Poet and partisan Abba Kovner after the fall of Vilna to the Red Army, 1944. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Vitka Kempner Kovner)

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Kovner, Abba

(1918–1987), partisan and poet, leader and intellectual, and a central figure in twentieth-century Jewish and Israeli history and cultural life. Born in Sebastopol, Abba Kovner moved to Vilna as a child; the Jewish community of the city at that time was a thriving, vibrant cultural center, characterized by political, ideological, and religious diversity. He studied in the Tarbut Hebrew gymnasium and became a member, guide, and admired leader of the 1,000-member local branch of the Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir youth movement.

In the summer of 1941, with the German occupation, Kovner hid in a convent near Vilna, returning to the ghetto to read his manifesto to the remaining youth movement members, asserting—for the first time in writing in Nazi-occupied Europe—that Hitler plotted to kill all the Jews in Europe and that hence self-defense was their only answer. The original Yiddish-language manifesto, read out (alongside a Hebrew translation) on 31 December 1941, was entitled: “Lomir nit lozn zikh firn vi shof tsu der shkhite!” (Let Us Not Be Taken Like Sheep to the Slaughter!). He was then instrumental in founding and training the ghetto underground, Fareynikte Partisaner Organizatsye (United Partisans Organization; FPO), and eventually became its commander. In September 1943, when the ghetto was liquidated, he left with his comrades to the Rudniki forest, where he commanded a Jewish partisan brigade as part of the Soviet partisan organization, a unique phenomenon in an otherwise strictly territorially organized military body.

Upon the liberation of Vilna in July 1944, Kovner initiated a search for Jewish written material from Vilna’s libraries and research institutes (YIVO first and foremost) that had survived the war in order to preserve it, and for those who had survived the Holocaust. In December 1944 he began the first Beriḥah (escape) route out of Europe, leading an ever-growing stream of survivors through Lublin and Bucharest to northern Italy. His often-quoted Hebrew speech “Sheliḥutam shel ha-aḥaronim” (The Mission of the Remnants), delivered before a large gathering of survivors and of Jewish Brigade soldiers, became a symbol of the encounter between the Diaspora and the Yishuv (the Jewish community already living in the Land of Israel), with the survivors worried that the Yishuv would blame them for not defending themselves, and the Yishuv worried that the survivors would blame them for failing to render aid.

Kovner now tried to unite the remnants of East European Jewry into one nonpartisan group, from which he formed a team of avengers dedicated to seeking revenge on the German people. These plans did not materialize, and in the spring of 1946 he joined his life companion Vitka Kempner and other partisan friends including Ruzka Korczak at Kibbutz ‘En ha-Ḥoresh, where he remained until his death. During the 1948–1949 War of Independence he served as an information officer, writing “battle pages” (propaganda sheets to encourage the soldiers) in which he forged the central symbols of the war and the young state. After the war, he wrote prolifically, traveling widely abroad to visit Jewish communities, especially those that had originated in Eastern Europe, becoming a much acclaimed and deeply involved moral figure. He did not wish for any formal political position, maintaining his independence as a one-man faction in his party, Mapam (United Workers Party).

Kovner became a known poet and orator, master of both the Yiddish and Hebrew word, and an architect of culture. He was for many years a rabbi of his leftist-atheist kibbutz, instilling Jewish traditions and adding spiritual depth to holidays and ceremonies, in order to create a new type of Zionism that was enriched by its Jewish roots. He cherished continuity, uniqueness, and unity in Jewish life and history, whereas the more formal Zionism in Israel was advocating a new beginning. In the Diaspora Museum, the masterpiece among his varied plans for museums, he demonstrated the splendor of Jewish creativity and its unique contribution to world culture, art, and science. Searching for moral and historical justice, he exposed the Soviet regime when it was still a pillar of admiration in socialist Israel, and warned against rehabilitating Germany before an appropriate moral response to its crimes was found. His attitude toward both the Jews trapped in the Holocaust and to the Yishuv, empathic and without blame, deeply influenced Israeli historiography and public thought.

Kovner’s prolific literary output reflects both his ideas and his stormy life. His two great works of prose, the two-volume Panim el panim (Face to Face; 1953–1955) on the 1948 war, and Megilot ha-‘edut (The Scrolls of Testimony; 1993), on the Holocaust, embody his conviction that every member of the Jewish nation has an equally important role in its history and its achievements: in both works there is no hero at the center of the story. For his poetic expression he chose, and was the only Hebrew poet of his time to do so, the epic (rather than lyric) poem, which offered him the space and breadth to treat a wider scope of themes. ‘Ad lo or (Until No Light; 1947) describes the struggle of the partisans with the forces of nature; Ha-Mafteaḥ tsalal (The Key Sank; 1950) is about the dead-end situation of the ghetto; and Aḥoti ketanah (My Little Sister; 1967) tells of Hadassah, his first love, who chose to walk with her mother to the killing pit, instead of hiding with him in the monastery, thus serving as a lifelong reproach of his own choice to leave his mother behind when he left for the forest with the underground (his feelings of guilt over this never healed).

In 1970 Kovner was awarded the Israel Prize, and appointed chairman of the Hebrew Writers Association. He wrote, created, and acted out of a deep conviction that he had been entrusted with a mission to lead Jews in distress, rescue them, and build a new haven for them.

Suggested Reading

Ruz’kah Korts’ak-Marla (Ruzka Korczak) and Yehuda Tubin, eds., Aba Kovner: Mi-Shelo ve-‘alav; Shiv‘im shanah le-huladto (Tel Aviv, 1988); Shalom Lurya (Lurie), ed., Aba Kovner: Mivḥar ma’amre bikoret ‘al yetsirato (Tel Aviv, 1988); Dina Porat, Me-‘Ever la-gashmi: Parashat ḥayav shel Aba Kovner (Tel Aviv, 2000).