Tag Archives: World War II

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: The Ghermezians

Jacob Ghermezian

Jacob Ghermezian (1902-2000) was born to a religious Jewish family in Azerbaijan, and grew up in Iran. He started a business selling Persian rugs when he was just 17 years old. Within two decades, Ghermezian became one of Iran’s wealthiest businessmen. In 1943, he hosted Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in his apartment during the critical “Tehran Conference” where the three world leaders discussed the final stages of World War II and planned their path to victory. Unfortunately, the religious, and political situation in Iran worsened in the 1950s, so the Ghermezian family emigrated to America. After a short stay in New York, they settled in Montreal. Soon after, Ghermezian and his four sons (Eskandar, Nader, Raphael, and Bahman) discovered the inexpensive, pre-oil boom Edmonton real estate market, and heavily invested in it. The family fortune soared, and the Ghermezians soon took on their biggest project: the $1.1 billion West Edmonton Mall, which remains North America’s largest to this day (and was the world’s largest from 1985 to 2004). The 5 million square foot complex boasts a theme park (with roller coaster), indoor shooting range, an NHL-sized hockey rink (where Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers used to practice), the world’s largest indoor lake, over 800 stores, a hotel, theatre, bungee jump, and the world’s largest parking lot. The Mall was once called the “eighth wonder of the world”, and draws 32 million visitors a year. The Ghermezians also built the Mall of America in Minnesota, the largest in the United States, and are currently building the extravagant American Dream Mall in New Jersey, which will have America’s only indoor ski hill. Despite the fame and fortune, Jacob Ghermezian never abandoned his Jewish faith, nor did he ever conduct business on the Sabbath. He instilled the same values in his sons, all of whom, like their father, were tremendous philanthropists, funding schools and scholarships, synagogues, charity organizations, and other institutions in Alberta and around the world.

Words of the Week

To the Jews we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.
– Paul Johnson

Jacob and Miriam Ghermezian with their four sons in the 1990s.