Tag Archives: Poetry

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: Primo Levi

Chemist and World-Famous Author Primo Levi

Chemist and World-Famous Author Primo Levi

Primo Levi (1919-1987) was born in Turin, Italy. His brilliance was quickly noted even as a child, allowing him to start school a year early. After learning at both secular and religious schools in his youth, as an adult he decided to study chemistry. Despite the open anti-Semitism of the university system, Levi fought through it and graduated with honours. Being a Jew barred him from most jobs. However, a mining company that was aware of his intelligence and expertise offered him a position under a false name and false papers. He later found work for a Swiss company looking to extract anti-diabetic components from vegetables. As World War II worsened, Levi joined an Italian resistance movement. Untrained, he was quickly captured and arrested, sent to the Fossoli internment camp, and later to Auschwitz where he spent nearly a year until it was liberated by the Soviets. It didn’t get any easier at this point. To get back home to Turin he had to travel across Belarus, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Austria, and Germany (a story which has been adapted to film). After the war, Levi started a chemical company with a friend, synthesizing various industrial compounds like stannous chloride (for use in mirrors) and a variety of synthetic dyes. Meanwhile, he began writing about his roller coaster life experiences. He would go on to write two famous memoirs, one of which was voted the best science book ever written by London’s Royal Institution. Levi also penned many poems, essays and short stories – two of which have been adapted to film – and published two well-known novels. Often quoted, he once wrote: “The aims of life are the best defense against death.”

Words of the Week

If words are the pen of the heart, song is the pen of the soul.
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi