Abba Kovner was a Jewish-Hebrew poet from Lithuania, who on December 31, 1941, became famous for one of the most impassioned and oft-quoted essays from the Holocaust era.
When the Nazis illegally annexed and occupied Lithuania in the summer of 1940, a Jewish ghetto in the city of Vilnius was soon created. Kovner was one of its prisoners.
Part poet, part soothsayer, Kovner was able to predict how far the Nazi reach would go, and just weeks before the Wannsee Conference all but sealed the fate of European Jewry, the young man published a manifesto, writing the now famous words, “Let us not go as sheep to the slaughter.”
The essay was a call to his Jewish brothers and sisters to resist with all their might the seemingly indefatigable Nazi regime. And one cold evening in Vilnius, just before the start of 1942, the words were read aloud by resistance movement youths.
The manifesto accused Hitler of aiming to wipe out an entire race, a claim that was at that point largely ignored by world leaders, and for many it marks a turning point in the way the global community looked at the situation in Europe.
From Kovner’s writings:
They shall not take us like sheep to the slaughter!
Jewish youth, do not be led astray. Of the 80,000 Jews in the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” (Vilna), only 20,000 remain.
Before our eyes they tore from us our parents, our brothers and sisters. Where are the hundreds of men who were taken away for labour by the Lithuanian “snatchers”? Where are the naked women and children who were taken from us in the night of terror of the “provocation”?
Where are the Jews [who were taken away on] the Day of Atonement?
Where are our brothers from the second ghetto?
None of those who were taken away from the ghetto has ever come back.
All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponary.
And Ponary is Death!
You who hesitate! Cast aside all illusions. Your children, your husbands, and your wives are no longer alive.
Ponary is not a camp – they were all shot there.
Hitler is scheming to annihilate all of European Jewry. The Jews of Lithuania were tasked to be first in line.
Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter!
It is true that we are weak and defenseless, but resistance is the only response to the enemy!..
Resist! To the last breath.
Kovner survived the war and went on to make aliyah to Israel, becoming a member of the Haganah, the predecessor of the IDF. He fought in Israel’s War for Independence and was a captain in the IDF’s elite Givati Brigade.
In 1961, Kovner acted as a prime witness against Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann, arguably the most notorious trial Israel ever conducted.