To Our Last Breath

Stand for Israel  |  April 24, 2023

Abba Kovner during Israeli War of Independence
Abba Kovner during Israeli War of Independence (Photo: Frank Scherschel/GPO)

The man in the above picture is this week’s Israeli You Should Know. His name is Abba Kovner, and he is speaking to members of the IDF as they prepare to win Israel’s independence in 1948, 75 years ago. Kovner would go on to help Israel win her freedom, and then become a beloved poet for the people of Israel. But before that, he helped lead Jewish partisans in an uprising against the Nazis in the Vilna Ghetto.

Born in what is now Belarus, and raised in a Jewish family in Vilnius, Lithuania, Abba Kovner was a Zionist from a young age. When the Nazis overran Vilnius and began putting the city’s large Jewish population into a ghetto, Kovner and some friends escaped, finding safety with a nun in a secluded convent. But Kovner thought of his many loved ones who were imprisoned, and left the relative safety of the nunnery to return to the Nazi-run ghetto. There, he decided to form a Jewish fighting unit to revolt against the Germans.

On New Year’s Eve of 1941, Kovner spoke to his fellow Jews to inspire them in the seemingly hopeless fight, urging them to stand up against their evil oppressors. He said:

Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter, Jewish youth! Do not believe those who are deceiving you. Out of 80,000 Jews of the Jerusalem of Lithuania, only 20,000 remain.

In front of your eyes our parents, our brothers, and our sisters are being torn away from us. Where are the hundreds of men who were snatched away for labor by the Lithuanian kidnappers? Where are those naked women who were taken away on the horror night of the provocation? Where are those Jews of the Day of Atonement? And where are our brothers of the second ghetto?

Anyone who is taken out through the gates of the ghetto will never return. All roads lead to Ponary, and Ponary means death.

Oh, despairing people, tear this deception away from your eyes. Your children, your husbands, your wives, are no longer alive. Ponary is not a labor camp. Everyone is shot. Hitler aimed at destroying the Jews of Europe. It turned out to be the fate of the Jews of Lithuania to be the first.

Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter. It is true that we are weak, lacking protection, but the only reply to a murderer is resistance.

Brothers, it is better to die as free fighters than to live at the mercy of killers. Resist, resist, to our last breath.

After inspiring his fellow Jews during the war, surviving the Holocaust, making aliyah, and helping Israel win her independence, Abba Kovner also testified in Israel at the trial of the architect of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, reading from his original handwritten words from two decades before.

And after doing all of this to inspire the Jewish people throughout his life, Kovner also inspired Israel with his poetry, and with his help in designing various Holocaust museums and memorials. Passing away at the age of 69, Abba Kovner survived so much, inspired so many, and is truly an Israeli we should all know. May his memory be a blessing.

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