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Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.
Rupture and renewal, victimization and resistance, annihilation and rebirth: few writers voiced the hard antinomies of Jewish life and death in the 20th century as did Abba Kovner (1918-1987). The first major biography of him, by the Israeli historian Dina Porat won the National Jewish Book Award. Encountering Kovner in its pages makes for bracing reading.
Kovner grew up in Vilna, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Educated in the city’s Hebrew cultural schools, he soaked in its heady mix of traditional learning and literary modernism and began to write poetry. His other education took place in the intense milieu of the Jewish youth movements of the time, where he became a leader of the Zionist socialist group Hashomer Hatzair (literally, “the Young Guard”). That leadership was soon put to excruciating tests.
Kovner in the Holocaust
When the Germans occupied Vilna in 1941 and established the ghetto, Kovner, along with several others, found temporary refuge in a convent. But out of concern for the nuns’ safety and guilt at having left behind a young love–who, he learned, had perished with her mother at the killing field of Ponar–he returned to the ghetto, emerging as a leader of the combined fighting organization formed by the various youth movements. On January 1, 1942, he issued, in Yiddish, an electrifying proclamation calling for resistance and warning, with eerie prescience: “Hitler has plotted to murder all the Jews of Europe.”
Kovner’s proclamation opened with the words: “Do not go like lambs to the slaughter.” Yet then and throughout his life he would repudiate the charge that Europe’s Jews had acted with dishonorable passivity. His acute sensitivity to the pulverizing moral dilemmas of group and collective survival was of a piece with his profound connectedness to his community and the Jewish people as a whole. It was that sensitivity which led him, in the ghetto’s final days, to take his group to the forests to fight as partisans rather than staying and likely endangering those inhabitants who might otherwise still be able to survive.
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