fbpx Abba Kovner and the United Partisan Organisation  | HEROES OF THE RESISTANCE Skip to main content

HEROES OF THE RESISTANCE

Abba Kovner and the United Partisan Organisation 

The Nazis entered Vilna, home to some 60,000 Jews and known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”, on 24 June 1941. There they quickly forced Jews into a ghetto, and set about exterminating its inhabitants. 40,000 people were to die between June and December 1941. Knowing what lay in store, Abba Kovner, a 24-year old Vilna resident, set about rallying the city’s Jews to action.

Kovner released a famous manifesto on New Year’s Eve of 1942, including the rallying cry: 

Back

"Jewish youth! Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews in Europe… We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenceless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath." 

Abba Kovner

Kovner helped unite the different strands of the existing Vilna resistance into the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (FPO). Known as Ha Nokmim - the “Avengers” - the FPO conducted sabotage missions on industrial and military targets, smuggled weapons into the ghetto and established a press. 

The FPO attempted to ignite an insurrection upon the liquidation of the ghetto in September 1943, engaging in skirmishes with the German forces. However, failing to rouse the wider population, Kovner and hundreds of FPO fighters fled through the Vilna sewers. 

The remnants of FPO went on to operate as a Jewish partisan unit, at times cooperating with the Soviet units, engaging in sabotage, ambushes and the punishment of collaborators. As Vitka Kempner, one of Kovner’s lieutenants, would say: 

"Our objective was to fight against the Germans, and to strike at them, so that people would know – even in the city, that the partisans are reacting, and that was the most important part of these operations – to shake the confidence of the Germans." 

As the war drew to a close, Kovner travelled the East and witnessed the sheer extent of the Nazi genocide. Bent on revenge against the German people, he planned to poison the water supply of several German cities, even forming an underground organisation called Nakim (revenge) for this purpose. Thankfully his plan did not come into fruition.

Kovner and Kempner married after the war, and he went on to found the Bricha movement, which aided 300,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors to relocate from Europe to Palestine, until Israel declared independence in 1948. He testified at Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961, and came to be widely regarded as one of Israel’s leading poets during his lifetime. He died in 1987.