Abba Kovner-Poet and Hero

quote-we-will-not-be-led-like-sheep-to-the-slaughter-abba-kovner-78-12-46

Abba Kovner was a somewhat controversial figure and by today’s standards he could be considered a terrorist, but as the saying goes “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” But considering what he witnessed one can not blame him for some of his actions after the war.

Abba Kovner was born on March 14, 1918, in the Crimean Black Sea port city of Sevastopol. His parents were Rachel (Rosa) Taubman and Israel Kovner. At a young age he moved with his family to Vilnius, which at this time was part of Poland, where he grew up and was educated at the secondary Hebrew academy and the school of the arts. While pursuing his studies, he joined and became an active member in the socialist Zionist youth movement HaShomer HaTzair.

220px-Hashomer_Hatzair

In September 1939, World War II began. Only two weeks later, on September 19, the Red Army entered Vilna and soon incorporated it into the Soviet Union. Kovner became active during this time, 1940 to 1941, with the underground. But life changed drastically for Kovner once the Germans invaded.

On June 24, 1941, two days after Germany launched its surprise attack against the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), the Germans occupied Vilna. As the Germans were sweeping east toward Moscow, they instigated their ruthless oppression and murderous actions in the communities they occupied.

Vilna, with a Jewish population of approximately 55,000, was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” for its flourishing Jewish culture and history. The Nazis soon changed that.

As Kovner and 16 other members of the Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa’ir hid in a convent of Dominican nuns a few miles outside of Vilna, the Nazis began to rid Vilna of its “Jewish problem.”

Less than a month after the Germans occupied Vilna, they committed on of their first atrocities. Einsatzkommando 9 rounded up 5,000 Jewish men of Vilna and took them to Ponary (a location approximately six miles from Vilna that had pre-dug large pits, which the Nazis used as a mass extermination area for Jews from the Vilna area).

The Nazis made the pretense that the men were to be sent to labor camps, when they were really sent to Ponary and shot.

At the start of 1942, Kovner released a manifesto in the Vilnius ghetto, twice repeating the phrase “Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!” that later became famous.The manifesto declared that Hitler had decided to kill all the Jews of Europe and that it was best to die fighting. It was the first time such a notion had been declared in Europe,nobody at that time knew for certain of more than local killing,and many received it with skepticism;however, for many this proclamation represented a turning point in an understanding of the situation and how to respond to it.

Kovner was responsible for writing a call to revolt. In front of the 150 attendees gathered together at 2 Straszuna Street in a public soup kitchen, Kovner read aloud:

Jewish youth!Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Out of the eighty thousand Jews in the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” only twenty thousand are left. . . . Ponar [Ponary] is not a concentration camp. They have all been shot there. Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe, and the Jews of Lithuania have been chosen as the first in line.

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!

At first there was silence. Then the group broke out in spirited song.

The idea of resistance was disseminated from Vilnius by youth movement couriers, mainly women, to the ghettos of occupied Poland, occupied Belarus and of Lithuania. Kovner, Yitzhak Wittenberg, and others formed the United Partisan Organization (“Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye”, or FPO), one of the first armed underground organizations in the Jewish ghettos under Nazi occupation.

Ghetto_Vilinus

Unlike in other ghettos, the resistance movement in the Vilna Ghetto was not run by ghetto officials. Jacob Gens, appointed head of the ghetto by the Nazis but originally chief of police, ostensibly cooperated with German officials in stopping armed struggle.

The FPO represented the full spectrum of political persuasions and parties in Jewish life.

The goals of the FPO were to establish a means for the self-defence of the ghetto population, to sabotage German industrial and military activities and to join the partisan and Red Army’s fight against the Nazis.

 

In early 1943, the Germans caught a member of the Communist underground who revealed some contacts under torture and the Judenrat, in response to German threats, tried to turn Yitzhak Wittenberg, the head of the FPO, over to the Gestapo.

Yitzhak Wittenberg

Wittenberg was arrested by the Lithuanian police only to be freed by armed FPO members. He went into hiding in the ghetto, and the consensus of the ghetto’s population was that 20,000 people should not be jeopardized for the sake of one man.

Kovner became its leader in July 1943, after Wittenberg had turned himself in to prevent an attack on the ghetto.The FPO planned to fight the Germans when the end of the ghetto came, but circumstances and the opposition of the ghetto leaders made this impossible and they escaped to the forests.

From September 1943 until the arrival of the Soviet army in July 1944, Kovner, along with his lieutenants Vitka Kempner and Rozka Korczak, commanded a partisan group called the Avengers(“Nokmim”) in the forests near Vilna and engaged in sabotage and guerrilla attacks against the Germans and their local collaborators. The Avengers were one of four predominantly Jewish groups that operated under the command of the Soviet-led partisans.

After the occupation of Vilnius by the Soviet Red Army in July 1944, Kovner became one of the founders of the Berihah movement, helping Jews escape Eastern Europe after the war.

At the end of the war, Kovner was one of the founders of a secret organization Nakam (revenge), also known as Dam Yisrael Noter (“the blood of Israel avenges”, with the acronym DIN meaning “judgement”)whose purpose was to seek revenge for the Holocaust.Two plans were formulated. Plan A was to kill a large number of German citizens by poisoning the water supplies of Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, and Nuremberg, Nakam intended to kill 6 million Germans.Plan B was to kill SS prisoners held in Allied POW camps. In pursuit of Plan A, members of the group were infiltrated into water and sewage plants in several cities, while Kovner went to Palestine in search of a suitable poison. Kovner discussed Nakam with Yishuv leaders, though it is not clear how much he told them and he doesn’t seem to have received much support.According to Kovner’s own account, Chaim Weizmann approved the idea and put him in touch with the scientist Ernst Bergmann, who gave the job of preparing poison to Ephraim Katzir (later president of Israel) and his brother Aharon. Historians have expressed doubt over Weizmann’s involvement, since he was overseas at the time Kovner specified.The Katzir brothers confirmed that they gave poison to Kovner, but said that he only mentioned Plan B and they denied that Weizmann could be involved.As Kovner and an accomplice were returning to Europe on a British ship, they threw the poison overboard when Kovner was arrested. He was imprisoned for a few months in Cairo and Plan A was abandoned.

In April 1946, members of Nakam broke into a bakery used to supply bread for the Langwasser internment camp near Nuremberg, where many German POWs were being held.

2-langwasser

They coated many of the loaves with arsenic but were disturbed and fled before finishing their work. More than 2,200 of the German prisoners fell ill and 207 were hospitalized, but no deaths were reported.

Kovner joined the Haganah(a Jewish paramilitary organization in the British Mandate of Palestine (1921–48), which became the core of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).) in December 1947, and soon after Israel declared independence in May 1948 he became a captain in the Givati Brigade of the IDF.

During the Israeli War of Independence he became known for his “battle pages”, headed “Death to the invaders!”, that contained news from the Egyptian front and essays designed to keep up morale. However, the tone of the pages, which called for revenge for the Holocaust and referred to the Egyptian enemy as vipers and dogs, upset many Israeli political and military leaders.His first battle page started a controversy that still continues today when it accused the Nitzanim garrison of cowardice for surrendering to an overwhelming Egyptian force.

From 1946 to his death, Kovner was a resident of Kibbutz Ein HaHoresh.He was active in Mapam as well as in HaShomer HaTzair, but never took on a formal political role.He played a major part in the design and construction of several Holocaust museums, including the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.

Abba_Kovner_quote,_diaspora_museum

He died in 1987 (aged 69) of cancer that had started in his vocal cords, perhaps due to his lifelong heavy smoking. Vitka Kempner, who married Kovner in 1946, survived him.

