Abba Kovner. To what extent did his failure with the Nakam influence his activity in the Israel Defense Forces?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Avengers

3. To kill six million Germans – The Nakam
3.1. What if?
3.2. Kovner’s arrest – A change of heart?

4. The First Arab-Israeli War
4.1. Givati Brigade – Kovner’s role in the IDF

5. Abba Kovner – The sabra

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Led like sheep to the slaughter: In the collective memory, the Jews are primarily depicted as the defenseless victims of WW2. There is little room for resistance in the great narrative of the Second World War and Nazi repression. When thinking about resistance, assassination attempts such as the one attempted by Stauffenberg or other scholars in exile come to mind. The Jews themselves were passive and did not revolt; at least that is the idea that the false myth of the Diaspora-Jew replicates. Today, research shows that there were at least 26 ghetto-uprisings; and three revolts in concentration camps are known of.1 There was Jewish resistance and it continued even after the war had ended. For example, the Jewish brigade, a military formation of the British Army commanded by Anglo-Jewish officers, tracked down and executed Nazi war criminals, but also individuals like Abba Kovner, a partisan fighter from the Vilna ghetto, felt the burning desire to avenge the Jewish people. He was disillusioned with the situation after the war:

"[T]hat it would be possible to terminate six million Jewish people - and that there will be no punishment. That they will all continue to live happily, those who were compliant and those who remained silent, those who gave shelter in their homes to the murderers, and those who received from them letters and packages, those who knew and those who should have known, those on behalf of which the state did all those atrocities?"2

Therefore, he decided to take it into his own hands to make the Nazis pay for their atrocities. His revenge should be one in the biblical sense – an eye for an eye, meaning that he intended to kill six million Germans by poisoning the water supplies of large German cities. He became the leader of a group called Nakam, which shared his ideas for revenge. However, the operation failed and ended with Kovner’s arrest; it was not until his arrest that Kovner was able to let go of his destructive plan.

When reading about Abba Kovner and the letting go of his plan for revenge, the idiom ‘to get someone/something out of your system’ came to my mind. If you get something out of your system, you “get rid of a strong wish to do something or strong feelings about someone”3. In Kovner’s case, he needed to act (or at least attempt to act) on his hatred directed towards the Germans to get it out of his system in order to be able to leave Europe behind and think about his future in Israel. The Nakam could be seen as a necessary stage in the rehabilitation of Abba Kovner, and once he had attempted it, he “was able to return to a normal life of society and laws”4.

This seminar paper therefore intends to explore the research question: To what extent did Kovner’s failure with the Nakam influence his activity in the Israel Defense Forces? My thesis statement goes as follows: Kovner’s failure with the Nakam enabled him to redirect his vengefulness by taking on a more future-oriented attitude, joining the Israel Defense Forces and fighting for a place where the Jewish people could belong. In the First Arab-Israeli War, Kovner found a new outlet for his hatred of Germans; he directed his vengeance towards the Egyptians who were threatening to harm the newly established fatherland, Eretz Israel. In the position of information officer, he poured his hatred and anger into the composition of battle pages, which played an important role in motivating the soldiers in the IDF but at the same time were considered highly controversial due to Kovner’s extremist rhetoric.

First, Kovner’s past as a partisan fighter during WW2 will be discussed briefly, for the origins of his idea of revenge lie in the traumatizing experiences he made during his time in the Vilna ghetto. Subsequently, the formation of the Nakam and its ideas will be described in greater detail. An important turning point in Kovner’s life was his arrest during his mission to procure poison. To get a better understanding of Kovner’s feelings and thoughts at the time, I consulted Rich Cohen’s (2002) Nachtmarsch – Eine wahre Geschichte von Liebe und Vergeltung, which is not a traditional source for an academic paper since it is a piece of literary journalism; in other words, it is a novel based on interviews with Abba and his wife Vitka when they were still alive. Drawing on their experiences and reports of other survivors, Cohen explores Kovner’s journey from the Vilna ghetto to the Land of Israel. Considering that Cohen based his book on first-hand information, I decided to use parts of it to build my argument. The seminar paper continues with the exploration of Kovner’s activity in the IDF and its relation to the Nakam. Ultimately, Kovner’s transformation into the ‘new Jew of the Land of Israel’ who defended his country against its enemies will be discussed briefly.

2. The Avengers

Abba Kovner was born in 1918 in Sebastopol, Russia. He spent his youth in Vilna, Lithuania, which was at that time also called the ‘Jerusalem of Europe’. There, he became a staunch member of the socialist Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir youth movement, which took the view that the liberation of Jewish youth could be accomplished by aliyah (immigration; literally ‘ascent’) to Palestine and living in kibbutzim (collective agricultural communities). In 1941, Vilna was invaded by Nazi Germany and turned into a ghetto. Kovner and several friends of his, having anticipated the invasion, managed to escape to a Dominican monastery in the city’s suburbs.5 However, Kovner soon realized that he had to return to the ghetto and assemble a Jewish resistance fighting force. On December 31, 1941, Abba Kovner uttered the following words in order to mobilize resistance groups in the Vilna ghetto:

"Jewish youth! Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe -- We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!"6

Three weeks later, Kovner, among others, formed the armed underground organization FPO (United Partisan Organization). They attempted to prevent the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto in 1943, but due to the lacking support of the ghetto’s leaders the organization had to give up on their plan and flee to the forest. At that time, Kovner was the leader of the FPO and the so-called ‘Avengers’, a partisan unit which “earned a distinguished record, destroying over 180 miles of train tracks, 5 bridges, 40 enemy train cars, killing 212 enemy soldiers and rescuing at least 71 Jews”7. In July 1944, the Avengers, together with the Red Army, reconquered the city from the Germans.

After the war had ended, the main focus of the resistance forces shifted to helping the survivors emigrate to Palestine, where Eretz Israel – a Jewish homeland – was in the making. Kovner and his Avengers helped smuggle people to Romania and Czechoslovakia. They, however, were not yet ready to leave post-WW2 Europe, themselves. They were overwhelmed by their burning desire for vengeance and needed to act on it. The world had to know that Jewish blood could not be shed without reprisal.8 The group was not alone with their emotion. In fact, for 80 % of the Holocaust survivors neither grief, nor fear, luck, or hope was the primary sentiment after the war, but the desire for revenge.9 However, the number of survivors who actually put their longing into practice was rather limited: between 200 and 250 men and women out of the 3.8 million that had survived.10 After WW2, military formations such as the Jewish Brigade, who had put up resistance against the Nazis during the war, focused their efforts on helping Holocaust survivors emigrate to Palestine rather than on taking revenge.

Maybe that is the reason why Kovner felt the responsibility to take the matter into his own hands – because he felt that nobody else would make the Germans pay for their wrongdoings. He criticized that the Free World was appeasing the murderers instead of finding a suitable recompense for the destruction, so Kovner concluded: “Therefore, we have taken it upon ourselves not to let the world forget by performing the necessary act: retribution. It will be more than revenge; it must be the law of the murdered Jewish people!”11 He became so fixated on the idea of total revenge that he could not think of anything else. Kovner’s identity had been completely destroyed by the Germans and the idea of revenge helped him create a new sense of identity. In his Avengers, Kovner found like-minded people he could share his thoughts with, which definitely added to the intensity of everyone’s feelings. This boiling up of emotions gave birth to an idea that could have cost millions of men, women and children their lives.

3. To kill six million Germans – The Nakam

“It was a terrible idea, born of despair, with something suicidal about it, . . . the idea of a kind of inferno: . . . an eye for an eye. That is, to kill six million Germans”12, Kovner recalled the agenda of the Nakam (tr.: revenge), an organization that consisted mostly of partisans and was initiated for the sole purpose to avenge the Jewish people. Kovner longed for revenge in a biblical sense – an eye for an eye. His rhetoric was often inspired by biblical language. In this case, he borrowed from “God’s Law given by Moses to ancient Israel and […] quoted by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5:38, King James Version; Exodus 21:24, 25; Deuteronomy 19:21).”13 Those who joined the Nakam shared the same view, namely that revenge was not just legitimate, but a moral duty.14 The Germans had to pay the price that fit the crime: six million Jews equated six million Germans.

The framework for the Nakam was drafted by Jewish fighters in Lublin, but it was Kovner who came up with the concrete form and objectives of the organization. He was the charismatic leader they needed, which is why he was appointed commander of the group, which counted 20 people at the end of 1944. Killing single war criminals – like the Jewish Brigade did – was not what the Nakam was about, instead they aspired to wreak large-scale vengeance on the Germans as a people:

“Es ist die Pflicht von uns Übriggebliebenen, diese Rache durchzuführen. Das ist keine persönliche Rache, sondern die Rache eines Volkes an einem andern. Wir müssen der Welt zeigen, dass niemand so viel Blut vergießen kann, ohne dafür entsprechend zu zahlen. Deshalb muss die Rache dieselbe Dimension wie der Nazi-Massenmord haben.“15

Kovner uttered these words in March 1945 as part of a speech he gave in Bucharest, the new headquarters of the Nakam. By that time, the organization had grown on to approximately 50 avengers. How should 50 people accomplish the mass destruction Kovner called for? The solution they came up with was to poison the water supplies of several major German cities – the so-called plan A. Plan B targeted members of the SS and Gestapo, who had been detained in large camps all over Germany. In order to put these plans into action, the organization needed to procure poison. To poison the drinking water, large amounts of poison – which could not be acquired unnoticed – were necessary. Therefore, Kovner decided to travel to pre-state Israel to present the leaders of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in the land of Israel) with plan B and rally support as well as the required poison.16

In July 1945, Kovner reached Palestine. He was not received too well, and he felt that he was treated as a suspect rather than a leader.17 This sentiment was not to change in the course of his four-month stay, during which Kovner encountered a lot of rejection. The general view of the head of the Yishuv was that ““no act of revenge [could] erase the spilling of innocent blood on the soil of Europe”18. The political leaders, among them David Ben-Gurion, had different priorities. The main goal was to found a sovereign state for the Jewish people and advance the immigration of the European Jews.19 Kovner’s plan for revenge stood in marked contrast to the Yishuv’s nation-building ethos which concerned itself only with the future of the homeland. In fact, Kovner’s insistence on revenge brought him into “uncompromising tension with the Zionist mainstream wish to build a new nation”20.

During his time in Palestine, Kovner kept in touch with the Nakam group by sending letters to Vitka Kempner, his later wife and also a member of the organization. He wanted her to make sure his men prepared the ground, so the plan could be carried out once he got ahold of the poison. Eventually, Kovner was able to rally some support for his mission. Allegedly, Haim Weitzman, who would later become Israel’s first president, offered to assist Kovner with getting hold of the poison. He told Kovner: “If I were your age, I would be doing the same thing.”21 However, Ephraim Katzir, later to be Israel’s fourth president, denied Weitzman any role in procuring the poison, for it was him and his brother Aharon Katzir who provided Kovner with the poison while working in the organic and macromolecular chemistry laboratory at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. What is certain is that Kovner was able to acquire enough poison for both plans to be carried out.22


1 Jens Rosbach, 75 Jahre Aufstand im KZ Sobibor, Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 02.11.2018, [], accessed 01.11.2019.

2 Kovner quoted in Levi Arye Sarid, The Nakam Organization. History, Image, Deeds, Moreschet 1992, p. 43.

3 get someone/something out of your system (phrase) definition and synonyms: Macmillan Dictionary. (n.d.). [], accessed 01.11.2019.

4 Dina Porat/Elizabeth Yuval (Eds.), The Fall of a Sparrow. The Life and Times of Abba Kovner (Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture), Stanford 2010, p. 216.

5 Marcin Maslowski/Tomasz Patora, Unser Gott wird sie verlieren [translation by Fernández],, 06.02.2007, [,127290,3893354.html], accessed 23.08.2019.

6 Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, Abba Kovner, n.d., [], accessed 23.08.2019.

7 Abba Kovner. in: Holocaust Encyclopedia, 2018, [], accessed 23.08.2019.

8 Jim G. Tobias/Peter Zinke, Nakam. Jüdische Rache an NS-Tätern (Aufbau-Taschenbücher), Berlin 20031, p. 24.

9 Unpublished study by Reuven Feurstein from Hadassah-WIZO Canada Research Institute, cited after: Tom Segev, Die siebte Million, Hamburg 1995, p. 703.

10 Porat/Yuval, The Fall of a Sparrow, p. 235.

11 Porat/Yuval, The Fall of a Sparrow, p. 212.

12 Porat/Yuval, The Fall of a Sparrow, p. 215.

13 Jehova’s, What Does ‘an Eye for an Eye’ Mean, n.d., [], accessed 24.08.2019.

14 Levi Arye Sarid, Rache. Geschichte, Erscheinungsform und Umsetzung, Moreschet 1992, p. 30.

15 Cited in: Nakam, 2003, cited after: Olek Hirsch. (Translation: It is our duty to carry out this vengeance. This is not personal revenge, but the revenge of one people on another. We have to show the world that no one can shed so much blood without paying for it. Therefore, our revenge must have the same dimensions as the Nazi mass murder.)

16 Porat/Yuval, The Fall of a Sparrow, p. 217.

17 Porat/Yuval, The Fall of a Sparrow, p. 219.

18 Porat/Yuval, The Fall of a Sparrow, p. 226.

19 Tobias/Zinke, Nakam, p. 33.

20 Shai Lavi, “The Jews are Coming”. Vengeance and Revenge in post-Nazi Europe, in: Law, Culture and the Humanities (2005), pp.282-301, here p. 301.

21 Sarid, The Nakam Organization, pp. 94-95.

22 Porat/Yuval, p. 225

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Abba Kovner. To what extent did his failure with the Nakam influence his activity in the Israel Defense Forces?
University of Innsbruck
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Nakam, IDF, WW2, revenge, Nazi, Zionism, Kovner, Abba, vengeance, avengers, arab-israeli, war, shoa, holocaust, germans, israel, jew, jews, palestine
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Anonymous, 2019, Abba Kovner. To what extent did his failure with the Nakam influence his activity in the Israel Defense Forces?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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