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The renowned poet-hero of the Jewish resistance movement in Vilna (Vilnius) Lithuania emerging from these pages is both familiar and unfamiliar. Kovner's ringing proclamations that galvanized the Vilna ghetto underground are well known, the five times he seriously considered suicide less so. The bluntness with which he later rebuked survivors who abandoned leadership roles to flee Nazi occupation humiliated many of them for the rest of their lives, but the paralyzing guilt he felt for the acts of violence he and the others committed as a result of staying behind remained largely unknown to reading audiences until now. These contradictions (outlined with remarkable detachment by Porat, given the passions that still exist in Israel about Kovner) make this book essential reading for anyone interested in more than superficial explanations of the thoughts, motivations, and actions of people living through an incomprehensible time.
For those whose knowledge of Kovner is limited to his activities during the Holocaust, the chapters dealing with his childhood and teen years will come as the first of many revelations in Porat's book. Kovner, born in Sevastopol into a Lithuanian Jewish family, was eight when his father returned with his family to Vilna, fleeing problems with the Soviet police. Kovner always considered Vilna to be his home town, and was proud of its reputation as a center of Jewish intellectual thought, claiming later that its history of disputatiousness had made him a misnaged, or oppositional personality, from a young age. Despite being a good student and a natural leader in his class, he left school at fifteen upon his father's death, preferring to save the tuition fees by studying on his own. The young man who would become a secular, atheistic Jew as an adult, then spent long hours studying the Talmud in a local yeshiva.
In his late teens he became deeply involved with Hashomer Hatzair, the youth movement of the Zionist Mapam movement, whose members dreamed of being Marxist pioneers in Eretz Israel. In keeping with that ideology, Kovner invented a rather more proletariat version of his upbringing that the facts warrant--the first of many examples of inventiveness for political effect that Porat touches upon as an inherent part of Kovner's poetic desire to have stories serve other needs besides the unvarnished truth.
Kovner, as the leader of Hashomer Hatzair, felt a growing sense of responsibility for the Jewish population of Vilna, stemming from his early, nascent sense of doom about the Nazi occupation. This began long before his famous soup kitchen speech of New Year's Eve 1941, in which he read a manifesto stating his belief that Hitler intended to kill all the Jews of Europe and that they should not go passively to slaughter but fight until their last breath. As early as the first days of occupation, Kovner had been writing notes in his diary, seemingly testing his theory that Nazi intentions could truly be unthinkable. When asked at Yad Vashem in 1982 how he had had the nerve to tell the ghetto population they were going to be annihilated first, and the rest of Europe's Jews would follow, when he had no concrete evidence of such a plan, Kovner admitted he had used "words as a weapon," to shock his listeners by telling "the most cruel and not the most just truth."
Porat is at her best in her analysis of the many levels of significance of the soup kitchen manifesto. What Kovner simply knew in his bones about the Nazis was true, and Porat gives him credit for stating "publicly, clearly, and uncompromisingly" what many others after the fact claimed they could just as easily have said. Other groups wanted to own the manifesto too, one insisting it asked Kovner to write it, and another claiming to have written it with him. With great equanimity, Porat explains:
It is easy to forget that... in all ghettos were a group of young men and women groping to find their way in the cruel, unprecedented situation visited upon them, cut off from adult leadership...lacking adequate means or preparation, losing their families.... Only in retrospect did even Kovner understand that 'the idea, which later seemed so simple and correct, and after the Holocaust so obvious to those who had not been there, was then paradoxical, unthinkable, unreal, and abstract.... Today worlds of meaning are read into every step they took or word they uttered, as if then they could have been nothing else but determined, consistent, and unequivocal." (74)
In a number of incidents involving Kovner, those "worlds of meaning" allow room for a great deal of interpretation of both fact and motive, perhaps none more that what has gone down in history as the "Wittenberg Affair." In the waning months of the ghetto, Yitzhak Wittenberg, a communist, was the overall leader of the resistance movement, while Kovner, as head of his original group (the FPO) was one of two chief lieutenants. Under torture, a non-Jewish communist living in Vilna revealed Wittenberg's name as an important Communist leader in the ghetto. Immediately, the head of the German security police demanded that WIttenberg be turned over to him. In an absence of information, the underground assumed the Nazis wanted Wittenberg because he was its leader, when in fact this was not the case. Over the dramatic days that followed, Wittenberg remained in hiding while both the Communists and the underground debated what to do. In the end, Wittenberg surrendered to keep the peace in the ghetto, dying by poison in his jail cell before he could be interrogated by the Gestapo.
