Resistance and Its Price

Pictured here are members of the United Partisans Organization. Standing from the left are Elkhanan Magid, Jacob Prener, Bluma Markowicz, Abba Kovner, Ruszka Korczak, Leib Sapirsztein, and Vitka Kempner Kovner. Pictured kneeling are Gerszan Griner, Pesach Mizerec and Motl Szames. –Courtesy of the Jack Lennard Archive

Heroes who put their lives on the line to fight oppression draw our attention because of their courage in the moment. With the passage of time, they may see their actions in a different light and the notion of resistance itself can change.

During the Holocaust, one of the most well-known resistance figures, Abba Kovner, was forced to make an impossible choice that he later came to understand very differently.

“Jewish youth, don’t trust those who deceive you. Of 80,000 Jews in “Yerushalayim de Lita,”[Jerusalem of Lithuania] only 20,000 are left. Our parents, brothers, and sisters were torn from us before our eyes. […] Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only answer to the murderer is resistance! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live at the mercy of the murderers! Rise up! Rise up until your last breath.”

This manifesto, recited by the 23-year-old on January 1, 1942, at a meeting of youth leaders in German-occupied Vilna, in what is now Lithuania, served as both a call to arms to his fellow activists and an indictment of what he saw as passivity or despair.

By the time Kovner spoke, nearly 30,000 Jews had already been shot by the Germans and their collaborators in the nearby forest of Ponary. Three weeks after this document was read, Kovner helped found the United Partisan Organization. The group’s mission: to disrupt all German actions in the Vilna area by any means necessary.

Today, we see Kovner’s words and actions as prescient, heroic, and rare. What gave him such clarity of understanding and purpose? The Vilna Ghetto, like many ghettos created by the Nazis throughout Eastern Europe, became a way station on the path to genocide.

At the same time, the Vilna Ghetto of 1942 was a place of contradiction. As Kovner and his comrades were organizing an armed resistance movement, many of the ghetto’s inhabitants were simultaneously finding ways to adapt to their situation.

Vilna had a rich Jewish cultural life prior to the war, and it became a priority for many in the ghetto to sustain that life. A ghetto library — filled with thousands of important titles — was maintained during this period. A year after Kovner delivered his defiant message, fifteen-year-old Yitskhok Rudashevskii wrote to celebrate the 100,000th book circulating from this library.

“The book unites us with the future, the book unites us with the world. The circulation of the hundred-thousandth book is a great achievement for the ghetto and the ghetto has the right to be proud of it.”

Additionally, theater performances occurred. Zionist and labor youth groups flourished.

At the time, Kovner regarded this type of cultural activity with ambivalence. How can one celebrate life on a site of murder? Why create a reassuring community in plain sight of Ponary?

By September 1943, the situation had drastically changed. The final liquidation of the ghetto had begun, and the partisans planned their escape into the surrounding forests to continue their fight.

In a final plea on September 1, 1943, Kovner called for defiance:

“Jews! Defend yourselves with weapons! Do not believe the murder’s false promises! Anyone who leaves by the ghetto gate has only one road to travel and it leads to Ponar!”

But weapons (and those with the ability to use them) were in short supply. For most, including Kovner’s mother, it was too late.

Kovner left her behind in the ghetto that day. He never saw his mother again.

Kovner and his fellow partisans continued fighting until the Soviets pushed the Germans out of Lithuania in 1944. Kovner eventually made his way to what would become Israel.

Former partisans from Belorussia and Lithuania gather for a reunion in Palestine. Abba Kovner is seated in the center, second row. –United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the Bielski family

He became one of the most noted Modern Hebrew poets of his era, and a towering figure in the history of the State of Israel, but remained haunted by the price of his resistance. On the day in 1948 that his son, Michael, was born, Kovner wrote a poem. The first two lines:

“In my mind’s eye I can still see my father dying/Behind my back I hear my mother’s voice as they kill her” (quoted in Dina Porat, The Fall of the Sparrow: The life and times of Abba Kovner).

Kovner would spend the rest of his literary career grappling (in various forms) with what happened between 1941 and 1944, in and around Vilna. The fledgling State of Israel was searching for heroes, and many aimed to separate themselves from the role of the victim at every turn. As a Jew who fought the Nazis through military action, Kovner — and others like him — attained near sacred status. The complicated choices and real sacrifices, and the rich life that was lost in the forest around Vilna and so many other towns and cities like it, was elided or ignored in service of creating that hero.

Kovner himself was far less certain about his role. In his testimony at the trial of Adolf Eichmann on May 4, 1961, in Jerusalem, he remembers his 1941 call to arms:

“Confronting us in this courtroom is the question: how is it that they did not revolt? I, as a fighting Jew, would rise in protest with all my strength at this question, if it contains a vestige of accusation. […] We were in a glass cage — who would dare to ask: How is it that you did not rise up in a glass cage? […] It is astonishing that there existed a minority who believed in this manifesto and did what they did in the course of two years. The surprising thing, in my opinion, is that a fighting force existed at all, that there was armed reaction, that there was a revolt. That is what was not rational.”

Today, we take any effort to live life or to retain a semblance of normalcy under oppression and imbue it with agency, with “resistance.”

In the catalog of defiance, we now list those who kept a clandestine archive of daily Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Oyneg Shabes. We hail diarists, poets, and artists (known and unknown) who continued to write and create amidst unthinkable horrors.

We honor the nameless mother comforting her child as they went, as Kovner put it, “like sheep to the slaughter.” We recall, as author Primo Levi did, those who preserved their dignity through the simple act of keeping clean within the filth and squalor of the concentration camps.

Ultimately, by considering Kovner’s actions and their costs alongside other, equally complicated responses, “resistance” — a seemingly self-evident term — becomes anything but straightforward in the face of genocide.

Written by Leah Wolfson, PhD, senior program officer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.