Tag Archives: Belarussian Jews

Jew of the Week: Abba Kovner

“The Jewish Avenger”

Abel “Abba” Kovner (1918-1987) was born in what is today Belarus and grew up in Vilnius (then part of Poland). As a young man, he was a member of HaShomer HaTzair, the Zionist youth movement. When the Nazis invaded Vilnius in 1941, Kovner escaped to a convent, but soon returned to the Vilna Ghetto to organize a Jewish resistance. At the start of 1942, Kovner secretly published a manifesto inside the Ghetto to inspire the Jews to fight back, writing that it was better to die than “go like lambs to the slaughter”. Along with several other young men, Kovner formed the United Partisan Organization, possibly the first armed underground Jewish group in Nazi Europe. Before they could launch their first large-scale attack, the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated in 1943, forcing the group to flee to the surrounding forests. From there, they launched a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Nazis. The small group began calling themselves “the Avengers” (HaNokmim) and were successful enough to draw the attention of the Red Army. They would go on to coordinate with the Soviets to crush the Nazis in Eastern Europe. Once the fate of the Nazis was sealed towards the end of 1944, Kovner was among the founders of a new group, called Bricha (“Escape”), which worked to get Jewish refugees out of Europe and to the Holy Land. Over the next couple of years, they would successfully move 250,000 Holocaust survivors to Israel. Having seen first-hand the horrific devastation inflicted by the Nazis, Kovner yearned for revenge. He started yet another group, called Nakam (“Vengeance”), seeking to punish Germany for the Holocaust. “Plan B” was to poison the water supply in Allied prisoner-of-war camps where Nazi SS soldiers were kept. The far more controversial and shocking “Plan A” was to poison the water supplies of several major German cities in order to kill 6 million Germans, one for each Jew lost in the Holocaust. Thankfully, Plan A was soon abandoned, though Kovner was still arrested by the British and held in a Cairo prison for several months. He did aim to accomplish Plan B, and Nakam members infiltrated a POW camp bakery in April 1946, coating the loaves of bread with arsenic. Over two thousands German soldiers fell ill, though no deaths were reported. In December 1947, Kovner joined the Haganah and fought in Israel’s Independence War as a captain of the Givati Brigade. Following this, he lived out the remainder of his life in a kibbutz, working tirelessly to strengthen the nascent state. He also helped to design several Holocaust museums, and testified at the Eichmann trial. More famously, Kovner wrote a series of poetry books (in Hebrew and Yiddish) describing the struggles he faced during the Holocaust and in Israel’s early years. This made him one of the country’s most celebrated poets and writers. For this, he won the Israeli Prize for Literature in 1970. A heavy smoker, Kovner succumbed to tracheal cancer before his 70th birthday.

Words of the Week

It is perfectly clear that the Arab nations do not want to solve the Arab refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront against the United Nations, and as a weapon against Israel… Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.
— Sir Alexander Galloway, former head of UNRWA

Abba Kovner (Centre) and his Avengers.

Jew of the Week: Louis B. Mayer

The Man Who Defined Hollywood

Louis B. Mayer (Photo Credit: LA Times)

Louis B. Mayer (Photo Credit: LA Times)

Louis Burt Mayer (1884-1957) was born Lazar Meir in Minsk, Belarus, to a Jewish family that immigrated to the US when he was just three years old. Unable to find prosperity in the States, the family moved to Canada and settled in New Brunswick, where Mayer grew up. At age 12, he dropped out of school to help in his father’s scrap metal business. Meanwhile, he spent most of his free time at the local theatre and opera house. At 19, Mayer set out on his own, moving to Boston and starting his own scrap metal business. After several years of struggling to make a living, he purchased an old, forgotten auditorium and turned it into a modern movie theatre. Business boomed, and several years later, Mayer partnered up with another company to form the biggest chain of theatres in the region. He soon started a film distribution agency and a talent booking agency, too. In 1918, Mayer made his way to Hollywood, founding his own film production studio. In 1924, he joined forces with Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures to create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, aka. MGM, which went on to become the most successful film production studio in history. Mayer himself became America’s highest-paid man, with a salary of over $1 million (which also made him the first person in American history to officially earn a 7-figure income). Under his direction, MGM made some of the greatest films of all time, including Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. In 1927, Mayer co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which inaugurated the Academy Awards, better known as “the Oscars”, two years later. Mayer is also credited with giving rise to the modern “movie star”, and personally handpicked and developed some of the greatest actors of his day, many of which saw him as a father figure. After World War II, MGM’s business slumped, and by 1951, Mayer resigned from the company. He continued to work in film until his passing from leukemia in 1957. Mayer was also a noted philanthropist, devoted much of his time to the Jewish Home for the Aged, and to LA’s Wilshire Temple. Variety magazine considered him “the greatest single force in the development of the motion picture industry” while his biographer would go on to write: “Mayer defined MGM, just as MGM defined Hollywood, and Hollywood defined America.”

Words of the Week

There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.
– George Orwell

The Famous MGM Logo