In a poem dedicated to Wittenberg that Kovner wrote forty-three years later while he was being treated for terminal esophageal cancer at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, he spoke of that "senseless night" of Wittenberg's surrender. Every July 16, the anniversary of the event, he claimed to have spent a sleepless and agitated night haunted by what had happened. (In fact, as Porat mentions at various points in the book, Kovner's sleep was so agitated and his cries so loud even years after the war that he had to sleep apart from most people.) The Wittenberg Affair caused more people than Kovner to lose sleep, however. The underground's purpose was to resist, and when the time came, it did not defend its own leader. Kovner had exhorted the ghetto to fight until its last breath, but the ghetto was squarely behind Wittenberg's surrender. Reluctantly, the leadership of both groups either asked Wittenberg to surrender or accepted without argument his decision to do so.
Which of the two versions is true remains murky, despite Porat's thorough and balanced treatment. As she explains, "the affair gave no peace to those involved who were given to self scrutiny." The psychological damage remained immense throughout the lifetimes of those present, especially when it became clear that the underground had not been exposed, and Wittenberg was not wanted for that reason at all. After the Wittenberg Affair, confused, demoralized and frightened young resistance leaders had to live with the fact that they had not defended a fellow soldier and fellow Jew. Though Porat remains evenhanded in her discussion, the most reasonable conclusion seems to be that, despite lifelong protestations to the contrary, they had coerced Wittenberg to sacrifice himself to keep the peace a little longer. To make matters worse, it truly was just a little longer, for within a few months the ghetto was liquidated with no resistance at all.
The leadership of the underground and communist parties had to live with the fact that an all-out revolt would not have changed the destiny of the ghetto. If they had risen up then, most probably would have died (along with others who lived a mere few months more), but they would not have had to live with the loss of dignity and self respect they incurred when they sacrificed their leader. No one took this harder than Kovner, for, in a similar situation, Wittenberg had refused to turn Kovner in to the authorities.
. Riddled with guilt, Kovner now found himself Wittenberg's designee to replace him as leader of the underground. After a skirmish with police resulted in the death of another young and charismatic leader, Ilya Scheinbaum, Kovner found himself with very little to lead. Members of the various components of the underground began escaping to the forests to join or establish partisan units, and reluctantly Kovner decided to do the same, since it was clear there would be no uprising in the Vilna Ghetto.
"LIfe in a ghetto is a series of little respites between surges of panic," Porat reports Kovner writing years later to a friend. He found a different dynamic in the Rudnicki Forest, where he became commander of the four Vilna partisan units. Perhaps, he felt, if he had known in the ghetto what he learned in the forests about fighting and leading, the anguishing history they all had to live with might have been different.
Despite the privations, in the Rudnicki forest the Jewish partisans had a measure of control over what they did. Their actions, however, brought new psychological challenges. Vitka Kempner, Kovner's companion and later his wife, describes how they "turned into robbers," raiding farms for food--acts Porat says left them "deeply ashamed." To maintain a sense of pride, Porat's sources told her they had a code of taking only what was necessary to survive, and under no circumstance to take more than half of what a farmer had.
The Jewish partisan's role in one act of revenge against a hostile village, Konyuchi, has been used by postwar revisionists to argue that the Jews were just as bad as anyone else with a gun, easily turning to violence when they had the opportunity. Some Konyuchi residents were responsible for the death of Jews, and when the Soviet-run partisan headquarters in the Rudnicki forest ordered the village destroyed, Kovner's partisans were among those who razed and set fire to the village. While writing Until Our Last Breath, a history of the partisans of Vilna, I asked one former partisan what her colleagues had felt at the time about Konyuchi. She shrugged and told me they didn't give it any thought. I never believed that, and it turns out that my skepticism was warranted. According to Porat, Kovner "later sat individually with each of the fighters, spending several hours explaining that they "were partisan but first of all Jews, and [they did] not kill the way the Germans do." One of these fighters recollected being "young and hot headed. We had lost everything, and were eager to take our revenge on the Lithuanians. In retrospect, of course he [Kovner] was right again; we had gotten carried away."
The unwavering confidence in his principles and judgment, personal charisma, and poetic command of language revealed at the time of the soup kitchen manifesto and demonstrated by his leadership in the Rudnicki forest, were Kovner's greatest strengths. As seems to be the case with many figures who tower over their place and time, in some respects these qualities were his greatest weaknesses as well. Porat explores Kovner's unwillingness to budge on the principle that the goal of the resistance was to fight for the ghetto, even when it was apparent that the ghetto did not favor resistance, and even after flight to the forests became a clearly viable alternative. She also discusses at great length the hostility Kovner invoked after the war by his insistence that Jewish leaders who fled the Nazis were traitors to the Jewish people, because they left behind only the inexperienced young to fight for the Jews' survival in Europe.
Still, what shines throughout Porat's writing is Kovner's specialness as a human being. Partisans volunteered for dangerous missions not only from personal commitment to the cause, but as a result of "the weight of his personality." They may have been in awe of someone like Wittenberg, but as Cesia Rosenberg, a messenger between the ghettos, told Porat, they "felt differently about Kovner....Intellectually and ideologically he had a most unusual position. His influence was different." One of the personalities I wrote about in Until Our Last Breath kept a copy of Kovner's obituary in a bedside table until his own death, and even decades after the war still referred to him as "our Commander."
Kovner's "unusual" ideology became more apparent after the war. Those familiar with Rich Cohen's 2001 book, The Avengers, will be aware that soon thereafter, Kovner reconstituted the Avengers unit he led in the Rudnicki forest, and masterminded a plot whereby they would poison the water supply in German cities, hoping to take a symbolic six million lives in an act of nakam, or revenge.
Kovner went so far as to secure the poison and had it with him when he was apprehended by military police on the Toulon-bound ship where he was trying to pass himself off as a British soldier. The mission was so poorly planned that it is surprising that he got as far as he did. He was supposed to be a British soldier, but he spoke no English, did not recognize his own name at roll call, knew nothing of the training and behavior of British troops, and looked older than most of the men on board.
The poison was discovered and dumped overboard, although Kovner was never charged with being in its possession, despite his belief that his plot was the reason he was apprehended. Later, Porat tell us, "Kovner painted a more dramatic and personal picture, not only because of his retrospective tendency to put himself in the middle of major events but also apparently because of his emotional state, which made him see everything that happened as the result of informants and plots against him."
Porat goes on at length to discuss this aforementioned emotional state, wondering whether it was an example of the self-destructiveness that led to Kovner's suicidal ideas (though no actual attempts) on other occasions. Perhaps, she ponders, Kovner had changed his mind about the mission. "Had he and his duffel bag arrived in Europe and had the poison been introduced into the water systems of four large German cities, as planned...how would Kovner and his comrades and the entire Jewish people have faced the world?"
Decades later, Kovner insisted he still believed in the "rightness and necessity" of the plan, but as Porat points out, when the plan was aborted it became possible to make such statements without having to act on them. "The avengers never betrayed or abandoned the nakam," she says, "but conditions were against them, and they can continue to be faithful to it." Porat points out that, "Of the entire Jewish people in whose breast the desire for revenge burned fiercely, only a few actually killed anyone." She offers the number of 200-250, surprisingly without citing a corroborating source.
Kovner's, "intellectually and ideologically...unusual position" was on full view upon his arrival in Israel. Though he was treated as a hero by a few, most living there at the time were highly suspicious of politicized refugees, especially their leaders and heroes. Kovner came with a burning desire to ingather the Jews and fight for their survival in Israel. His confident (some would say arrogant) opinion about the rightness of his views alienated those who saw him as knowing nothing about the sociopolitical history and present realities of his new home.
To his disappointment, in May 1948, Kovner was given a position not as a commander of troops in the newly formed Israel Defense Forces (IDF), but as the information officer of the Givati Brigade. Porat explains that it turned out that "Kovner and the Givati Brigade were tailor-made for each other." His role enabled him to use his monumental talents as a writer, his natural charisma as a leader, and his scholarly study of the Bible and other Jewish sources, to write "battle pages" used as informational sources for the troops. He wrote thirty-one of these single-page documents, always in Hebrew, which he occasionally translated into Yiddish himself. The young man who had once stood in the soup kitchen in the Vilna ghetto and used "words as a weapon," at thirty now had the means to do it again.
