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Eichmann Trial Testimony of Abba Kovner

Kovner, Abba Testimony 1961
Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA)
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tags: community ghettos liberation

type: Raw Footage

Poet and Vilna Partisan fighter Abba Kovner testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann on May 4, 1961 in Jerusalem. A lifelong Zionist and former member of the Hashomer Hatzair movement, Kovner now took the world stage as a survivor. Haim Gouri, Israeli journalist and poet, described the testimony of resistance fighters at the Eichmann Trial:

Two or three of them I knew personally, as friends. Now, in giving their testimony, they would be entering another realm. We saw them life-size from a distance of, at most, twenty yards, but they did not belong to us, were not our friends. They were strangers. Not from here but from there. From beyond the lost time, the expanses of alien land, the rivers and forests and cities of the shadow of death, they had come here to testify.1

Partisans fighters like Kovner (and even more famously, like those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) were elevated in Israeli society as part of the "new Jewish identity" that drew a sharp distinction between themselves and the stereotype that European Jews were passive or weak.2

Resistance fighters' own framing of their activities proved far more complicated, particularly in accounts written during the war. Kovner's testimony begins by describing the sight of Vilna being liberated by the Soviet army on July 13, 1944. Attorney General Gideon Hausner then asks Kovner to revisit August and September of 1941 and the site of the first roundups. Kovner describes his observations of the 1941 roundup, as well as his experience with Russian partisans at the same time. Kovner also describes testimony from a young woman who was a survivor of Ponar, the mass shooting site just outside of the city at which over 40,000 Jews were killed. Kovner would later write about this woman in his poem cycle, "My Little Sister" (Ahoti Ketanah).3

After describing the roundup and the Ponar shootings, Kovner reads his now famous January 1942 declaration, "We shall not go like sheep to the slaughter."4 He speaks generally about the difficulties of resistance, at which point the trial judges draw him back to the specific questions at hand.

The featured clip comes from the end of Kovner's testimony. In it, he comments on the oath that he takes to tell "the whole truth." Kovner goes on to reflect on the nature of "truth." It is interesting that Kovner had not had personal contact with Eichmann, as is the case with most of the trial witnesses (a complaint posed by Hannah Arendt in her famous report, Eichmann in Jerusalem).5

Haim Gouri, Facing the Glass Booth: The Jerusalem Trial of Adolf Eichmann, trans. Michael Swirsky (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004), 42.

For a discussion of Jewish identities and gender and sexuality, see Paula Hyman, "Gender and the Shaping of Modern Jewish Identities," Jewish Social Studies 8, no. 2 (2002): 153–161.

Abba Kovner, My Little Sister and Selected Poems, 1965-1985, trans. Shirley Kaufman (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College, 1986).

For Kovvner's declaration, see Jürgen Matthäus, Jewish Responses to Persecution, Vol 3: 1941–1942 (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2013), 340–41.

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963).

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA)
RG Number 60.2100*039
Date Created
May 4, 1961
Duration 00:22:32
Sound Yes
Jerusalem, Israel
Reference Location
Wilno, Poland (historical)
Vilnius, Lithuania
Moving Image Type Raw Footage
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