Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Fall of a SparrowThe Life and Times of Abba Kovner$

Dina Porat

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780804762489

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804762489.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM STANFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.stanford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Stanford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in SSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 24 September 2021

The Manifesto of January 1, 1942

The Manifesto of January 1, 1942

“The rebellion began with the manifesto” September 1941–January 1942

(p.57) Five The Manifesto of January 1, 1942
The Fall of a Sparrow
Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes the mass murder of Jews in Vilna, which prompted Kovner to write a manifesto entitled “Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!,” and which had two main tenets: First, that Hitler was plotting to massacre all the Jews in Europe; and second, that the Jews in Lithuania were the first in line. It was the first time that anyone in occupied Europe had hypothesized in writing that events were not local and performed for a specific reason but rather as the manifestation of a centralized, complete program contrived by the Germans' highest echelons, directed against all of European Jewry. The second principle was the conclusion drawn from such a perception—namely, that there could be only one genuine response: to defend themselves and choose death “as free fighters.” Kovner called on all Jewish youth, and on Lithuanian Jewry, not to let themselves be massacred like lambs. The manifesto was handwritten first in Yiddish and then translated by Kovner into Hebrew, then into Polish and Lithuanian, in versions that would be suitable for non-Jewish underground organizations.

Keywords:   Abba Kovner, ghettos, Jews, mass murder, Hitler, manifesto

By the morning of September 7, 1941, the Jewish population of Vilna had been confined into two cramped ghettos. The larger one was called the First Ghetto and housed 30,000 people, and the smaller one was called the Second Ghetto, holding 10,000. They were horribly overcrowded, and because there was no communication between the two, relatives lost contact. On the same day, Franz Murer appointed a Jewish council for the First Ghetto. It could not be considered a continuation of the former council, which had represented Vilna Jewry with personal and public stature. Murer's council appointed Jacob Gens, who had been a captain in the Lithuanian army, as chief of police, and Salk Dessler as his chief assistant.1

The broad political and ideological spectrum that had characterized Jewish Vilna was no longer represented, and most members of the newly appointed council belonged to the Bund, the Yiddish-speaking leftist workers' party, whereas most of those in the police department belonged to Beitar, the right-wing revisionist youth movement. The council was again known as the Judenrat, a German name given by the occupiers, not by the Jews, thus signifying that it did not represent them. Previously, wrote Kovner, when the first Judenrat's members had been chosen by the Jews, “they were public servants.” Later, when they were chosen by the Germans and hoped that by working for them, they could save Jews from being killed, “they were the servants of an illusion.” Finally, when everyone available had already been chosen for membership and the ghetto was about to be liquidated, the Judenrat members “were the servants of destruction.” Nissan Reznik, one of the Hano'ar Hazioni leaders in the ghetto, simply said, “We no longer had Wygodzki to turn to. We had no leaders.”2

(p.58) The Second Ghetto also had its appointed council and police force, but their days were numbered. As soon as the ghetto was erected, the old, the sick, and children were brought there, even from the First Ghetto, as were those who did not have scheinen. Because it was obvious that the Second Ghetto was lower in status, people transferred themselves to the First Ghetto as soon as they could. About 2,500 managed to do so before the rest, about 6,500, were killed in a series of four Aktionen that took place during the first three weeks of October. The first Aktion was carried out simultaneously in both ghettos on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar, which fell on October 1. The Germans often chose to attack on Jewish holidays, both in the ghettos and elsewhere. Voices raised in prayer were replaced by screams and the noise of doors being slammed and furniture broken.

It was the first Aktion since the Jews had been herded into the ghettos, and it shattered the illusion that perhaps once inside they would be left in peace. The second shattered illusion was that work permits would grant their holders a certain degree of immunity, for, scheinen notwithstanding, Jews were removed from the ghetto. The third illusion was shattered during the first Aktion by the Judenrat and the police, whose members, particularly the police, aided the Germans by rounding up Jews and assembling them at the gate. The rationale was that it was better to collect the required quota themselves than to have the Germans and Lithuanians enter the ghetto and run riot as they usually did, in which case the number of victims would have been far greater. They assumed that they were saving the rest, because more permit holders would remain in the ghetto, workers needed by the Germans.3

It was decided that Grossman and Kempner would stay outside the ghetto with forged documents to set up a communications network for the movement members imprisoned inside. Kempner kept her hair dyed blonde until the end of the war. Kovner dedicated his last book of poems to her “in remembrance of the days / when you were a platinum blonde / playing with the Germans” (Sloan Kettering, dedication). She became skillful in quickly removing the yellow star from her clothing on her way out of the ghetto and putting it back on on her way in, and she became equally adept at getting back in by easing her way into groups of returning Jewish workers.4

(p.59) During the first days of the ghetto, in September and October 1941, the activities organized by Hashomer Hatzair members, with Mordechai Tenenbaum-Tamaroff's full cooperation, were the some as they had been during the first days of the German occupation: to k and encourage one another, to find and share means of (especially money During the first days of the ghetto, in September and October 1941, the activities organized by Hashomer Hatzair members, with Mordechai Tenenbaum-Tamaroff's full cooperation, were the same as they had been during the first days of the German occupation: to keep in contact and encourage one another, to find and share means of keeping alive (especially money and documents), and to save lives by using rented apartments and false names. In addition, the links between the various movements, established during the weeks before the ghetto was erected as a modest continuation of the Coordination, continued operating. Tenenbaum-Tamaroff represented Dror-Hechalutz, Reznik represented Hano'ar Hazioni, and Edek Boraks represented Hashomer Hatzair; Kovner and Grossman represented Hashomer Hatzair for the entire community.5 The contacts (cut off at the beginning of the war) that Jadwiga Duziec, Irena Adamowicz, and the mother superior arranged with Poles were renewed, so that information could be received from beyond the ghetto, but these contacts were primarily used to try to tell the outside world about the wholesale murder being committed in Vilna.

The issue of when it became known that those taken to Ponar were murdered was local. The issue of when it could be divined that the Germans were operating according to a comprehensive, premeditated program, even if not every stage had already been determined, concerned the entire Jewish population and was the focus of every ghetto or community consciousness, and it is the key to understanding the ghetto's internal life. Drawing conclusions from known facts was entirely different from internalizing the incomprehensible idea that everyone was in mortal danger and would therefore act accordingly, ignoring normal prewar beliefs and assumptions. A number of factors prevented the Jewish population from understanding the situation as it really was. First, it was Lithuanians, and especially the 20,000 men organized into units and various other collaborators such as the kidnappers, who actually committed the overwhelming majority of murders of Jews in Lithuania, Vilna included. The German authorities deployed themselves as the framework within which the Lithuanians acted. The Lithuanians were those who began killing women and children, which encouraged the Germans to devise a program for the wholesale killing of all the Jews with the aid of local (p.60) populations in other countries. The Germans did their best to represent the murders as spontaneous outbreaks of anti-Jewish sentiment initiated and organized by Lithuanians, and that was also done to head off any criticism that might be heard within Germany.6

Second, the Lithuanian excuse was that the killings had been carried out in retaliation for the aid the Jews had given the Communist regime, which had deprived Lithuania of its independence and oppressed and exiled Lithuanians. Some Jews even understood that the first Aktionen were meant to be “German [and Lithuanian] revenge on the Soviet Jew[s] who had aided in building and abetted the Communist regime,” according to Tenenbaum-Tamaroff.7

Third, although they could not have known it at the time, Lithuanian Jewry was the first of the European Jewish communities to be affected by the Final Solution. For months Vilna had no knowledge of the murders in nearby Kovno or about the sorties made by the Lithuanian killing squads into the neighboring small towns, from which there were almost no survivors. In April 1942, Adamowicz brought Vilna the first news of Kovno. On the other hand, it was known that a large ghetto had been functioning in Warsaw for two years and that there were tens of thousands of Jews in ghettos in Bialystok and Grodno living relatively quiet lives without Aktionen. Therefore they assumed that Vilna was in the clutches of a “raving mad German commander issuing private orders on his own initiative,” according to Korczak. The reference was to Murer, Martin Weiss, or Horst Schweinberger, whom the ghetto population had seen in action firsthand;8 however, the Vilna Jews neither saw nor came into direct contact with the complex German system and those who were, in reality, deciding their fate.

Fourth, in July, the first month during which the Jews of Vilna were murdered at Ponar, only incomplete bits of secondhand information reached the city. August was relatively quiet, and only in September, when the Aktionen in the ghetto began, did the first survivors, most of them women, crawl out of the pits at Ponar and report in no uncertain terms that they were killing everyone. The Judenrat forbade anyone to meet with them, but even individuals far removed from the Judenrat had the greatest difficulty in believing the survivors' accounts. Pessia Aliaronowicz, who arrived wounded at the home of Dr. (p.61) Mark Dworzecki, the ghetto children's physician, managed to convince him, although he hesitated for a long time before believing her. Others, however, were certain she had gone mad, and she stopped telling her story.9 It was in Vilna and Lithuania, the first places in Europe to see mass murders, that people began to doubt the stories of those who had escaped death, whether they recounted them to Jews who lived nearby and were candidates for the same fate or to those living in safety. Perhaps the opposite was true: that those who lived near the killing pits or the train stations from which the transports left did not believe, because if they had, they could no longer have continued living. In the Vilna ghetto, however, the inhabitants still believed that those who left had been taken to work, and the Germans reinforced the illusion with repeated promises, between Aktionen, and by letting a few people return every now and then (“a bone the Germans threw us,” said Kovner during the Eichmann trial) and by forging letters that were sent from a fictitious third ghetto and work camps. “They kept giving you a spark of hope … that maybe your name wasn't on the list.” The decrees never mentioned life and death, only certificates and work and other ghettos.10 Therefore “they expected lives of misfortune, torment and torture, but that millions could be murdered never occurred to anyone, not in their worst nightmares.”11

How, in any event, could “the horror of the method” be understood, as Kovner phrased it at the Eichmann trial held in Jerusalem in 1961 when, with the distance in time, he tried to explain the process of perception to the courtroom in Jerusalem as well as to himself. Why was it first in Vilna that they understood what would eventually happen, “an understanding which, at the time of its utterance, had no proof but was solely the fruit of intuition and hypothesis,” according to Israel Gutman, the Yad Vashem historian, an understanding that all European Jewry had a common fate waiting for it: death.12 Why was Kovner the first to voice the hypothesis as a given fact, and not only for Vilna but for all of Europe? Perhaps the gradual accumulation of facts and information, month after month, led him to the conclusion, and that is what has to be examined.

Grossman, Boraks, and others, as previously noted, visited the convent after the ghetto was erected in September. The nuns fed them and (p.62) left them with Kovner and Wilner to analyze the situation at length, based on their description of the events in the ghetto. Zawecki, the priest who frequently visited the convent, told Kovner that masses of Jews were being taken out of the ghetto to be killed. In simple language and sure of his facts, he described how they went and he made Kovner realize it was a matter of mass murder. A peasant who came to the convent occasionally told Kovner that large caravans of Jews were being taken away in horse-driven wagons confiscated from farmers. The Jews were led to a certain point beyond which they were made to run, and the owners of the wagons were forbidden to continue to Ponar, which was “the last stop” (Scrolls of Testimony, p. 118). A farmer from the Ponar area told Grossman about hearing shots and inhuman cries, and she heard rumors that “all East Poland Jews [were] doomed,” but she thought that “not a single person believed them.” Boraks, on the other hand, claimed that “everyone knew they were being killed.” Dr. Abrasha Weinrib, director of the ghetto hospital, wrote that “there wasn't a single person who didn't believe it.”13 The ghetto swung between disbelief and despair.

On September 4, Kovner wrote in Yiddish in his pocket diary that he had received “the first greeting from Ponar: Trojak.” Eleven-year-old Yehudit Trojak, a teacher named Tema Katz, and some other women had managed to escape from the pits at Ponar. Kovner, who then entered the ghetto for the first time, heard their long, horrifying stories. What the young girl had to say sounded authentic, and not only to Kovner. Dr. Weinrib later described how he had treated her wounds and summoned Kovner immediately because he had been a member of Hashomer Hatzair in his youth and had admired Kovner greatly then. Yehudit behaved quite maturely and was precise when she told her story to Kovner and the others present. Members of the various movements met six other survivors in the ghetto hospital and methodically wrote down their stories and found them almost identical. The reports spread throughout the ghetto: Jews who were brought to Ponar were shot. More peasants who lived near Ponar and acquaintances and former neighbors all recounted that they could hear gunfire throughout the daylight hours and that the place had been enclosed in barbed wire and no one was permitted to approach.14

(p.63) When Kovner fully comprehended the fate of Jews taken from the ghetto, he wanted to commit suicide. Jewish Vilna was being murdered, what point was there in continuing to live?15 But so long as the Germans wanted the Jews dead, suicide was out of the question, and remaining alive meant fighting them. Kovner's first step was the manifesto he wrote, warning of the certainty of all-inclusive mass murder and calling for self-defense, which took form gradually, and a few more months of Aktionen passed until the manifesto was written and read. At convent meetings “Abba tossed out the idea among the four of us [Kovner, Grossman, Boraks, Wilner], that the murder was not a local matter,” and he had come to a conclusion, even if it was still not in its final form. Kovner had already defined the need to found and arm a militant organization, to inform the Jewish population of “the cruel and bitter truth of the Germans' plan for total [Jewish] extermination in Eastern Europe,” and to call on the Jews to defend themselves.16

The ghetto inhabitants were beginning to have similar thoughts about upcoming slaughter. Korczak, who remained inside the ghetto after Kempner left to join Grossman in the city, continued to live in the same crowded room on Strashun Street with other members of the various movements. She wrote later about “thoughts of despair … because of the news … from the Lithuanian cities and towns about Aktionen and carnage. A great wave of riots and expulsions flooded every area the enemy conquered.”17 The members began to discuss the details they had heard, but only with close friends, not daring to voice their thoughts fully—not to mention the fact that at that time most of their energy was expended in simply staying alive, adapting to the conditions of life in the ghetto, and finding the strength to bear the loss of friends and relatives.18

By early October 1941, counting those murdered in the first two Aktionen, about 12,000 people had been killed since the beginning of September. The small group, which became the Hashomer Hatzair leadership in the ghetto, met for the first time, about twenty strong, in the room in which ten of them were living. They tried to pull themselves together and evaluate the situation objectively. Kovner said, although phrasing it as a question, that if Hitler meant to exterminate the Jews, they would see destruction as never before witnessed in the history of (p.64) the Jewish people and that there was no consolation, not even in a victory, which would come, alas, too late. Previous calamities in Jewish history had had geographic or political borders and a new center could always be established elsewhere, but the present catastrophe was being orchestrated by the power holding all Europe in its thrall. Therefore only in centers outside Europe would there be a possibility for national renewal.19 It was the first time Kovner had expressed his terrible fear before a large group and not just in front of a handful of close friends, but the same fear had been gnawing at the entrails of many of them: “I knew what he was thinking. After all, we were all facing the same problem,” wrote Grossman. “None of us,” wrote Korczak, “actually dared say it.” The others present at the meeting later said that the thought filtered its way into their consciousness, one drop at a time, without cessation.20 Rumors slowly became perceptions, and they were openly discussed by other youth movement groups, and later at intermovement and party meetings.21

During the third week of October the Germans announced that the Jews of the Vilna ghetto would have to carry “yellow certificates”; until then they had used whatever documents came to hand. According to Kempner, after the order had been issued, the suggestion proposed by Kovner, that they had to organize an uprising, began to take form, because the distribution of specific certificates indicated that the Germans had long-term intentions and a method of implementing them. It was during the “Aktion of the yellow certificates” that Hadassah Kamianitski and her mother were taken, and in vain, wrote Korczak, her friends looked for her “fair, erect figure.” Two factors made Kovner sense the approach of general impending disaster: Hadassah's death and the deliberate German planning of slaughter according to certificates, as opposed to the wild Aktion of Yom Kippur. Thus in October the movements began sending members, particularly women members (circumcised Jewish men could be easily identified), to find out what the situation was in places beyond Vilna and its immediate surroundings and to try to discover whether the Germans were acting as methodically elsewhere.22

By early November 1941, the number of those killed in October and the first days of the month had risen to 11,000. “The rivers of blood from the recent mass murders of ‘yellow certificate’ holders had barely (p.65) stopped flowing when in the narrow ghetto alleys of Vilna” the first Jewish ghetto partisan organization “was forged,” wrote Kovner of the turning point. According to Grossman, the “historic decision” was made in the convent two months before the writing of the manifesto, and she described Kovner as sitting in his shed on the convent grounds, planning a militant organization by candlelight: its cells, its connection with other ghettos, its contacts with the Poles (to obtain weapons), its open way of informing the ghetto inhabitants of the bitter truth that death awaited them all.23 In his memoirs, poet Avraham Sutzkever wrote that the “yellow certificate Aktionen” influenced the unification of the ghetto's Communist organization and its decision to contact other ghettos to find out which were thinking of an active struggle against the Germans. In addition, according to Reznik, at the end of October and the beginning of November, close to two months after they had entered the ghetto, they “discovered that [the Communists'] outlook regarding self defense was close to our own and they were not averse to a common action,” even an immediate one.”24 The idea had nothing to do with political affiliation, and it was shared by Hano'ar Hazioni, a center movement, and the Communists and other movements alike.

As if to confirm their fears, another yellow certificate Aktion was carried out on November 3. From one Aktion to the next the number of Lithuanians and Gestapo surrounding the ghetto increased; accompanied by dogs, they hunted people in every cellar and attic. By then the hiding places, the melinas, were even chimneys and garbage cans. There were melinas in which entire families hid for days on end, terrified of any noise and with no way of finding out what was happening outside. Sometimes fathers and even mothers smothered their babies, and grandparents sacrificed themselves by breaking out to distract those hunting their families.25

During November a few hundred more Jews were murdered, far fewer than in the preceding months. By mid-December 1941, the number of Jews killed since the Germans had entered Vilna reached about 33,500 (perhaps even more according to other calculations), of the 57,000 who had been in the city when the killings began. A period of relative calm followed, lasting until the summer of 1943, and the number of inhabitants remained fairly constant at about 20,000. (p.66) However, at the end of November no one knew that the Aktionen were behind them, and the killing spree that had annihilated two-thirds of the Jewish population led to more extreme reactions. On the one hand, some youth movement members called for self-defense, and on the other hand, some sought to “leave the ghetto and this accursed Vilna” and to move their activities to a quieter ghetto. Anyone who could, individuals and fragments of families, picked themselves up and fled the trap.

At the beginning of December, what was left of the Coordination in the ghetto held a meeting, and the opinions expressed regarding a possible course of action were clearly divided according to movement affiliations. Tenenbaum-Tamaroff (of Dror-Hechalutz) proposed that members be moved to a more secure location—Warsaw or perhaps Bialystok. Boraks (of Hashomer Hatzair) and Shlomo Entin (of Hano'ar Hazioni) were opposed, claiming that there were no secure places and that there was no way of being sure both those cities would not suffer Vilna's fate. Present also were Reznik, Grossman, and Korczak.

The members of Hanox'ar Hazioni and Hashomer Hatzair saw an uprising as their only chance to die honorably. “We didn't believe,” said Reznik, “that any one of us would remain alive,” and all those who survived still remember and share the feeling.26

During the second half of December there was a skeleton meeting of Hashomer Hatzair members at the convent, and they decided that they had no alternative but to defend themselves with arms and to issue a manifesto to the ghetto youth in Vilna and elsewhere.27 Accordingly, and because the other movements (with the exception of Dror-Hechalutz) were in agreement, Boraks, Entin, and Israel Kempner, Vitkax's brother, left for Warsaw at the end of the month representing not only their three youth movements but also the entire Coordination. After the meeting Kovner returned to the ghetto and did not leave it until two years later, when he took to the forests to join the partisans.

The same spirit was expressed at a Hashomer Hatzair council meeting held during the last days of December in the ghetto, at which Kovner claimed that “everything that has happened so far means only one thing: Ponar, that is to say, death. And not even that is the whole truth…. Vilna is not only Vilna, and Ponar is not merely an episode, it (p.67) is a complete system,” thoroughly thought out, although its details were as yet unknown. Escape, therefore, was nothing more than an illusion; it meant abandoning the weak to their fate and struggling in a strange city, where a refugee would be cut off from his roots. “There is no safety in flight,” and only dozens or hundreds would be saved, not the millions of Jews under the jackboot of the German occupation.28 Many of those present remained unconvinced and could not agree with Kovner that total destruction awaited the ghetto or that all the Jews under the German yoke would be killed. There were those who thought that emigration to Eretz Israel was still “the foundation of our lives” and that the leadership should move to Warsaw. Others noted their responsibility to the ghetto, which would pay with its life for their actions once they took up arms. There were those who were still undecided, those who hesitated, and only some who agreed with Kovner.

Kovner tried to sum up the meeting by asking who would “take upon himself the responsibility for all of us going to our deaths like lambs to the slaughter? … The fundamental principle is that we cannot but defend ourselves! … A great light will shine upon us when into this dark bloodbath comes the understanding that we are the Lords of Death. Then even our lives will be lit.” That was to be the essence of their resistance to the Germans, to decide their own deaths, to determine for themselves how and when they would die, and it gave them a reason to go on living.

“And he rose up … and dressed himself in the raiment of the Jews and put one yellow patch over his heart and the other on his back and returned to his fellow men in the ghetto. Uri was twenty-three years old on his return to the ghetto and young men and women went after him” (Scrolls of Testimony, p. 118). Thus Kovner described his return from the convent to the ghetto as soon as he understood that the murders taking place were methodical in a comprehensive, dramatic, biblical description of fast-moving events reminiscent of the book of Kings, which lists the ages of kings when crowned and when perished. Kovner was 23 when he went back to the ghetto. The book of Judges is used as well: Kovner returned to the ghetto, read the manifesto, and chose “three hundred faithful young men and women” from among those who had joined the underground immediately, as Gideon had chosen the 300 who lapped (p.68) the water, and with them saved Israel (Judges 7: 6–7). In reality, again, events moved more slowly and the situation was more complex.

The night of December 31, 1941, was the ideal time to hold a meeting because it could be camouflaged as a New Year's Eve party. It took place in the pioneers' kitchen at 2 Strashun Street and was attended by dozens of youths from Dror-Hechalutz, Hashomer Hatzair, Hano'ar Hazioni, and Akiva and smaller groups from other movements. After midnight, Kovner read aloud the manifesto written at the convent, titled “Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!” He called on those present to rid themselves of the illusion (proof that there were still many who believed) that those led out of the ghetto were taken to a different one or to a concentration camp. They had all been shot, he said, and would never come back. He then read the manifesto's two main tenets: first, that Hitler is plotting to massacre all the Jews in Europe and the Jews in Lithuania are the first in line. It was the first time that anyone in occupied Europe had hypothesized in writing that events were not local and performed for a specific reason but rather the manifestation of a centralized, complete program contrived by the Germans' highest echelons, directed against all of European Jewry. Kovner presented this tenet as clearly and forcefully as he could, not as a possibility but as an “absolute certainty.” The second principle was the conclusion drawn from such a perception, namely, that there could be only one genuine response and it was to defend themselves and choose death “as free fighters.”29 Kovner called on all Jewish youth, and on Lithuanian Jewry, not to let themselves be massacred like lambs. The die had been cast, he said, using the first person plural, for “us, Lithuanian Jews.”

The manifesto was handwritten first in Yiddish and then translated by Kovner into Hebrew, then into Polish and Lithuanian in versions that would be suitable for non-Jewish underground organizations. Additional Hebrew and Yiddish versions were prepared for other ghettos, and all were printed and distributed throughout the ghetto and outside as well (by means of women couriers).30 At the meeting Kovner read the Yiddish version and Tossia Altman, a prominent movement leader on a visit from Warsaw, read it in Hebrew, an event everyone present and still alive after the war never forgot. “I remember every detail,” said Haim Morocco (later Marom), a Hano'ar Hazioni member, (p.69) “the noise of the celebrations being held outside the ghetto, the snow, the scores of members who had stolen inside, the excitement of hearing Kovner read the manifesto in his deep voice.” “We were electrified,” said another individual. “His face radiated light,” wrote Korczak, who later kept the manifesto as a treasure, in the forests and until she reached Eretz Israel, “and his voice was strong and full of the pain he felt.” “Ponar means death,” said Littman Moravtchik (later Mor), “and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in shock: Ponar means death.” The room was silent for a long time after Kovner finished reading, and then they expressed their feelings in a quiet song: “To put our necks under the knife—no, no, never.”31

Kovner did not remember the singing, but years afterward he described the sound of his own voice as seeming special even to him that night, the inward fire shining forth from his pale face as he sat alone behind a folding table, like a cantor in a synagogue before the ark. He remembered everyone's eyes were focused on his lips, “full of wonder and identification with him,” as “he was revealed to them as their leader…. He received their unreserved loyalty and faith because he had no authority or power.” With that description detailed in his Scrolls of Testimony, Kovner united his two characters, Shaul and Uri, the practical one and the dreamer, because the time had come to leave words behind and progress to deeds. The sense of mission and uniqueness that had filled Kovner since youth made him feel constantly responsible, a responsibility he felt at that crucial moment shared with the kings and judges of Israel before him.

Having no hard evidence, how did Kovner find the temerity to write that Hitler was plotting to kill all European Jewry? Until the end of 1941, mass murders were committed by shooting the victims at the edges of pits and ravines on Soviet soil in vast reaches of territory stretching from Estonia to the Crimea, but that was not all of Europe. Nevertheless, Kovner went straight to the heart of the matter, to the centrality of the Jewish question in Nazi ideology, and the party heads' determination to devote their strength and energy to the extermination of the Jews as a condition for rebuilding the world as they imagined and desired it. More than once Kovner was asked how, as a young man, only 23 years old, he could take upon himself the responsibility (p.70)

The Manifesto of January 1, 1942“The rebellion began with the manifesto” September 1941–January 1942

Kovner's manifesto read in the Vilna ghetto on January 1, 1942. Givat Haviva Archive, D.1.4630. Courtesy of Givat Haviva Archive and the Kovner family.

  • Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!
  • Jewish youth, do not believe the perpetrators. Of the 80,000 Jews of the
  •    “Jerusalem of Lithuania” only 20,000 have remained. We saw how
  • they tore from us our parents, brothers and sisters.
  • Where are the men, hundreds of whom were kidnapped by the
  •    Lithuanian “Chapunes”?
  • Where are the naked women, and the children, driven away
  •    on the horrible Provocation night?
  • Where are the Day of Atonement Jews?
  • Where are our brothers from the second ghetto?
  • All those forced out of the ghetto never returned.
  • All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponar, and Ponar is death!
  • Throw away illusions. Your children, husbands and wives are all dead.
  • Ponar is not a camp—everyone was shot there.
  • Hitler has plotted to murder all of the Jews of Europe. The Jews of
  • Lithuania are doomed to be first in line.
  • Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!
  • True, we are weak and helpless, but the only answer to the hater is resistance!
  • Brothers! Better fall as free fighters than live at our murderers' mercy!
  • Resist! Resist to the last breath.
  • The 1st of January, 1942, Vilna, in the ghetto.
  • Translated by Dina Porat
(p.72) of telling an entire population that certain death awaited it. He had no answer because he did not know for a fact what Hitler's program was, but rather felt it. It was a hypothesis based on a strong gut feeling, and he was completely convinced he was correct. At Yad Vashem in 1982 Kovner said that the manifesto had been a kind of battle cry to those who were about to die. Therefore “I used words as a weapon to shock the young people, to encourage them to look into the abyss without fear. The way to achieve that was to tell the most cruel and not the most just truth.”32 Thus Kovner admitted that what he had written was “words as a weapon,” not truth based on evidence but the desire to shock, to carry his listeners away with the force of his words. However, what he wrote was not, for him, merely rhetoric. His deep conviction gave his words power.

What influence did the manifesto have in Vilna and farther afield? A distinction should be made between the reactions to its two main points: agreement with the idea that European Jewry was in fact going to be wiped out, and agreement that the only possible path was self-defense. The two are not necessarily related. Indeed, the first point of the manifesto, the annihilation of all European Jewry, was, according to Gutman, “rejected and viewed with much hesitation,” and only later was it generally accepted by “underground youth movements and their leaders as the sober, correct interpretation of the situation.”33 According to Korczak, it was “a conceptual revolution. How many people are capable of following the reasoning behind such an idea? Every human being wants to live and does so convinced until the very last moment that it will never happen to him!”34 In the ghettos of Warsaw, Grodno, Kovno, and Bialystok serious public figures considered the contents of the manifesto as unthinkable, a wild exaggeration.35 It was not even quoted or referred to by the extensive Warsaw ghetto underground press.

The reaction to the second point, the call to rebellion, was different. There can be no doubt about the manifesto's influence on the preparations made for a fighting underground in the Vilna ghetto and in other ghettos. It was the first public call to armed self-defense that was written, read, and distributed with the objective of rousing a rebellion in every ghetto, and it was done before any non-Jewish underground (p.73) movement had been organized anywhere else in Europe, with the exception of Marshal Tito's partisans in Yugoslavia. Kovner later called the manifesto, and with justification, “a fundamental, insightful document which sharply pointed out the ghetto's central dilemma and paved the way for the formation of resistance movements in Vilna and the other ghettos.”36 Yet according to Korczak, the arguments they had before the manifesto was read had been about dilemmas and difficulties that were certainly not solved then and that did not seem to evaporate as soon as the manifesto became known. In Kovner's opinion, the difficulty in absorbing what had been said was not only personal but also general. The basic condition for absorption and understanding was, he thought, “the realization that all Jews had been condemned to a common fate,” and the understanding that sharing the fate, for better or for worse, was more decisive than their differences, both internally as Jews and externally in the eyes of the enemy.37

However, in examining where and when the underground took up arms, it would seem that Kovner was wrong and that it was not just a feeling of national Jewish solidarity and uniqueness of fate that was the condition for their willingness to deal with the idea of total annihilation but rather the certainty that annihilation was already being implemented and that “the manifesto came up out of the pits of Ponar,” as Grossman put it. Kovner was aware of the limitations of any manifesto, no matter how well written and stirring it might be. “It would be hasty and unjust to link the result to the initial idea. None of us would dare say nor would it be true” that rebellion broke out in one spot or another because messengers brought the manifesto and encouraged an uprising, because there were many places where it was received and no rebellion started, and vice versa. The only conclusion that can be drawn, then, is that the powerful impact of the manifesto notwithstanding, the unprecedented idea was usually grasped only when large-scale killings had already begun.38

The manifesto of January 1, 1942, is a key document in the history of the Holocaust and the Jewish people. Its reading symbolized a turning point in the consciousness of the Jews in conquered Europe as a people. It is no wonder, then, that both individuals and various movements that take great care to preserve their personal and collective stories want to (p.74) have it known that they had a hand in the manifesto and that no other individual or movement had sole historical priority. That is the reason that Dror-Hechalutz wanted to show Tenenbaum-Tamaroff as participating in the composition and reading of the manifesto and Yitzhak Zuckerman as understanding the program for the methodical annihilation of the Jews as well as and no later than Kovner and the reason that Hano'ar Hazioni wanted to say that Reznik and others sent a request to the convent for Kovner to write a manifesto. It is easy to forget that the remnants of the youth movement members in the Vilna ghetto and in fact 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, whether Jewish or not, lacking adequate means or preparation, losing their families, their numbers dwindling from one Aktion to the next. 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, even in the eyes of those who later implemented it with their blood.”39 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.

In his poetry Kovner expressed the sensation of bearing a terrible burden because he understood the methodical nature of the destruction and the responsibility that placed him apart, alone and accused before the ghetto population, like the messenger in ancient times who brought bad tidings and was outcast or killed, much as David ordered the execution of the messenger who broke the news of King Saul's death. In his poem “The Key Sank,” Kovner wrote about the one who, terrified, “shed his shoes, ran up to the threshold, knocked on the door / and from his hidden knowing cried, there is death there / there is a stake in the circle—blood … / only his shadow, white, rises at the windows” and “they will be lost, he mumbled. You will be lost, he stumbled on his words. Am I the destroyer, am I the seer?”40

It was to Kovner's immense credit that he was the first person to state publicly, clearly, and uncompromisingly the same intuitive knowledge many other youth movement and political party members who survived (p.75) in the ghetto had and that he realized Jews were faced with a comprehensive plan being implemented in a completely unprecedented way. It was to his credit that he drew the clearest conclusions immediately and acted unhesitatingly to make them known. Realizing the price he would have to pay for taking the path he had chosen caused him great heartache, and the pain continued to gnaw at him for years. Kovner noted a few words for himself, which he later threw into a drawer in Ein Hahoresh, and they express, in essence, the distinction between a leader who is praised by those close to him and the personal price he pays for his actions:

  • “I am in the ghetto:
  • Savior
  • Killer
  • Cheered
  • And the mother: Killer.”


(1.) Rindjiunski, Destruction of Vilna, 42–43; Dworzecki, Jerusalem of Lithuania, 69–71; Mendel Balberyszski, Stronger Than Iron (Tel Aviv, 1967), 253–254(in Yiddish).

(2.) Kovner, Scrolls of Testimony, 159–160; Nissan Reznik, in Aviva Kempner's 1986 documentary film The Partisans of Vilna, directed by Yosh Valecki.

(3.) Arad, Jewish Vilna, 123–126; regarding a German document about the history of Vilna and the ghetto, see Korczak, Flames; Dworzecki, Jerusalem of Lithuania, 101–110.

(4.) Interview with Vitka Kempner; Grossman, Underground Members, 23, 35, 41; Korczak, Flames, 32–33.

(5.) Korczak, Flames, 16; Zvi Mersik and Andzei Liebedz, who were also representatives of their movements in the Coordination, left Vilna.

(6.) See the Stahlecker report (General SS Franz Walter Stahlecker, Commander of Einsatzgruppe A, which operated in the Baltic states), in Zvi Shner, ed., The Final Solution: Documents Relating to the Murder of European Jews by Nazi Germany (Tel Aviv, 1960), 22.

(7.) Ruzka Korchak-Marle, The Personality and Philosophy of Life of a Fighter, ed. Y. Tubin, L. Dror, and Y. Rab (Tel Aviv, 1998), 160; Tenenbaum-Tamaroff, Pages from Fire, 101–102.

(8.) Tenenbaum-Tamaroff, Pages from Fire, 101–102; Korchak-Marle, Personality, 28, 198–199.

(9.) Zeidel, A Human Being Tested, 39; Dworzecki, Jerusalem of Lithuania, 36–37, does not mention such an occurrence.

(10.) Arad, Jewish Vilna, 158–167; the quotation is from Kovner's testimony at the Eichmann trial, Testimonies A (Jerusalem, 1974); see also Kovner, On the Narrow Bridge, 45; and Korczak, Flames, 17–18.

(11.) Kovner, “Flames in Ashes,” his speech delivered in the synagogue in liberated Vilna, August 1944, first printed in Achdut Ha'avoda 175 (1946); Yitzhak Zuckerman and Moshe Basok, eds., The Ghetto Battles Book (Tel Aviv, 1956), 411.

(12.) Testimonies A, 338; see Israel Gutman, “The Uniqueness of the Lodz Ghetto,” introduction to The Lodz Ghetto Chronicles (Jerusalem, 1987), v. 1, 62.

(13.) Grossman, Underground Members, 18, 25, 29, 35; Kovner, On the Narrow Bridge, 57; interview with Grossman; Kovner, Scrolls of Testimony, 80; Abraham Weinrib, “Memoirs of a Vilna Ghetto Physician,” Yalkut Moreshet 27:7–60 (April 1979), quotation on p. 32.

(14.) Korchak-Marle, Personality, 56–60; Testimonies A, 342; Korczak, Flames, 41; Rindjiunski, Destruction of Vilna, 18; Weinrib, “Memoirs,” 32–36.

(15.) Kovner to Vitka Kempner, end of April 1946, KEHA, “Revenge” file.

(16.) Grossman, Underground Members, 38–45; Korczak, Flames (1st ed.), 28; interview with Chaika Grossman.

(17.) Korczak, Flames, 28.

(18.) A joint interview held at Tel Aviv University on August 3, 1992, by Dina Porat with Sima Kaganovitch, Leibke Distel, Mira Verbin, Yitzhak Roglin, Littman Moravtchik (Mor), Mussia Lipman, and Vitka Kempner.

