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Abba Kovner - Vilna

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5017 | Film ID: 3236, 3237, 3238, 3239, 3240, 3241, 3242, 3243, 3244, 3245

Abba Kovner lived in disguise in a convent at the beginning of the German occupation in 1941. He was a central figure in the Zionist youth resistance movement in Vilna. He commanded an underground partisan resistance group throughout the war. He describes the way the Germans avoided panic among the Jews. Kovner maintains a poetic approach to Lanzmann's questions throughout the interview. This interview took place over two days in Kovner's Kibbutz Eyn Ha'horesh (between Nethania and Hadera).

FILM ID 3236 -- Camera Rolls #2,3 -- 01:00:12 to 01:24:55
CR 2
01:00:12 Kovner sits outside on a park bench. Lanzmann sits off camera as they speak in Hebrew and French. Lanzmann wants to discuss the proclamations of January 1942 by the Jewish Pioneers and the rapidity with which Vilna experienced invasion and extermination. Kovner worries that there are too many details to be able to tell them all. The Jews of Vilna were of the lower middle and poor class and accepted Russian rule philosophically. 01:11:40

CR 3
01:11:42 Kovner remarks on Vilna's unique status as a "political oasis" The Jews were caught between several governments and did not know where to look to for help. Everyone assumed that before the Germans came to Vilna they would have a few weeks to pack up and escape, but they were shocked when the Germans arrived and how quickly the Russians fled. Kovner advised other young Zionist youth (Pioneers) that they should flee to the Soviet Union. 01:24:55

FILM ID 3237 -- Camera Rolls #4,5,6 -- 02:00:13 to 02:33:20
CR 4
02:00:13 Kovner sits outside on a park bench. Once the Germans arrived Kovner warned people to escape towards Leningrad. He says that people have asked him why Jews did not try to escape the Germans but in fact they did so. Many young people fled immediately, but it was harder for families. Kovner decided to stay because he was a resistance leader and the majority of Jews were still in Vilna and he wanted to stay with them. Some Jews were forced to return because German parachustists had already reached Minsk. 02:11:24

CR 5
02:11:26 Once the Germans arrived the pogroms began. Men were taken for forced labor and many never returned. The people of Vilna would wake up every day not knowing what agony to expect. The Germans took their money, their apartments, and their men. Women began to hide their male relatives to save them from the roundups. When the ghetto in Vilna was formed there was less fear because it was more of a 'known' situation. Kovner begins to describe the events and atmosphere on the day the Jews began to be moved into the ghetto. He tells the story from the point of view of a particpant. 02:22:06

CR 6
02:22:07 Kovner goes through the thoughts that ran through the heads of Jews in the 30 minutes they had to gather their belongings right before they were forced into the ghetto. Their thoughts were not about how to escape, but about where their families were, what they were going to bring, how they were going to live. It was almost a relief to learn that the ghetto was in the middle of Vilna because it was a familiar place. During the formation of the ghetto Kovner was not present; he was already in hiding in the convent. When he went out into the streets he disguised himself as a nun. The night of the roundup is called the 'night of provocation' and the justification given by the Germans was the assassination of a German soldier. 02:33:20

FILM ID 3238 -- Camera Roll #7 -- 03:00:14 to 03:12:11
CR 7
03:00:14 Kovner sits on a park bench. He discusses how quickly everything changed for the Jews in Vilna. The German domination happened all of a sudden and it was terrifying. People were not talking of dates or facts, they were asking simple questions about survival. Kovner remembers visiting the ghetto and finding lines of people everywhere waiting for food or to use the bathroom. There were originally two ghettos right next to each other and people wondered at the logic of this, thinking that one must be a "good" place and one a "bad" place to be. Suddenly the smaller ghetto disappeared and they had their answer. People were not sure of where those people went but they knew it was a fate worse than their own. 03:12:11

FILM ID 3239 -- Camera Rolls #8,9,11 -- 04:00:14 to 04:33:20
CR 8
04:00:14 Kovner sits outside on a park bench. Lanzmann asks about panic in the ghetto. Kovner states that there must be a difference between fear, scare and panic. When one imagines panic they think of people running and howling in the streets, but this was impossible because the Germans were controlling everything. Kovner says that there was a lot of silence. The Germans created a psychological panic by differentiating people and making it clear that they did not all have the same destiny. They did this with the "Schein" or certificate that they issued to each person with certain colors and numbers. People tried to forge "good" certificates or trade with others. They spent their time trying to figure out what the Germans' intentions were. 04:11:25

CR 9
04:11:26 Kovner discusses further the system with the "Schein" that the Germans created. A yellow certificate meant you had a trade and could work in German industry. There were blue, pink and white certificates given to certain family members. The Germans succeeded in their psychological panic because the Jews battled each other for all these different certificates. Kovner remembers scenes of families being separated, husbands leaving the good line to be in the bad line with their wives; the smallest motion of a Gestapo soldier's finger was enough to separate these families. At one point people with pink certificates were safe while white certificates were not, but then it would switch causing great confusion about their fate. 04:22:36

CR 11
04:22:37 Kovner says that those who lived felt that was a signal that they were indispensable to the industry, but those people still felt great despair and sorrow for the great numbers of people who were gone. Kovner says that it was at this time that he realized that all roads led to death and this idea was the beginning of his idea to form a resistance movement. Lanzmann again asks Kovner about what they knew about the people who were gone, did they know those thousands were being taken to their deaths? Kovner replies with a story about the rumors that were spread. As an educator of the Zionist Socialist Youth, Kovner had been to the Ponary forest (near Vilna) for picnics before. There were rumors that shots were heard from Ponary which increased when the first ghetto disappeared. There was a rumor of a work camp built in Ponary where conditions were far worse than in Vilna. Kovner received proof of the truth about Ponary when one of his contacts at the ghetto hospital told him of a wounded 11 year-old girl who had arrived. She had just managed to survive a mass execution in Ponari and return to Vilna. 04:33:20

FILM ID 3240 -- Camera Rolls #12,13,14 -- 05:00:12 to 05:34:18
CR 12
05:00:12 Kovner sits outside on a park bench. He talks about another survivor of Ponary, an older woman who had been part of a roundup of women. At Ponary she saw one of Kovner's students murdered along with over 100 other women. Kovner begins to discuss the last time he had a meeting at the convent in December of 1941. Lanzmann wonders how he was able to go between the convent and the ghetto and Kovner explains it was because he was dressed as a nun and accompanied by a blonde woman 05:11:22

CR 13
05:11:22 Lanzmann sits outside on a park bench across from Kovner who is now off camera. Lanzmann asks Kovner to explain how he went between the convent and the ghetto, and who was with him in the convent. Kovner explains that he was hidden by a Catholic woman named Irena who had been a member of the Polish Scouts. From the very beginning of the German occupation she had hidden Jewish men, especially leaders of the Zionist Socialist Youth, because they were in the most danger. Eventually it became difficult because in the small convent the Jewish men greatly outnumbered the nine nuns. Kovner remembers requesting information from a priest about the situation of the Jews in Ponary Once he had the information he requested he decided to write his famous appeal. 05:22:37

CR 14
05:22:39 It is night and Kovner sits outside in a lawn chair. Lanzmann sits off camera and asks Kovner if he thinks he would have written the appeal if he had actually been living in the ghetto. Kovner commends Lanzmann for his intelligent question but says he will leave it aside for the moment. Kovner wants to discuss the appeal itself first so he begins to bring up the key points. Lanzmann wishes to read the whole thing in French before Kovner discusses it. Lanzmann expresses shock over how violent and condemning of Jews the appeal is at which point Kovner asks him to bring up a specific part. Lanzmann reads a harsh letter to the Jewish youth, condemning them for not acting. Kovner insists that this is not the appeal he wrote and that Lanzmann has an incorrect translation of it. 05:34:18

