Abba Kovner in Letter After Adolf Eichmann Trial: A Dam Has Burst of Holocaust Survivors' Emotions

In the letter, famed Partisan leader explains how the trial suddenly made it possible for survivors to open up about their experiences in the Holocaust.

Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi

A short while after testifying in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Abba Kovner had already realized the enormous impact of the trial and its implications on the way the Holocaust would be remembered in Israel.

Abba Kovner giving testimony at Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 war crimes trial in Jerusalem. As a 23-year-old in the Vilna Ghetto, he warned Jews of impending doom.Credit: GPO

In a letter sent to his close friend Yitzhak Avidav, in May 1961, a short while after offering his testimony at the trial, he told Avidav, who at the time was in Poland on a mission for Israel, that "something has happened that is one of the great mysteries of life and of history - which did not happen when the ashes were hot, happened now at a time when the souls are remembered."

The letter was recently given by Kovner's daughter Shlomit for deposit in his file at the Hashomer Hatzayir archive at Yad Ya'ari, in Givat Haviva.

It details how the trial suddenly made it possible for survivors to open up about their experiences in the Holocaust.

"One must see the children, in their last years of school, the young people and the older ones listening to the report of the trial on the radio," the letter continues. "One must see every day the faces of the people filling the court hall, tzabarim [native born], from the Mizrahi communities, ultra-Orthodox and secular, each day different faces from all parts of the nation, coming to sense the enormity of the shock, a sort of spiritual earthquake whose echoes and imprints will remain in the soul of the individual and the nation for days and perhaps even many generations."

In the letter, Kovner, a poet and partisan leader during the Holocaust, describes the enormity of the moment and its impact on survivors, "like a dam that has been burst - thus the sealed hearts of many people among the Holocaust survivors has been opened, and there is no home where someone did not speak out his most hidden memories."

Kovner's 'very sharp senses'

Yonat Rotbein from the Holocaust Studies and Research Center, Moreshet, says that "the words of Kovner describe what many households in Israel experienced at the time, both among Holocaust survivors and among native-born Israelis. People wanted to tell their story and hear."

"The survivors sensed that this was the first opportunity to express themselves. Abba Kovner's letter highlights this [sense] accurately. Perhaps because he had very sharp senses he encapsulated this with greater force," he continues.

The outburst of emotions and the impact of the trial on the individual was an experience that Kovner felt himself, and which he relates in his letter to Avidav, his deputy in Nakam, a group created to avenge the blood of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

"Take for example my brother. We were in the ghetto together and then in the forest. Except that he came to us to the forest four months later and only now he dared tell me what he experienced those months, and I felt that he felt a need to tell his story."

The conversations between the brothers also revealed the fate of their mother 18 years earlier.

Shlomit, named after her grandmother, says that her father never forgave himself for leaving his mother behind in the ghetto.

At some point Kovner said that his mother came to him as he stood on the barricades of the Vilnius Ghetto, commanding the United Partisan Organization.

"She came and asked me what to do, and I did not think that our position was a place where people would survive. I had no answer. So she went ... and then was caught by the Germans."

His mother was murdered in Ponar, after helping her small granddaughter escape.

Kovner wrote to Avidav that when he took the witness stand, he had "the feeling of Judgment Day."

At the start of the letter, Kovner admits that he had many objections to the trial: He feared the sensationalism of the press, "how and what they will judge?"

"If at the time the Holocaust and the testimonies of survivors which followed did not shock the nation and did not result in soul searching in the Diaspora and it was forgotten and it was also forgotten in Israel," he wrote, "what will this trial contribute?"



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