Kovner’s book of poetry Ad Lo-Or, (“Until No-Light”), 1947, describes in lyric-dramatic narrative the struggle of the Resistance partisans in the swamps and forests of Eastern Europe.

Kovner’s story is the basis for the song “Six Million Germans / Nakam”, by Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird.

Kovner testified about his experiences during the war at the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

800px-Abba_Kovner_at_Eichmann_trial1961

Advertisements

Major Karl Plagge-German WW2 Hero

250px-KarlPlagge

Karl Plagge knew that he was courting death at every turn by protecting Jews from the SS, but he couldn’t care less. An engineer by profession, Plagge joined the Nazi Party but later left after he became disgusted with the group’s racist ideology. After the war broke out, he was assigned to head an army vehicle repair unit in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. In a period marked by extermination campaigns conducted by the SS, Plagge moved quickly to save as many Jews as possible.

 

 

 

Major Karl Plagge (July 10, 1897, in Darmstadt — June 19, 1957 in Darmstadt) was a Wehrmacht officer, engineer and Nazi Party member who during World War II used his position as a staff officer in the Heer (Army) to employ and protect some 1,240 Jews — 500 men, the others women and children, in order to give them a better chance to survive the nearly total annihilation of Lithuania’s Jews that took place between 1941–1944.

Karl Plagge in full uniform

Plagge, a veteran of World War I, was initially drawn to the promises of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party to rebuild the German economy and national pride during the difficult years that Germany experienced after the signing of the Versailles Treaty.

Treaty_of_Versailles,_English_version

He joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and worked to further its stated goals of national rejuvenation. However, he began to come into conflict with the local party leadership over his refusal to teach Nazi racial theories, which, as a man of science, he did not believe. His continued refusal to espouse the Nazi racial teachings led to accusations that he was a “friend of Jews and Freemasons” by the local Darmstadt Nazi leadership in 1935, and he was removed from his leadership positions in the local party apparatus.

Plagge graduated from the Technical University of Darmstadt in 1924 with a degree in engineering. On being drafted into the Heer at the beginning of World War II, he was put in command of an engineering unit, Heereskraftfahrpark 562 (“Army Vehicle Park 562”; HKP 562), which maintained and repaired military vehicles.

In July 1941, during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, HKP 562 was deployed to Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania. Plagge soon witnessed the genocide being carried out against the Jews of the area. Plagge would later testify that “I saw unbelievable things that I could not support…it was then that I began to work against the Nazis”

Plagge, as a German, felt responsible for some of the horrors he witnessed and felt compelled to work against the genocidal machine. He did what he could to help some of Vilnius’ beleaguered Jews by giving work certificates to Jewish men, certifying them as essential and skilled workers regardless of their actual backgrounds.

This kind of work permit protected the worker, his wife and two children from the SS sweeps carried out in the Vilna Ghetto in which Jews without work papers were captured and killed at the nearby Paneriai (Ponary) execution grounds.

ponary

 

Plagge conscripted as many Jewish men as he could and with a straight face told the SS that they were all skilled mechanics (they weren’t). Miraculously, he also managed to convince the SS to let them bring their wives and children into the camp, as their presence could boost work production. Inside the camp, he treated his laborers well and often found ways to undermine the ever-watchful SS.

HKP

The SS entered the camp on two occasions to commit atrocities, before finally liquidating most of the Jewish laborers in July 1944, shortly before the German retreat out of Vilnius. In November 1943, a Jewish prisoner named David Zalkind, his wife, and child attempted to escape from the camp and were caught by the Gestapo. They were publicly executed in the camp courtyard in front of the other prisoners. On March 27, 1944, while Plagge was away on home leave in Germany, the SS carried out a Kinder Aktion (“Children Operation”). They entered the camp, rounded up the vast majority of the camp’s 250 children and then transported them away from the camp to be killed (most likely at the killing grounds of Paneriai (Ponary). Thus both Plagge, his subordinates and the prisoners understood that ultimately the SS would decide the fate of the camp’s Jews.

Plagge’s most brazen moves came in 1944, when the Germans found themselves being driven back by the Soviets. Plagge knew that the SS would try to kill everyone at the camp before they evacuated, so he told his workers:

“You will be escorted during this evacuation by the SS which, as you know, is an organization devoted to the protection of refugees. Thus, there’s nothing to worry about…”

They got the hint and most managed to escape before the SS arrived the next day.

Mass executions in Vilnius (Vilna) and environs were carried out primarily in the Ponary massacre over the period between July 1941 and August 1944, in which 110,000 people were murdered. About 70,000 of these people were Jews of Lithuanian or other nationality; others were deported to Nazi extermination camps. Plagge tried to spare as many as he could from this by purposely recruiting Jews instead of Poles for labor. His success was only partial; his unit had to retreat, thereby removing the slave-labor framework that had protected them until that point. The SS ultimately succeeded in murdering about 900 – 1000 of Plagge’s 1,250[slave-laborers between the Kinder-Aktion and the final liquidation of the camp.

shooting pits at ponary

The success of Plagge’s efforts to save Jews is manifested through a survival rate of about 20–25% among those he hired compared with the much lower rate of 3–5% — virtual annihilation — among the rest of Lithuania’s Jews. The 250 to 300 surviving Jews of the HKP camp constituted the largest single group of survivors of the genocide in Vilnius.

Plagge’s efforts are corroborated by survivor testimony, historical documents found in Germany, and Plagge’s own testimony found in a letter he wrote in 1957, a year before his death. In this letter he compares himself with the character of Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ novel The Plague and describes his hopeless struggle against a plague of death that slowly envelops the inhabitants of his city.

After the war, Karl Plagge returned home to Darmstadt, Germany, where he was tried in 1947 as part of the postwar denazification process. Some of his former prisoners were in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart and heard of the charges against him. They sent a representative, on their own initiative and unannounced, to testify on his behalf, and this testimony influenced the trial result in Plagge’s favor.The court wanted to award Plagge the status of an Entlasteter (“exonerated person”) but on his own wish he was classified as a Mitläufer (“follower”). Like Oskar Schindler, Plagge blamed himself for not having done enough. After the trial Plagge lived the final decade of his life quietly and without fanfare before dying in Darmstadt in June 1957.

In April 2005 the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial posthumously bestowed the title “Righteous Among the Nations” on Plagge.

220px-Pearl_Righteous_Wall

In February 2006 the former Frankensteinkaserne, a Bundeswehr base in Pfungstadt, Germany, was renamed the Karl-Plagge-Kaserne.

Entrance_Plage_Caserne

 

A bust of Plagge was placed in the schoolyard of the Ludwig-Georgs-Gymnasium in Darmstadt, the oldest establishment of secondary higher education in the city.

LGG_Karl_Plagge_Bueste

A street in Darmstadt was named in honour of Plagge.

Survivor Pearl Good(the picture of the old lady in front of the memorial is also Pearl Good), made the following statement about Plagge’s actions:

Pearl Good circa 1946 saved by plagge photo 1946

“My Father had worked in the HKP workshop  even  before we were put into the ghetto and his Facharbeiter Schein had saved him from  the “Khapuny –the grabbers.

After we were put into the ghetto on September 6th, 1941, Father would be let out of the ghetto daily and march to work at the H.K.P. work-shops.  Father’s “gele schein” –“skilled worker” yellow life certificate from HKP (even though my Father was far from skilled) saved us and kept us alive until September 1943 and the “Four Days” Aktzye to Estonia when the HKP schein could not protect us any more.

Major Plagge went to the station and ordered his workers and their families off the train to the slate mines and gave them military protection; however, the highest SD officer ordered the military guard to bring them back to the train.  Afterwards there was a serious clash between Plagge and the SD officer, Plagge was furious and desperate.