April 17, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
April 17, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

‘We Will Not Be Led Like Sheep to the Slaughter’

Abba Kovner was an Israeli poet, writer and a partisan commander in the Vilna Ghetto, who performed a vital role in establishing the United Partisan Group (Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye, FPO), the Jewish underground in the ghetto, training its members and ultimately becoming its commander. On December 31, 1941, he unified a divided resistance movement with these words: “Jewish youth! Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe. … We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!”

Years later, Kovner said the “famous phrase haunts me now wherever I go.” What is lacking, he asserted, is the context in which this expression was stated. In December 1941, it was the “heading of a leaflet that called for rebellion.” The objective was to “shake the ghetto inhabitants out of their conviction that they were standing before a situation of total destruction. Not just in Vilna, and not just in Lithuania, but all over Europe. And that was the only way out was to go to their death with honor.” The phrase he used, therefore, “must not be taken out of context. For thirty years I have never repeated it,” he declared. “I never thought afterwards that a woman whose child has been taken out of her arms had gone to sheep like slaughter. … I have never thought that the sheep had anything to be ashamed of.”

Historian Dina Porat noted that this leaflet was the first document to state the Germans were determined to murder all the Jews of Europe and that self-defense was the only viable option. Kovner said it was never a question of what the Jews knew or when they knew it; it was a question of what the Jews should have done, once they understood what was happening. “What were the alternatives?” he asked. “What conclusions can be drawn when there was no choice?”

Ramifications of Resistance

Of course, the decision to resist could result in severe consequences to all the Jews in the ghetto. Kovner asked whether procuring and smuggling weapons to resistance fighters raised the question of if they were “entitled to endanger the lives of the last few thousands of Jews in case arms were discovered in our possession.” After all, “No one who has never been in the ghetto will understand the mass fear of collective responsibility.” The week before a Jew smuggled the first pistol into the ghetto, an entire group of Jewish forced laborers were sent to Lukiškės Prison in the center of Vilna after one from their camp stole salt from a truck.

Kovner’s response to subjecting the ghetto to retaliation should they be discovered, especially since they were “exposed to all kinds of betrayal,” was unequivocal: “With full consciousness of the responsibility we were undertaking, our reply was: Yes. We can. We must.” Within a short time, Kovner said the resistance (FPO), with the help of the partisans and additional anti-German groups, obtained machine guns, rifles, pistols, hand grenades and ammunition from German depots, bunkers and sealed trucks. To avoid detection, the equipment was taken apart and concealed in clothing, a manure pushcart and in the double bottom of a tool chest and then reassembled. Weapons were also smuggled in through tunnels underneath the ghetto.

In June 1942, the idea of destroying a military train was discussed, which Kovner confessed bordered “on madness,” since members of the FPO did not have “free movement” outside the ghetto. They decided to attempt the sabotage operation, but their “hearts were gnawed by doubts,” Kovner admitted. “What if we did not succeed,” they asked. If the partisans were apprehended with a landmine, “how many thousands would pay with their lives?”

Vitka Kempner, a member of the FPO, was responsible for the organization’s first act of sabotage: smuggling a homemade bomb out of the ghetto and blowing up a Nazi train line. Before embarking on this mission with Izka Matzkevitch and Moshe Braus, Kempner snuck out of the ghetto for a three-day reconnaissance expedition, after dying her hair and removing the yellow patch.

After the Germans liquidated the Vilna ghetto in July 1944, Kovner led his men through the “chilly” sewers to the forest, where he commanded a unit of a few hundred men and women, as part of the Soviet-Lithuanian partisan movement.

A Final Note

In “A Plea for the Dead,” Elie Wiesel acknowledged that for him, “How in the ghettos and the camps they were able to find the means to fight when the whole world was against them … will always remain a mystery.” Jews resisted in the ghettos including Warsaw, Bialystok, Mir, Lachva (Lachwa), Kremenets, Czestochowa and Nesvizh and in the extermination camps Treblinka, Sobibór, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. In a number of labor camps, dozens of prisoners escaped to join partisan units, but they “were generally the exception to the rule.”

“It is easy to imagine,” Wiesel said, “what might have happened had every warrior in every ghetto obtained one rifle.”


Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles