This Day in Jewish History / A Young Ghetto Fighter in Vilna Takes a Stand

Even before the Nazis met to discuss the Final Solution, 23-year-old Abba Kovner was rallying Jews in Vilna to fight rather than be 'led like sheep to the slaughter.'

On December 31, 1941, Abba Kovner spoke before an assembly of Vilna Ghetto youth and declared his far-sighted and far from conventional conviction that the Nazis were determined “to destroy all the Jews of Europe,” and that they, the Jews of Lithuania, were to be “the first in line.”

The 23-year-old Kovner was speaking nearly a month before the convening of the Wannsee Conference, in Berlin, at which the Nazis formally and in complete secrecy adopted the “Final Solution. In his remarks, Kovner implored the group of some 150 young people, gathered in a soup kitchen at 2 Straszun Street, not to be “led like sheep to the slaughter,” because, he said, “it is better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers.”

Vilna, one of Europe’s most important Jewish capitals, had been conquered by the Germans on June 24, 1941. Its 60,000 Jews were organized into a large ghetto, which was largely overseen by the head of the Jewish police, Jacob Gens. Early during the occupation Kovner, a leader in the socialist-Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair, took up refuge in a Dominican convent outside the ghetto, but he returned when he understood that the invaders were beginning to deport and murder Jews.

Much of the killing was taking place at Ponary, a forest and recreation site a little south of Vilna, which was transformed, shortly after the occupation, into a site for mass murder. Between June 1941 and July 1944, some 75,000 people, most of them Jews, were shot to death there, their bodies quickly cremated to minimize evidence. When Kovner spoke that New Year’s Eve, he seemed determined to look a devastating truth in the eye: “None of those who were taken away from the ghetto has ever come back,” he observed. “All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponary. And Ponary is Death!”

The following month, on January 21, 1942, all the Jewish youth movements of the ghetto came together to create the United Organization of Partisans (FPO), under the leadership of Yitzhak Wittenberg, a Communist. Its members’ goal was “to fall as free fighters.’

In counterpoint to the idea of resistance was the approach that counseled cooperation with the occupiers, in the hope (vain, as it turned out) of saving as many Jews as possible. The Jews of the Vilna Ghetto were needed by the Germans for a variety of labor tasks, and permits to work were the most valuable commodity that the Judenrat was given to distribute among the population – and to pacify them. 

The occupiers’ final intention, however, was the Jews’ destruction. The evacuation of the Vilna Ghetto began in August 1943 and continued through to its final liquidation, on September 23-24. This would have been the time for a revolt. But in July, Yitzhak Wittenberg escaped while the Germans were trying to arrest him. When the Germans responded with a threat to destroy the entire ghetto, public sentiment among the Jewish population was so strongly against Wittenberg that he decided to turn himself in.

A short time later, he apparently committed suicide in detention, having named Kovner as his successor. The response of the ghetto population made it clear to Kovner and his comrades that the Jewish population would not participate in an uprising, and so, after a few clashes between the FPO and the Germans, it was decided that part of the leadership would smuggle themselves out of the ghetto and join up and fight with Soviet-led partisans in the Rudniki and Narocz forests.

Following the liberation of Lithuania, Kovner was involved in helping to smuggle survivors out of Europe to Palestine. After the war, he led a highly controversial effort to avenge the Holocaust by way of attacks on imprisoned German officers or even by the poisoning of German water supplies (details of the plans are still subject to debate), before settling in Palestine in 1946. There he became a member of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh and devoted much of the rest of his life to writing poetry. Kovner died on September 25, 1987.