masłowski, Tomasz Patora, "Nasz Bóg ich zgubi", Gazeta Wyborcza, 2/6/7 [1]
  4. ^ a b c Porat, pp56–73.
  5. ^ "'Let Us Not Die as Sheep Led to the Slaughter'". Haaretz. 6 December 2007.
  6. ^ "The Jerusalem of Lithuania: The Story of the Jewish Community of Vilnius – Jewish Responses to the Mass Murder". Retrieved 2013-04-17.
  7. ^ Porat, pp. 76–105.
  8. ^ Porat, pp. 126–127.
  9. ^ Porat, pp. 132–149.
  10. ^ Porat, pp. 150–175.
  11. ^ a b c Porat, pp. 210–236.
  12. ^ Berel Lang (1996). "Holocaust Memory and Revenge: The Presence of the Past". Jewish Social Studies. n.s.:2: 1–20.
  13. ^ a b Shai Lavi (2005). ""The Jews are Coming": Vengeance and Revenge in post-Nazi Europe". Law, Culture and the Humanities: 282–301.
  14. ^ a b c d e Tom Segev (1993). The Seventh Million. Translated by Haim Watzman. Hill and Wang. pp. 140–152.
  15. ^ Davis, Douglas (March 27, 1998). "Survivor reveals 1945 plan to kill 6 million Germans". Jweekly.
  16. ^ "2,283 poisoned in plot against SS prisoners". Miami Daily News. Associated Press. April 22, 1946.
  17. ^ Porat, pp. 238–239.
  18. ^ Porat, p. 244
  19. ^ Porat, pp. 245–250.
  20. ^ Porat, pp. 250–256.
  21. ^ Avivai Becker, "The battle still rages – the story of an Israeli war survivor", Haaretz, April 25, 2004.
  22. ^ Porat, p295.
  23. ^ Porat, p. 334.
  24. ^ Porat, pp. 271–294.
  25. ^ Porat, pp. 335–336.
  26. ^ "Abba Kovner, Israeli Poet, Dies". Retrieved 24 July 2018.
  27. ^ "The Brenner Prize – To Abba Kovner". (in Hebrew). Davar newspaper. November 8, 1968. Retrieved 2010-06-15.
  28. ^ "Israel Prize Official Site – Recipients in 1970 (in Hebrew)".


  • Dina Porat, The Fall of a Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner (Palo Alto, Stanford University Press, 2009). ISBN 978-0804762489.

External links

Anna Borkowska (Sister Bertranda)

Mother Bertranda, O.P. (née Janina Siestrzewitowska; 1900–1988), later known as Anna Borkowska, was a Polish cloistered Dominican nun who served as the prioress of her monastery in Kolonia Wileńska near Wilno (now Pavilnys near Vilnius, Lithuania). She was a graduate of the University of Kraków who had entered the monastery after her studies. During World War II, under her leadership, the nuns of the monastery sheltered 17 young Jewish activists from Vilnius Ghetto and helped the Jewish Partisan Organization (FPO) by smuggling weapons. In recognition of this, in 1984 she was awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem.


Bricha (Hebrew: בריחה, translit. Briẖa, "escape" or "flight"), also called the Bericha Movement, was the underground organized effort that helped Jewish Holocaust survivors escape post–World War II Europe to the British Mandate for Palestine in violation of the White Paper of 1939. It ended when Israel declared independence and annulled the White Paper.

After American, British and Soviet armed forces liberated the camps, survivors suffered from disease, severe malnutrition and depression. Many were displaced persons who were unable to return to their homes from before the war. In some areas the survivors continued to face antisemitic violence; during the 1946 Kielce pogrom in Poland 42 survivors were killed when their communal home was attacked by a mob. For many of the survivors, Europe had become "a vast cemetery of the Jewish people" and "they wanted to start life over and build a new national Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael."The movement of Jewish refugees from the Displaced Persons camp in which they were held (one million persons classified as "not repatriable" remained in Germany and Austria) to Palestine was illegal on both sides, as Jews were not officially allowed to leave the countries of Central and Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union and its allies, nor were they permitted to settle in Palestine by the British.

In late 1944 and early 1945, Jewish members of the Polish resistance met up with Warsaw ghetto fighters in Lubin to form Bricha as a way of escaping the antisemitism of Europe, where they were convinced that another Holocaust would occur. After the liberation of Rivne, Eliezer and Abraham Lidovsky, and Pasha (Isaac) Rajchmann, concluded that there was no future for Jews in Poland. They formed an artisan guild to cover their covert activities, and they sent a group to Cernăuţi, Romania to seek out escape routes. It was only after Abba Kovner, and his group from Vilna joined, along with Icchak Cukierman, who had headed the Jewish Combat Organization of the Polish uprising of August 1944, in January 1945, that the organization took shape. They soon joined up with a similar effort led by the Jewish Brigade and eventually the Haganah (the Jewish clandestine army in Palestine).

Officers of the Jewish Brigade of the British army assumed control of the operation, along with operatives from the Haganah who hoped to smuggle as many displaced persons as possible into Palestine through Italy. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee funded the operation.

Almost immediately, the explicitly Zionist Berihah became the main conduit for Jews coming to Palestine, especially from the displaced person camps, and it initially had to turn people away due to too much demand.

After the Kielce pogrom of 1946, the flight of Jews accelerated, with 100,000 Jews leaving Eastern Europe in three months. Operating in Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia through 1948, Berihah transferred approximately 250,000 survivors into Austria, Germany, and Italy through elaborate smuggling networks. Using ships supplied at great cost by the Mossad Le'aliyah Bet, then the immigration arm of the Yishuv, these refugees were then smuggled through the British cordon around Palestine. Bricha was part of the larger operation known as Aliyah Bet, and ended with the establishment of Israel, after which immigration to the Jewish state was legal, although emigration was still sometimes prohibited, as happened in both the Eastern Bloc and Arab countries, see, for example refusenik.

Dina Porat

Dina Porat is an Israeli historian. She is professor emeritus of modern Jewish history at the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and the chief historian of Yad Vashem.

Early English Jewish literature

English Jewish Literature:

(This page is part of the History of the Jews in England)

Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye

The Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (Yiddish: פֿאַראײניקטע פּאַרטיזאַנער אָרגאַניזאַציע‎; "United Partisan Organization"; referred to as FPO by its Yiddish initials) was a Jewish resistance organization based in the Vilna Ghetto that organized armed resistance against the Nazis during World War II. The clandestine organisation was established by Zionist as well as Communist partisans. Their leaders were writer Abba Kovner and Yitzhak Wittenberg.


Kovner is the surname of:

Abba Kovner, Israeli poet and World War II partisan

Ber Kovner, Israeli politician

Bruce Kovner, American businessman

Michael Kovner, Israeli artist and painter, son of Abba Kovner


Lentvaris (pronunciation , is a town, (formerly known as 'Landwarów' in Polish), in eastern Lithuania, 9 km east of Trakai. It is a transportation hub, as several road and rail routes cross here.

Lake Lentvaris is nearby.

Like sheep to the slaughter

"Like sheep to the slaughter" (Hebrew: כצאן לטבח‎) is a phrase which refers to the idea that Jews went passively to their deaths during the Holocaust. It derives from a similar phrase in the Hebrew Bible which positively depicts martyrdom in both the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. Opposition to the phrase became associated with Jewish nationalism due to its use in Josippon and by Jewish self-defense groups after the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. During the Holocaust, Abba Kovner and other Jewish resistance leaders used the phrase to exhort Jews to fight back. In postwar Israel, most Holocaust survivors were demonized as having gone "like sheep to the slaughter" while armed resistance was glorified. The phrase was taken to mean that Jews had not tried to save their own lives, and consequently were partly responsible for their own suffering and death. This myth, which has become less prominent over time, is frequently criticized by historians, theologians, and survivors as a form of victim blaming.

Lists of Jews associated with the visual arts

Jewish artists by country:











United States

Meir Vilner

Meir Vilner (Hebrew: מאיר וילנר, born Ber Kovner; 23 October 1918 – 5 June 2003) was an Israeli communist politician and Jewish leader of the Communist Party of Israel (Maki), at one time a powerful force in the country. He was the youngest and longest surviving signatory of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948.Born in Vilnius, German-occupied Lithuania, Vilner's political life began as the leader of the Marxist-oriented socialist-Zionist group HaShomer HaTzair (Young Guard). However, he soon grew disenchanted by what he viewed as a tendency in Zionist groups to dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, rather than change their current situation. Thus, he started working for the banned Polish Communist Party - now under the pseudonym Meir Vilner - until 1938, when he left Poland to go to the British Mandate of Palestine. Most of his family perished in the Holocaust.

Vilner then studied history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In what would soon become Israel, Vilner was disenchanted with the politics, claiming that the hatred directed at Jews in Vilna was now directed at the Arabs. He joined the Palestine Communist Party (PCP), which accepted Arab and Jewish membership, and initially opposed partition of Palestine; in his testimony to the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry in March 1946, he said that it would strangle economic development, strengthen the dependency of both states on the British and widen the gulf between Arabs and Jews. However he supported the 1947 UN Partition Plan after the Soviet position changed in 1947.

Vilner criticized both the British and Israeli government, but justified signing the Israeli Declaration of Independence on the grounds that this would eliminate another British colony. Besides, the PCP stressed that the Charter contained a promise to help implement the UN resolutions providing for two independent states, Israel and Arab Palestine, and to uphold full equality and civil liberties for all Israeli citizens.In 1949, he was elected to the Knesset as a member of Maki. He resigned from the Knesset in December 1959, six weeks after the 1959 elections, but was re-elected in 1961. However, he resigned again two months after the 1961 elections.

As the Jewish leader of the Communist party of Israel (CPI), 95% of whose members are Arabs, he rejected Zionism, publicised the Israeli nuclear weapons programme in 1963, and opposed the imposition of martial rule on Israeli Arabs (it was lifted in 1966).In 1965 Vilner and several other Maki members broke away from the party to form the new party Rakah following disagreements about the Soviet Union's increasingly anti-Israeli stance (Vilner was on the USSR's side), and was elected to the Knesset on the new party's list in the 1965 elections.

On June 5, 1967, Vilner was the sole Jewish deputy (joined only by fellow Communist Party of Israel deputy Tawfik Toubi) to speak out in the Knesset against the Six-Day War. Calling that day the darkest in Israel's history, Vilner demanded an immediate halt to the Israeli invasion of Arab-occupied lands. Vilner stressed that there was no other way to solve the conflict between Israel and its neighbors but mutual recognition of the national rights of Israelis and Arabs, including the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and independent statehood. On October 15, he was badly wounded by a member of the right-wing party Gahal.Rakah became part of Hadash before the 1977 elections, and Vilner remained an MK until 1990 when he resigned as part of a seat rotation agreement, making him the third longest serving after Tawfik Toubi and Shimon Peres.

Vilner's Soviet loyalist line was highly appreciated by the USSR; in 1978 he was awarded the Order of Friendship of Peoples. He did not accept perestroika and regarded the fall of communism in the USSR as a coup.

He was married to Esther Vilenska, another Israeli communist politician but divorced later, after having two sons together. His cousin Abba Kovner was a well-known Israeli poet.Vilner was buried in the Yarkon Cemetery, Tel Aviv, beside the grave of his life companion Golda Ita Vilner (1903–2000). He is survived by two sons and two grandchildren.


Nakam (Hebrew: נקם‎, "Revenge") was a group of about fifty Holocaust survivors who, in 1945, sought to kill Germans and Nazis in revenge for the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust. Led by Abba Kovner, the group sought to kill six million Germans in a form of indiscriminate revenge, "a nation for a nation". Kovner went to Mandatory Palestine in order to secure large quantities of poison for poisoning water mains to kill large numbers of Germans, and his followers infiltrated the water system of Nuremberg. However, Kovner was arrested by the British on his return to Europe and had to throw the poison overboard.

Following this failure, the rest of the group turned their attention to "Plan B", targeting German prisoners of war held by the United States. They obtained arsenic locally and infiltrated the bakeries that supplied these prison camps. The conspirators poisoned 3,000 loaves of bread at Konsum-Genossenschaftsbäckerei (Consumer Cooperative Bakery) in Nuremberg, which sickened more than 2,000 German prisoners of war at Langwasser internment camp. However, no known deaths can be attributed to the group. Although Nakam is considered by some to have been a terrorist organization, German prosecutors dismissed a case against two of its members due to the "unusual circumstances".

Resistance in Lithuania during World War II

During World War II, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union (1940–1941), Nazi Germany (1941–1944), and the Soviet Union again in 1944. Resistance during this period took many forms. Significant parts of the resistance were formed by Polish and Soviet forces, some of which fought with Lithuanian collaborators. This article presents a summary of the organizations, persons and actions involved.

Rozka Korczak

Rozka Korczak (1921, Płock – 1988) was a Polish Jewish partisan leader during World War II. She served in the United Partisan Organization (Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye) and, alongside Vitka Kempner and founder Abba Kovner, assumed a leadership role in its successor group, the Avengers (Nokmim)--the only known undefeated ghetto uprising in the history of the Holocaust.

Shirley Kaufman

Shirley Kaufman Daleski (June 5, 1923 in Seattle - September 25, 2016 in San Francisco) was an American-Israeli poet and translator.

The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself

The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself is an anthology of modern Hebrew poetry, presented in the original language, with a transliteration into Roman script, a literal translation into English, and commentaries and explanations.Two editions of this book have appeared so far:

First edition, published in 1965 by Schocken Books. Edited by Stanley Burnshaw, T. Carmi, and Ezra Spicehandler. Twenty-four poets, 69 poems, 220 pages. Has no ISBN. Library of Congress number; 66-26731. Reprinted by Schocken in 1989. Reprinted by Harvard University Press in 1995.

Second edition, published in 2003 by Wayne State University Press. Edited by Stanley Burnshaw, T. Carmi, Ariel Hirschfeld, and Ezra Spicehandler. Forty poets, 106 poems, 359 pages. ISBN 0-8143-2485-1Poets included in both editions of the book

Chaim Nachman Bialik

Saul Tchernichovsky

Jacob Fichman

Avraham Ben Yitshak

Jacob Steinberg

Uri Zvi Greenberg

Simon Halkin

Avraham Shlonsky

Yochebed Bat-Miriam

Yonatan Ratosh

Nathan Alterman

Leah Goldberg

Gabriel Preil

Amir Gilboa

Abba Kovner

Tuvya Ruebner

Haim Guri

Yehuda Amichai

T. Carmi

Ayin Hillel

Dan Pagis

Nathan Zach

Dalia RavikovichPoet included in the first edition but not in the second

Avot YeshurunPoets included in the second but not the first edition


Dalia Hertz

David Avidan

Israel Pinkas

Erez Biton

Hedva Harekhavi

Meir Wieseltier

Yair Hurvitz

Yona Wallach

Agi Mishol

Yitzhak Laor

Dan Armon

Ramy Ditzanny

Ronny Someck

Hezi Leskali

Amir Or

Admiel Kosman

Vilna Ghetto

The Vilna Ghetto was a World War II Jewish ghetto established and operated by Nazi Germany in the city of Vilnius in the territory of Nazi-administered Reichskommissariat Ostland. During the approximately two years of its existence, starvation, disease, street executions, maltreatment, and deportations to concentrations and extermination camps reduced the ghetto's population from an estimated 40,000 to zero. Only several hundred people managed to survive, mostly by hiding in the forests surrounding the city, joining Soviet partisans, or sheltering with sympathetic locals.

Vitka Kempner

Vitka Kempner (Hebrew: ויטקה קובנר‎; 14 March 1920, Kalisz – 2012) was a Polish Jewish partisan leader during World War II. She served in the United Partisan Organization (Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye) and, alongside Rozka Korczak and founder Abba Kovner, assumed a leadership role in its successor group, the Avengers (Nokmim).


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