(19.) Grossman, Underground Members, 39; Korczak, Flames, 32–33.

(20.) Grossman, Underground Members, 29; Kovner, in Korczak, Flames, 28–29, and a joint interview with Dina Porat.

(21.) Korczak, Flames, 41; joint interview with Dina Porat; Reznik's testimony to Dov Levin, May 17, 1978, ICJ, Files 3176 and 3404; Reznik, “Movement,” 53–55; Beitar, Gordonia, Akiva, and Hapoel Hamizrahi also had representatives in these meetings.

(22.) Korczak, Flames, 39; Korchak-Marle, Personality, 56; interview with Vitka Kempner; Kovner's testimony to Oded Tira, YVA, 03/3883.

(23.) Zuckerman and Basok, Ghetto Battles, 411; Grossman, Underground Members, 35; Chaika Grossman, “Those Seven Years—Not Exactly,” Dvar Hashavua (March 4, 1991).

(24.) Avraham Sutzkever, “From the Vilna Ghetto,” in The Black Book, ed. Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg (Jerusalem, 1991), 291–293 (based on the first version of Sutzkever's Vilna Ghetto, written in Moscow in 1944); Nissan Reznik's testimony to Dov Levin, in Reznik, “Movement,” 50 and 57; and Reznik's meoirs, Buds from the Ashes: The Story of Hano'ar Hatzioni Youth in the Vilna Ghetto (Jerusalem, 2003), ch. 6.

(25.) Korczak, Flames, 42–43; Kovner, Scrolls of Testimony, xxxvii–xxxviii.

(26.) Reznik, “Movement,” 54; Dworzecki, Jerusalem of Lithuania, 341–342.

(27.) For an analysis of today's dispute regarding the writing of the manifesto, see Dina Porat, “The Vilna 1.1.42 Manifesto,” Υad Vashem Studies 25: 93 (1996).

(28.) Ziva Shalev, Tossia Altman, master's thesis, Tel Aviv University, 1989, p. 201; Israel Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939–1943: Ghetto Underground Uprising (Tel Aviv, 1977), 194–195; Korczak, Flames, 44, 46, 52–53; Grossman, Underground Members, 35; joint testimony with Dina Porat.

(29.) The original manifesto in Yiddish, handwritten by Kovner, GHA, D.1.4630; according to Arad, Jewish Vilna, 196, the manifesto was written Kovner in the ghetto, and according to Israel Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (Jerusalem, 1990), v. 5, 1074, Kovner heard about the murders once he returned to the ghetto; but neither Arad nor Gutman has a reference, nor are their statements supported by any other source. For writing in the convent, see Reznik, “Movement,” 54; Dworzecki, Jerusalem of Lithuania, 341–342; and Nathan Cantarowitch, The Jewish Resistance Movement in Poland (New York, 1967), 9 (in Yiddish); interview with Vitka Kempner; Grossman, “Almost a Confession.”

(30.) Kovner, in Testimonies A, 343; Shmerke Katcherginski, The Destruction of Vilna (New York, 1947), 17 (in Yiddish); joint testimony of Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczak given to Yitzhak Arad, June 17, 1974, YVA, 03/3882.

(31.) Joint testimony with Dina Porat; interview with Haim Marom (Morocco) and with Littman Moravtchik (Mor); Korczak, Flames, 53; the poem was written in Yiddish by Nahum Yod, according to Shalom Lurie, who translated it into Hebrew.

(32.) “A Somber Imagination,” in Zuckerman and Moshe Basok, Ghetto Battles, 411; “A Feeling,” Kovner's testimony to Dov Levin, 1965, in Kovner, His and About (p.351) Him, 52; Dina Porat, “‘With Grace and Forgiveness’: Ruzka Korczak's Encounter with the Yishuv and Its Leadership, 1944–1946,” Υalkut Moreshet 52: 21 (April 1992).

(33.) Testimonies A, 344; joint testimony with Yitzhak Arad, 1974; Gutman, Lodz Ghetto Chronicles, 62.

(34.) Mira Verbim and Littman Moravtchik (Mor) in the joint testimony with Dina Porat; Korchak-Marle, Personality, 29.

(35.) Grossman, Underground Members, 48, and an interview with her; Shalev, Tossia Altman, 202; Reznik, Buds from the Ashes, ch. 6; Dworzecki, Jerusalem of Lithuania, 342; Cantarowitch, Jewish Resistance Movement, 7; Testimonies A, 344; Rachel Manbar, “Hashomer Hatzair in Warsaw, 1940–1942,” Υalkut Moreshet 23: 128–129 (April 1977).

(36.) Gutman, Lodz Ghetto Chronicles, 62; Kovner's letter to Bronka Klibanski, January 20, 1983, YVA, File 6187.

(37.) Korczak, Flames, 368; Korchak-Marle, Personality, 29; Kovner, On the Narrow Bridge, 45, 47.

(38.) Kovner's testimony to Dov Levin, 1965; Kovner, “A First Attempt to Tell,” Υalkut Moreshet 16: 7–23 (April 1973).

(39.) Chaika Grossman, “The Uprising Originated in the Certainty of Annihilation,” Υalkut Moreshet 47: 100 (November 1989); Israel Gutman on Abba Kovner, in Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, v. 5, 1074.

(40.) Kovner, Of All Loves (Merhavia, 1970 [1965]), 147, 149.