FILM ID 3241 -- Camera Rolls #15,16,17 -- 06:00:15 to 06:34:24
06:00:15 Kovner is sitting in a lawn chair outside at night. He is holding a copy of the appeal he wrote in December 1941. He does not wish to read it, but to bring up the three main points he wanted the Jews and especially Jewish youth to pay attention to. First they needed to denounce the enemy of the illusion that was holding them from the truth. They all had friends and relatives who had died at Ponari and it was important to realize that this was not just happening to the ghettos in Vilna, but to Jews all over Europe. Kovner's second point was the call for the Jews to defend themselves. 06:11:27

CR 16
06:11:28 Kovner says the sentence from his appeal that generated the most discussion was one that states that Hitler had the intent to destroy all European Judaism. Many in the Zionist Socialist Youth believed the mass exterminations to be a sort of revenge for prior Soviet activity or a show of German sadism. This did not make sense to Kovner, he remembered reading "Mein Kampf" and understanding that this was Hitler's plan unfolding in front of their eyes. In the first time in Jewish history there was no place to escape, geographically or spiritually. 06:22:49

CR 17
06:22:50 The last line of Kovner's appeal states that "it is better to fall as fighters." They were at a point like no other in Jewish history for there was no place to escape, not even by denouncing Judaism and converting to Christianity. Hitler planned to exterminate European Jewry and Kovner was convinced there had to be a solution. Lanzmann wonders if the Zionist Socialists felt elitist over the Jewish masses. Kovner does not like his use of the word elite and goes on to say that they just assumed that the whole of the Jewish population would agree with their solution of Israel, they were the pioneers. 06:34:24

FILM ID 3242 -- Camera Rolls #18,19,22 -- 07:00:13 to 07:29:50
CR 18
07:00:13 Kovner is sitting in a lawn chair outside at night. Kovner addresses Lanzmann's question about whether or not he would have written the appeal had he actually been in the ghetto and not in hiding in the convent. He is not sure how to answer the question. Though he was not in the ghetto and unable to have the perspective of someone who was forced to live there, he does have a special perspective as someone on the outside still greatly affected because of the loss of his family and friends. Kovner believes the appeal was born of two major proponents of human culture: guilt and the violent will to never give up. 07:11:56

CR 19
07:11:58 Lanzmann asks Kovner what purpose he thought his appeal would have when it was written in 1942 at a point where the Germans were already victorious all over Europe, especially when they had no arms to resist with. Kovner states that he knew there were thousands of Jewish youth with the will and the loyalty to be part of a rebellion. Lanzmann wonders what they expected to achieve. 07:17:54

CR 22
07:17:55 Kovner states they had minimal illusion about what they could accomplish, but it was important to them to have the power to choose their own death. Their resistance was out of desperation, they knew there was no escape but they hoped they would be able to save thousands. Lanzmann asks why he entered the ghetto in 1942 and if he stayed there for good. Kovner corrects him because the events they are discussing are not in chronological order. Kovner talks about 1942 as a period of stabilization because for a while the Aktions stopped and there was a new trust that the Germans were telling the truth when they promised they were done. 07:29:50

FILM ID 3243 -- Camera Rolls #23,26,27 -- 08:00:13 to 08:32:16
CR 23
08:00:13 Kovner sits on a bench outside during the day. The translator's arm and leg can also be seen on camera. Lanzmann remains off camera as he interviews Kovner. Lanzmann wants Kovner to describe what the conditions were like when he went back into the ghetto to organize resistance. Kovner discusses how important it was to be unified and put all differences aside. The group he started, the Zionist Socialist Youth, was one of the many groups that came together little by little. All members were asked to leave their families to make their own community in order to eliminate any dependence. There were sixteen living in a room with no food in the middle of winter. They formed a sort of commune where they held meetings, distributed labor and shared food. Kovner believes the rebellion started when they first divided a small piece of bread to share with all the members. At that moment they reversed the Germans' attempt to make them into wild animals and they were able to care for other people. 08:11:27

