Tag Archives: Vilnius

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.

Jews of the Week: Rav Uziel and the Chofetz Chaim

The Chofetz Chaim

The Chofetz Chaim

Israel Meir Kagan (1839-1933) was born in what is today Belarus to an Orthodox Polish-Jewish family. After his father’s passing when he was just ten years old, the family moved to Vilnius where Kagan continued his Jewish studies. Quickly noted as a great scholar, at the age of 17 he was married and appointed rabbi of the town of Radin. Soon after, he founded the Radin Yeshiva, which would go on to become one of the greatest yeshivas in the Ashkenazi world. Meanwhile, Rabbi Kagan wrote many popular books of wisdom, most notably Chofetz Chaim, a book about the laws of proper speech, the title of which became Rabbi Kagan’s nickname. His Mishna Berura became a standard text of Jewish law, and still used extensively today. He wrote nearly two dozen other books on a wide array of topics. At the same time, the Chofetz Chaim traveled across Europe to inspire Jews to observe the Torah, and to counter the growing secular movement. He was also an important member of Agudath Israel. Click here to see rare footage of the Chofetz Chaim at the First Congress of Agudath Israel in 1923.

Rav Uziel

Rav Uziel

Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uziel (1880-1953) was born in Jerusalem, the son of the president of the city’s Sephardic community. Like the Chofetz Chaim, Uziel was also quickly noted as a great scholar, and by age 20 founded his own yeshiva. By 31, he was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, where he worked alongside his Ashkenazi counterpart, Rabbi Kook, bridging the two communities together. During World War I, he worked tirelessly to stop the persecution of Jews, which earned him a sentence of exile in Damascus. In 1923 he returned to Israel as the Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, and in 1939 became the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, a post he held until his passing in 1953. Rabbi Uziel was a founding member of the Jewish Agency, and played a key role in the founding of the State of Israel. Of course, he wrote a great deal of widely-read Torah thought and commentary as well. Rav Uziel and the Chofetz Chaim passed away on the same day, twenty years apart: the 24th of Elul.

Shana Tova! Rosh Hashanah Begins This Sunday

Words of the Week

In Jewish history there are no coincidences.
– Elie Wiesel