As with all things Kovner undertook, he was both lionized and vilified for his efforts. Porat's research in the IDF archives yielded a description (rivaling Kovner in its poeticism) of the significance of these battle pages to the soldiers. "They were passed from hand to hand, read during bombardments and the fatal moments when we rushed the enemy, read until the soldiers knew them by heart. It was as if the man with the sad eyes had become the repository of the spirit of the entire Brigade, listening to its heartbeat and expressing its inexpressible feelings with the most wonderful, invigorating words, which led to each soldier's making the only possible decision: the enemy shall not pass."
The spirit of the call not to let the enemy pass led to a controversial encouragement of the troops to dehumanize the enemy. The pages were written by a man still wrestling with his desire for revenge. Each page was topped with the words, "Death to the Invaders," and often contained vituperative language not in keeping with official IDF policy. "Criticism centered on the harsh, inhumane terms Kovner used to depict the Egyptians," Porat explains, "calling them vipers or packs of Nile dogs with dull stupid eyes, whose blood would fill the dry wadi, and whose bodies would serve as food for scavengers."
The Palmach, the main fighting branch of the IDF, objected to Kovner's battle pages, explaining with great restraint that "such a culture is foreign to us, and so far we have managed to retain our own ideologies and values." According to other sources Porat cites, people understood Kovner's verbal excesses and did not think he was actively promoting inhumane treatment of their adversaries. "Hatred was never one of our slogans," one of the soldiers later said.
Kovner's work for the Givati Brigade led to a controversy that lasted the rest of his life. His first battle page, titled "A Failure," condemned the fall and surrender of Kibbutz Nitzanim. Kovner, lashing out without full information, condemned the kibbutz members for not fighting and dying "to the last man." Porat describes the kibbutz as under-armed, poorly protected geographically, and inadequately backed up by troops, and avers that "there is not one single piece of evidence indicating that the men and women of Nitzanim did not fight bravely or sacrifice themselves until they saw they had no choice but to capitulate." The kibbutz members also blamed internecine politics, pointing out that kibbutzim founded by members of Hashomer Hatzair were, as a rule, better armed than those founded by rival groups such as Hano'ar Hatzioni, and it was unjust to blame them for what was probably inevitable under the circumstances. The Givati command called such an accusation an "abominable libel," and tempers remained high about the matter throughout Kovner's life.
Though some Givati leaders said years later that the accusations against Nitzanim had been unjust, Kovner never backed down and never met with the group to discuss the matter. Shortly after Kovner's death, his son Michael went to Nitzanim, where he lit a memorial candle. Porat quotes Michael Kovner as speaking there of a "generosity, which my generation and the former one, did not foster."
Kovner's final years were spent living at Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh. His desire to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive sparked both a furious campaign against German reparations and the establishment of normal diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, as well as tireless work establishing the Diaspora Museum on the grounds of Tel Aviv University. He died on Rosh Hashanah in 1987.
Kovner's legacy, besides the story of his life , is the searing, self analytical, and often tortured poetry of a man who had seen so much and could forgive so little.
Porat's book fills a great void in resource material in English. There is no comparable work offering this kind of depth about Kovner's career. The closest in scholarly quality are works by N. N. Schneidman (The Jerusalem of Lithuania, and The Three Tragic Heroes of the Ghetto). Other valuable sources for Kovner's Holocaust activities are Yitzhak Arad's Ghetto in Flames, Chaim Lazar's Destruction and Resistance, and Dov Levin's Fighting Back. Memoirs of that era include Isaac Kowalski's A Secret Press in Nazi Europe, and the diary left behind by Holocaust victim Joseph Kruk, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania.
Rich Cohen's The Avengers includes the post-war years of Kovner's life, but as the cousin of Ruszka Korschak, Abba Kovner's and Vitka Kempner's fellow partisan and lifelong friend, the book appears to be influenced by Korschak's desire to paint Kovner in a more favorable way than Porat's research shows is warranted.
Kovner does not require words to be used as weapons in his favor, however. At his funeral, fellow partisan and poet Abraham Sutzkever was too overcome with grief to speak, except to say that Abba Kovner was a person in whose presence one felt the eternity of the Jewish people. It is hard to imagine greater homage than that.
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