CR 26
08:11:34 Kovner says that while they were seeking external help they found support among a small group of Lithuanians, which was surprising and courageous because the majority of Lithuania collaborated with the Germans. The group in Lithuania asked Kovner to put together a list of 25-30 people that should be saved and they offered to hide these people outside of Vilna. Kovner and his group refused because they felt the Lithuanians were asking them to do what the Germans were doing, to make a selection of people that deserved to live. Some people in the group wanted to keep the option available in case they needed it later on, but they still refused because Kovner saw it as an admission that the entire ghetto population was condemned to death. 08:21:05

CR 27
08:21:06 The question of whether or not to save a group of people came up often, but always with the same conclusion. They felt the despair that comes with knowing that only death was in front of them, but Kovner also thinks they were the only ones in the ghetto who felt free because they knew they were choosing to die fighting. Lanzmann asks if by not choosing a group to save they thought it was better if all perish. He also touches upon Judenrat policies. Kovner wishes to speak about the Judenrat but decides to wait on that. He says the only reason they were able to call what they were doing in the ghetto resistance is because they did not seek to fight to save their own lives, but so that their behavior remained as a testament in Jewish history. 08:32:16

FILM ID 3244 -- Camera Rolls #30,31 -- 10:00:14 to 10:20:12
CR 30
10:00:14 Kovner sits on a bench outside during the day. Lanzmann remains off camera. Kovner discusses the long history of Jewish non-violent resistance as well as they many other practices that occurred prior to the war. Kovner thinks that violence is a fairly modern term and the term they used was "force." They would use force to protect the sanctity of all Jewish lives. 10:09:06

CR 31
10:09:08 When Kovner looks back at Jewish resistance over the course of history it is often called passive; but he views acts such as refusing to renounce your Jewish faith at the cost of burning at the stake as an active reaction. They fought to preserve a supreme value called the sanctity of life. Murder is not the opposite of sanctity of life, but the desecration and elimination of the human value of life. The Germans forced humiliation upon the Jews in the ghetto and this was the opposite of sanctity of life. Kovner expresses his unwillingness to be the prophet after the event, he cannot judge what is good or what is bad. 10:20:12

FILM ID 3245 -- Camera Rolls #19A,B,C ; 30A,B ; 28; 29 -- 09:00:09 to 09:29:12
CR 19A,B,C
09:00:09 Lanzmann sits in a lawn chair outside. It is night. He is smoking a cigarette and listening and nodding to Kovner who is off camera. He occasionally speaks to someone off camera, but there is no sound. CU of his face. 09:05:17

CR 30A,B
09:05:17 Lanzmann sits on park bench during the day. Trees wave in the wind as he listens to Kovner who is off camera. Lanzmann hunches and leans forward. 09:07:26

CR 28
09:07:42 No picture, just audio. Kovner believes that had the Jews unified earlier on in the war they could have resisted the Germans. Lanzmann misinterprets the answer and thinks Kovner is talking about the beginning of the occupation of Vilna when the German attack was sudden. Kovner corrects him and goes on to say that it should not have been just the Jews resisting the Germans, but had the whole world reacted then it could have been prevented. Kovner goes back to a previous question that asked him to reflect on his actions from thirty years ago. Kovner states that he is unable to look back and judge his actions because at the time he acted in the way he saw fit. There were signs that their resistance was not in vain. Kovner tells a story of women who were returning from work and stopped by Germans who told them to turn around, but they sat down on the road and refused. There was something significant about this occurrence to Kovner. There was something more the Germans wanted because if they were content with the extermination of the Jews they would have just opened fire on the street and there would have been no reason for a ghetto or for Ponari. 09:21:43

CR 29
09:21:50 No picture, just audio. Many people questioned Kovner about the purpose of his resistance. To this doubt he responded that the Germans must be afraid of something or else they would have killed them all already. Most importantly Kovner felt it was important that they not die as passive victims; that they were activist victims able to "shed this feeling of shame that had been imposed upon us." By being active they were able to recover their feelings of dignity and individual value. 09:29:12

Event:  September 27-28, 1979
Production:  1985
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Record last modified: 2022-07-28 22:02:32
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