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Abba Kovner and Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto

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A picture of Abba Kovner, resistance leader of Vilna.

Abba Kovner holding a gun.

Picture courtesy the USHMM.

In the Vilna Ghetto and in the Rudninkai Forest (both in Lithuania), Abba Kovner, only 25 years old, led resistance fighters against the murderous Nazi enemy.

Abba

Abba Kovner was born in 1918 in Sevastopol, Russia, but later moved to Vilna (now in Lithuania) where he attended a Hebrew secondary school. During these early years, Kovner became an active member in the Zionist youth movement, Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir.

In September 1939, World War II began. Only two weeks later, on September 19, the Red Army entered Vilna and soon incorporated it into the Soviet Union. Kovner became active during this time, 1940 to 1941, with the underground. But life changed drastically for Kovner once the Germans invaded.

The Germans

On June 24, 1941, two days after Germany launched its surprise attack against the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), the Germans occupied Vilna. As the Germans were sweeping east toward Moscow, they instigated their ruthless oppression and murderous Aktionen in the communities they occupied.

Vilna, with a Jewish population of approximately 55,000, was known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" for its flourishing Jewish culture and history. The Nazis soon changed that.

As Kovner and 16 other members of the Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir hid in a convent of Dominican nuns a few miles outside of Vilna, the Nazis began to rid Vilna of its "Jewish problem."

Less than a month after the Germans occupied Vilna, they conducted their first Aktionen. Einsatzkommando 9 rounded up 5,000 Jewish men of Vilna and took them to Ponary (a location approximately 6 miles from Vilna that had pre-dug large pits which the Nazis used as a mass extermination area for Jews from the Vilna area). The Nazis made the pretense that the men were to be sent to labor camps, when they were really sent to Ponary and shot.

The next major Aktion took place from August 31 to September 3. This Aktion was in pretense a retaliation for an attack against the Germans. Kovner, watching through a window, 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.

Then the infant fell out of her arms. One of the two, the one with the flashlight, I believe, took the infant, raised him into the air, grabbed him by the leg. The woman crawled on the earth, took hold of his boot and pleaded for mercy. But the soldier took the boy and hit him with his head against the wall, once, twice, smashed him against the wall.1

Such scenes occurred frequently during this four day Aktion - ending with 8,000 men and women taken to Ponary and shot.

Life did not get better for the Jews of Vilna. From September 3 to 5, immediately following the last Aktion, the Jews were forced into a small area of the city and fenced in. Kovner remembers,

And when the troops herded the whole suffering, tortured, weeping mass of people into the narrow streets of the ghetto, into those seven narrow stinking streets, and locked the walls that had been built, behind them, everyone suddenly sighed with relief. They left behind them days of fear and horror; and ahead of them were deprivation, hunger and suffering - but now they felt more secure, less afraid. Almost no one believed that it would be possible to kill off all of them, all those thousands and tens of thousands, the Jews of Vilna, Kovno, Bialystok, and Warsaw - the millions, with their women and children.2

Though they had experienced terror and destruction, the Jews of Vilna were still not ready to believe the truth about Ponary. Even when a survivor of Ponary, a woman named Sonia, came back to Vilna and told of her experiences, no one wanted to believe. Well, a few did. And these few decided to resist.

The Call to Resist

In December 1941, there were several meetings between the activists in the ghetto. Once the activists had decided to resist, they needed to decide, and agree, on the best way to resist. One of the most urgent problems was whether they should stay in the ghetto, go to Bialystok or Warsaw (some thought there would be a better chance at successful resistance in these ghettos), or move to the forests. Coming to an agreement on this issue was not easy. Kovner, known by his nom de guerre of "Uri," offered some of the main arguments for staying in Vilna and fighting. In the end, most decided to stay, but a few decided to leave.

These activists wanted to instill a passion for fighting within the ghetto. To do this, the activists wanted to have a mass meeting with many different youth groups in attendance. But the Nazis were always watching, especially noticeable would be a large group. So, in order to disguise their mass meeting, they arranged it on December 31, New Year's Eve, a day of many, many social gatherings.

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