On New Year’s eve January 1st, 1942, 150 members of the HeHalutz youth movements gathered in the public soup-kitchen in Vilna at 2 Straszuna Street. At this meeting, Abba Kovner, a Jewish Hebrew poet, writer and partisan leader, read the following manifesto:
“Let us not be led like sheep to the slaughter”: Jewish Youth! Do not place your trust in those who deceive you. Of 80000 Jews in “Yerushalayim de Lita” only 20000 are left. Our parents, brothers and sisters were torn from us before our eyes. Where are the hundreds of men who were seized for labor? Where are the naked women and the children seized from us on the night of fear? Where were the Jews sent on the Day of Atonement? And where are our brethren of the second ghetto? No one returned of those marched through the gates of the ghetto. All the roads of Gestapo lead to Ponar. And Ponar means death. Those who waver, put aside all illusion. You children, our wives, and husbands are no more. Ponar is no concentration camp. All were shot dead there. Hitler conspires to kill all the Jews of Europe, and the Jews of Lithuania have been picked at the first line. Let us not be led as sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenceless. But the only answer to the murderer is: To rise up with arms! Brethren! Better fall as free fighters than to live at the mercy of murders. Rise up! Rise up until you last break.”
And so there you have it... the beginning of the popular phrase that Jews were like "sheep to the slaughter". This is the first time this saying is said in the context of the Holocaust, but certainly not the last. What is most interesting is at the time Kovner stated this speech, most of European Jewry was still alive. The height of Hitler's furnace raged most fiercely in the later half of 1942 and 1943: Kovner accurately foresaw their future.
or those unfamiliar with Kovner, he was a socialist Zionist in Lithuania and during World War II was part of the FPO- the official resistance group in the Vilna ghetto. Here he organized young Jews to fight as partisans in the surrounding forests, where he himself fled to with the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto. Kovner eventually settled in Israel, where he lived the rest of his life. Upon his arrival in Israel, Kovner was considered a hero. He was the representation of a Jew during the Holocaust that had not been like sheep to the slaughter, but rather had fought against the Nazi's. Israel society after Holocaust can be described as embarrassed of Jewish inaction in the Holocaust. There was an unofficial silence on Holocaust stories. No one wanted to hear about them. Holocaust survivors were meant to assimilate quickly and become "Israelis". Therefore, Kovner stood in opposition to most Jews, as an advocate of fighting and resistance. However, in the 60's Israeli society began to slowly change, and so did their attitude on the Holocaust. Thanks in part to the Eichmann trial, Holocaust survivors, many for the first time, were sharing their stories: and Israeli society listened. The young were fascinated by a narrative they had never heard. Soon, the idea of "hero" began to shift. It no longer was someone who fought, or resisted with arms. A hero was someone who survived, in the face of death. Someone who kept their morality, in the face of evil.Even Kovner himself questioned what it meant to be a hero.He said later in Israel, “Am I this Abba Kovner, the hero?Or am I Abba Kovner the man who betrayed his mother, who left her behind to go to the forests to fight?”Those that stayed behind, with their parents, with their sisters, with their brothers, with their family- they too were strong.
oday this idea seems obvious.The Jewish people today have taken it upon themselves to remember all the Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust- each one was brave, even the most frightened.The Holocaust has woven itself into our collective memory: it is part of our identity.I would like to end this post with one of my favorite poems.The poem was written by Kovner, and it can be found at the beginning of his book, “Scrolls of fire”, (a sort of glossary/testimony on the Holocaust, set up like Talmud.) This is the real reason I made this post, I really wanted to share this poem. And the poem is written for us.
"The Slaughtered Jewish people speaks, in silence and in words, to the living Jewish people: You who were unable to save us, listen now with all your heart to our testimony; it is all that remains of our lives.
Do not regard this testimony as an inspiration for hatred. By the rivers we sat down and wept when our turn came to be murdered. By the chimneys of the crematorium even there we preserved scraps of incinerated time and we pondered the future as we thought of you... Do you have a spare moment to think of us innocent of crime and unashamed?"-- Abba Kovner