This week, JPEF highlights Abba Kovner and Vitka Kempner, partisans from the Vilnius Ghetto who eventually married.
Abba Kovner was born on March 14, 1918 in Sebastopol, Russia. His family eventually emigrated and he spent his high school years in Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania — the preeminent center of Jewish culture and learning at the time, often referred to as the "Jerusalem of Europe" — where he joined the Ha-Shomer ha-Za'ir youth movement and attended the University of Vilna as an art student.
Exactly four years younger, Vitka Kempner was born on the same day in the Polish town of Kalish, located near the Polish-German border. As a teen, Vitka joined the militarist Betar movement, later switching to Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir at the behest of her friends.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kalish fell and Vitka escaped to Vilna with a number of other youngsters, including her younger brother. Vilna was still a free city, and served as a hub for the various Zionist youth movements searching for passage to Palestine, away from the troubles of Europe.
Then, in 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, occupying Vilna and forcing its Jews into a ghetto. Abba Kovner, who watched through his window as Nazi soldiers tore an infant from a mother’s arms and smashed it against a wall , had no illusions about the intentions of the occupiers. Hearing rumors of killings and mass graves in Ponar1, Kovner and his youth group friends realized that armed resistance was the only possible course.
With these rousing words, spoken at a soup kitchen on December 31st of 1941, Kovner galvanized the youth movements and the United Partisan Organization, or FPO (Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye) for short, was formed. Their first commander was Yitzhak Wittenberg. Their only objective was armed resistance – anything else was seen as a waste of time. They snuck out of the ghetto to execute sabotage missions, manufactured bombs, trained fighters, set up illegal printing presses, and acquired weapons that were smuggled into the ghetto in false-bottomed coffins or through the sewers.
Vitka Kempner was responsible for the FPO's first act of sabotage; smuggling a homemade bomb out of the ghetto and blowing up a Nazi train line. The Germans did not even suspect Vilna’s Jews – organized partisan resistance simply wasn’t on their radar yet.
The FPO continually pleaded with the Jews of Vilna to join the partisans in a popular uprising, but the majority of the Jewish population actually considered the rebels a liability and a danger to the ghetto’s survival. The Germans reinforced this notion with pressure on the local Judenrat. Finally, after some skirmishes with the FPO, the Germans threatened the ghetto with total liquidation, which led to Yitzhak Wittenberg’s voluntary surrender; he was then promptly tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Before he surrendered, however, Wittenberg appointed Kovner as the new leader of the FPO.
The Germans liquidated the ghetto anyway, deporting its 12,000 remaining inhabitants. The FPO evacuated hundreds of fighters out of the city through the sewers, as Kovner and others briefly fought the Germans from atop abandoned buildings. Vitka herself led the last group of fighters – including Kovner – out of the city to the Rudnicki forests. The FPO was thus transformed into a partisan unit, naming themselves Nakam "The Avengers".
Abba Kovner (center) and Vitka Kempner (right) with fellow partisan and life-long friend Rozka Korczak.
The couple saw Vilna liberated in 1944, entering the city with Soviet troops. Gathering the surviving members of their old youth group, Kovner helped organize the Beriha2 movement, which helped smuggle hundreds of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe into British-mandated Palestine. Kovner and Kempner also organized a secret revenge unit, which sought to poison German POWs at a Nuremberg camp (the accounts on the effectiveness of this mission vary, though hundreds of POWs fell ill and had to be hospitalized).
Eventually, Kovner and Kempner were smuggled into Palestine, where they married. During the Israeli War of Independence, Kovner went on to lead the Givati brigade, and wrote ‘battle pages’, which contained morale-boosting essays and news from the Egyptian front.
He went on to testify at the Eichmann trial in 1961, play a major role in the construction and design of several Holocaust museums, and write several books and poems that recount his experiences, for which he won the 1970 Israel Prize in Literature. He lived on a Kibbutz with Vitka and other survivors from the underground until his death in 1987 from cancer.
Though she initially had a hard time adjusting to the Kibbutz life, and suffered from health problems, Vitka found her calling when she started helping children with their studies, and eventually turned to the field of special education. At age 45, she went on to study clinical psychology, receiving a degree from Bar Ilan University and developed a new form of non-verbal color-based therapy. She passed away on February 15, 2012, on the Kibbutz she called home for more than fifty years.
Abba and Vitka are survived by four grandchildren and leave behind a proud legacy of survival and resistance.
2. Jewish partisan Allen Small credits the Beriha with helping him escape from the Soviet Army.