My history hero: Abba Kovner (1918–87)

Chosen by Jonathan Freedland, broadcaster and writer

The partisan fighter Abba Kovner.

This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

A partisan leader and writer, Abba Kovner grew up in Vilnius, part of Poland in the interwar years. After the Nazis invaded, he became one of the leaders of the United Partisan Organisation. The fighters were at first based in the ghetto and later, after escaping the city through the sewer system, in the forests around Vilnius

This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

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A partisan leader and writer, Abba Kovner grew up in Vilnius, part of Poland in the interwar years. After the Nazis invaded, he became one of the leaders of the United Partisan Organisation. The fighters were at first based in the ghetto and later, after escaping the city through the sewer system, in the forests around Vilnius

After the Second World War, Kovner was a key figure in helping Jews escape eastern Europe and in the Nakam organisation, which targeted Nazi war criminals. He served as an officer in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and is recognised as one of Israel’s greatest poets.

When did you first hear about Abba Kovner?

I heard tales of him when I grew up in a youth movement, similar in fact to the one that Kovner himself had been part of – a socialist Zionist youth group [Hashomer Hatzair] that preached the dream of kibbutz life. We were raised with stories of the improbably young Jews who had led the anti-Nazi resistance in the ghettoes – and Abba Kovner was one of the most heroic. I always imagined him as almost unreal, like a character from biblical mythology. But in 1987, months before he died, I visited the kibbutz where he had settled after the war. He was too ill to speak, but I met his wife, Vitka.

What kind of person was Abba Kovner?

He was clearly a natural leader, blessed with every kind of courage, including physical. What amazes me is that he would have been just 25 when he assumed the command of the resistance in the Vilna ghetto, in the Lithuanian city now known as Vilnius. He clearly had the power to inspire. It was his speech in a soup kitchen on New Year’s Eve in 1941 that rallied the youth of the ghetto to fight back and led to the founding of the United Partisan Organisation.

What made Abba Kovner a hero?

That act of defiance, to insist that it was better to “fall as free fighters”, was the act of a hero. It’s hard now for people to realise just what it took for Jews confined to the ghetto to resist. They were starving, with no access to food; disease was rampant, there were corpses on the streets; and, most important, they had no access to weapons. They could hardly turn to the local Lithuanian population, their former neighbours: too many of them were enthusiastic collaborators with the Germans. Yet despite that, Kovner and his comrades somehow scraped together a tiny, makeshift arsenal. And with just a few, battered weapons they dared take on the conquerors of Europe. It’s incredible.

What was Abba Kovner’s finest hour?

There are so many, but a climax came on 1 September 1943, when the Vilna underground finally opened fire on the Germans. The Nazis retaliated by blowing up the ghetto buildings. You’d think they’d have been able to crush Kovner and the partisans immediately. But the partisans fought hard and eventually the Germans retreated.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about Abba Kovner?

In one of his speeches, he urged his fellow Jews not to go to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter.” That phrase has endured, suggesting the Jews were somehow meek and passive – when the reality is that resistance to the Nazi plan to annihilate European Jewry was almost impossible.

Can you see any parallels between Kovner’s life and your own?

He lived through a horror that I can only guess at. All we have in common is an upbringing in an idealistic, almost utopian youth movement – and the fact that we are writers, though of very different kinds. I’m a journalist and occasional novelist; after the war, he went on to become one of Israel’s most acclaimed poets.

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Jonathan Freedland presents Radio 4’s The Long View, which looks for precedents in the past that might shed light on the present. He is also a columnist for The Guardian. As ‘Sam Bourne’ he has written four novels, including The Final Reckoning, which fictionalises an episode in Abba Kovner’s life: a postwar plot to avenge the Holocaust.