Jewish National Fund

The Avenger: Abba Kovner

By Gad Nahshon

Abba Kovner who died in 1987 was a famous Israeli poet and a cultural hero in Israel. He was a Kibbutznik, a member of the Israeli left (MAPAM) and the Youth movement Hashomer Hatzir (Young Guard). He was a charismatic person with moral integrity.

Only Jewish Israelis were aware of his life as a young partisan in Vilna during the Holocaust era. Kovner refused to die without a fight. He organized an underground in Vilna and fought against the Nazis. He was a leader of resistance and later a commander of Jewish partisan groups in the forests of Vilna.

It is true that the story of the Jewish resistance movement and the story of the Jewish male and female partisans in not known in this country. But in Israel these movements were cherished in order to show that not all the Jews were murdered or gassed without resistance. Their story of heroism was integrated into the Israeli concept of creating a new Jew, a sabra, a person who does not suffer from ghetto mentality. It was a factor of the 'sabra myth.' Perhaps it was the way that new Israel wished to cover up the fact that its record of rescue was not that impressive, although the British government controlled Palestine before 1948. Furthermore, in Israel each political movement had its own specific group of ex-fighter, ex-partisans. Many of them even fought like Abba Kovner in the Independence War of 1948.

Kovner was not the only famous partisan. But he certainly deserves a good biography as a fighter and as a great poet. Instead the English reader has to learn about Abba Kovner from a young writer who decided to challenge the Abba Kovner story because he happened to have some family relation with Ruzka Korczak who was a famous partisan, a member of Abba Kovner's group. She is also a Kibbutznik. This young writer became a friend of Kempner Vitka, or Abba Kovner's wife and of their son Michael Kovner, a distinguished artist and a special forces fighter in the Israel Army. This writer, Rich Cohen, published a book The Avengers (Alfred A. Knopf, NYC 2000) which is based on his contacts with the family. He read some books and interviews with ex-partisans in order to produce this book. It is a long boring narrative. Cohen, who published Tough Jews about the famous tribe of Jewish gangsters, did not research enough for this book. He tends to tell us stories which were already published about the Holocaust era or about the basic history of Israel. He often presents his stories as if he is the first original source of information. Some of his stories about the partisans are touchy but he is not familiar with the many books which partisans published in Israel in Hebrew or Yiddish. Therefore he can not integrate the Abba Kovner story into this huge partisan or resistance fighters literature.

Indeed, Kovner's story is an important one and should be cherished. He was a great leader and a tough fighter but he was not the only one. Cohen does contribute to the saga of Jewish heroism and courage in this terrible era, but Kovner deserves a better biography than Cohen's. The title The Avengers has to do with the book's last chapter. Kovner established after the war ended, May 8, 1945, a special group called the Avengers. These 50 avengers, among them Ruzka Korczak and Vitka Kemper, decided to dedicate their life to avenge the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. Cohen tells their story but he does not discuss the issue of vengeance or, in Hebrew, 'Nekama.' It is not clear if he ever read a well known book Hanokmin (The Avengers) which was written by Michael Bar-Zohar, the famous Israeli writer.

Cohen often rushes to judgment while discussing facts or events. For example, he writes about the Revisionist movement and its youth movement Betar, as a right wing one dedicated to 'Holy Violence' saying that "Its leader was Vlademir (Zeev) Jabotinsky who behaved like a Jewish fascist..." How can a serious writer distort the legacy of Jabotinsky? The hate for him in the camp of the left-Zionist was strong but today we tend to revise history and learn about Jabotinsky's enormous contribution to the victory of the Zionist idea.

The timing of their book is very good. We live in the era of the Holocaust non-stop industry. I like to quote Abba Eban who remarked once: "There is no show business like show business." Mr. Cohen just joined the club. Why not? But he should conduct the same research which he conducted for his first book 'Tough Jews.' The partisans and not the Jewish gangsters were the real 'Tough Jews,' males and females alike.

After the war in September 1945, Kovner decided to take revenge saying: "I cannot promise you the Jews will be safe from another slaughter but I can promise you this: Never again will Jewish blood be spilled unavenged." Kovner established his revenge group and planned the targets: to poison prisoner camps inside Germany under the nose of the Allies. He divided his group into many unities and send them to the major German cities. The results: only in Nuremberg a Nazi prisoner camp suffered from the poison ( the unity managed to penetrate the camp's bakery and poison the bread).

Kovner himself traveled to Palestine to get the poison and the support of the 'Yishuv' but some leaders told him not to waste time and energy on this revenge but rather join the struggle of establishing a Jewish state. The leaders could not understand Kovner's will to avenge. Some felt guilty and shame because they did not do much to save Jews from the Holocaust. Ruzka, Kovner's devoted female partisan, traveled to Palestine and was one of the first survivors to tell the 'Yishuv' (the Jews in Palestine) about the Holocaust. But there were leaders such as Haim Weizman, the famous Zionist leader and the first president of Israel who supported Kovner and helped him to get the poison. Even some of Kovner's ex-partisans did not support this wish to avenge and kill the Nazis who survived the war in Germany.

At the end, because of many reasons, Kovner himself felt that he cannot accomplish his mission. It was already 1946 and things became harder to challenge. Kovner gave up but his partisans were so disappointed that they called him a traitor. Some of them went back to Germany and even were arrested over there by the new German police. Kovner, like a good member of his movement Hashomer Hatzir, essentially agreed to forget the mission and join the Givati Brigade in order to fight the Arabs who tried to destroy the new state of Israel which was born on May 14, 1948. After the war, Kovner, a Kibbutznik dedicated his life to poetry. Let's hope that his legacy and message to the Israelis and the Jews will always be alive.

The new generation of Israelis and Jews never learn about the story of the Jewish unique heroism during the Holocaust era. Even today in this country we hear only about the six million Jews who perished. We hear about the Nazi barbarism, about the barbarism of their many collaborators and even about the silence of the free western world as well as the silence of the Jews in the free world but not about those who refused to be slaughtered without a fight, without revenge!

These partisans, or ghetto fighters, most of them members of Zionist youth movements such as Hashomer Hatzir and Beltar, deserve to get their place in our modern history. From this vantage point, The Avengers by Rich Cohen did contribute to our awareness. We should pay more attention to this aspect of the Holocaust era. There are links between the heroism of these fighters who challenged the Holocaust and the heroism of those who fought for the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948. Kovner himself was an epitome of this Jewish kind of heroism.


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