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Eichmann Trial Testimony of Abba Kovner

Kovner, Abba Testimony 1961
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archives of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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tags: community ghettos liberation

type: Raw Footage

Partisan fighter and poet 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. An Israeli journalist described the testimony of Kovner and other 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." The were often represented as a contrast to the stereotype that European Jews were passive or weak during the Holocaust.2

Resistance fighters' own framing of their activities proved far more nuanced. Kovner's testimony at the Eichmann trial began with a description of Vilna's liberation by the Soviet army on July 13, 1944. Attorney General Gideon Hausner then asked Kovner to revisit August and September of 1941, when German occupation authorities rounded up thousands of Jews in Vilna. Kovner describes his observations of the 1941 roundups, as well as his experience with Russian partisans at the time. Kovner also relates the story of a survivor of a mass shooting at Ponary, a site near Vilna at which over 40,000 Jews were killed. Kovner would later write about this woman in his poem cycle, "My Little Sister" (Hebrew: Ahoti Ketanah).3

In the featured clip from the trial, Kovner reads his now famous January 1942 declaration, "We shall not go like sheep to the slaughter."4 He offers an emotional, at times combative, description of the obstacles facing Jews in opposing Nazi persecution and the extreme conditions under which resistance organizations were formed. Notably, Kovner does not detail any personal contact with Eichmann himself. Like most of the trial witnesses, he never encountered the defendant (a complaint posed by Hannah Arendt in her famous report, Eichmann in Jerusalem).5

Millions of people in Israel and around the world tuned in to watch these proceedings, and some of those who testified became prominent public figures. Kovner went on to further acclaim as a poet. He continued to publish intensely personal poems, many rooted in his experiences during the Holocaust, until his death in 1987.6

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 more on Kovner, see Dina Porat, The Fall of a Sparrow: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009). 

For Kovner'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).

Loss, freedom, resistance, and revenge remained core themes in Kovner's poetry throughout his life. Recent scholarship has cast a critical light on Kovner's role as an officer in the Israeli Defence Forces during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, examining his circulation among the troops of violent "missives" that aimed to incite hatred for the enemy. See Michael Arbell, "Abba Kovner: The Ritual Function of His Battle Missives," Jewish Social Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 99–119.


Other scholars have mined Kovner's later poetry to argue that the famed "warrior-poet" showed an increasing empathy for previous "enemies" and aspired toward solidarity between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. See Hannan Hever, "From Revenge to Empathy: Abba Kovner from Jewish Destruction to Palestinian Destruction" in The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and Memory, Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, eds. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 275–294. 

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Chief Prosecutor Gideon Hausner
: This is your first conflict? I believe this is your handwriting.


Abba Kovner: It is my handwriting.


Hausner: This is the first leaflet published in Vilna. That is what it says.


Kovner: Yes. That was the first revol- leaflet calling people to revolt. Not only in Vilna. The first proclamation. May I read it out.


President of course: Go ahead. Of course. Go ahead.


Kovner: I shall try to read it straight out in Hebrew. It's written in Yiddish.


I remember I wrote it in Hebrew in the original. Then I translated it into Yiddish, and then it was distributed, printed and distributed.


Let us not be led like sheep to the slaughterhouse. Jewish youth do not believe to those who are trying, those who are trying to deceive you. Out of 80,000 Jews of Lithuanians Jerusalem, only 12,000 were left. In front of our own eyes, our parents, our brothers and sisters were taken away. Where are they? Those hundreds of men abducted and taken to forced labor by the Lithuanians. Where are the naked women and the children who were taken out in that terror, night of terror, of the provocation. Where are the Jews of the Day of Atonement? And where are our brothers from the, our brethren from the other ghetto? Those were taken all through the gates of the ghetto shall never return.


All the Gestapo's roads lead to Ponar. And Ponar means death.


You, the people who have, are seized with despair. Do not be deluded. Your children, your husbands, your wives are no longer. Ponar is not a work camp. All of them were shot. Hitler plotted to destroy all Jews in Europe.


It was the fate of Lithuanian Jews to be the first ones, let us not be led like sheep to slaughter. True, we are weak and helpless. But the only response to the murderer is self-defense. Brethren, it is better to die fighting like free fighting men than live at the mercy of the murderers. To defend oneself, to defend oneself to the last breath.Take care. Note please: the date is the 1st of January, 1942, Vilna, in the ghetto.


Know, at that time the organization had not yet been set up.


[Unknown speaker]: This is T289.


Kovner: It was not so simple. It was not so simple to organize the fighting organization.


Well, it is not so difficult to take up arms and shoot. Perhaps this is one of the simplest matters. I have been through several wars and several campaigns.


And I can say it may be one of the easiest things. But how to explain that seemingly simple matter.


That, we all share the common fate.


That not only those who had gone, were gone, how to break that illusion that there is no escape, that death awaits all of us. And how to break that wall of despair, your honors.


Here in the air, there hovers this question in the air of this courtroom: Why did the people not rise?


In Vilna, too, until December 1941, more than 40,000 Jews had been taken away. And the question hangs in the air. Why did they not rise?


Well, I myself as a fighting Jew, I revolt, I resent this question if it includes criticism.


Because those people who sit here in front of me... he who sits facing me. And when they sang the song when blood splurts from the sword, I do not owe him any answer. But, your honor, to fight under all conditions, and under the conditions in the ghetto, one must be organized first and foremost. And an organization of fighters must have an authority, a national authority or an internal movement. Such an order was not given and could not have been given from an internal movement. Such an organization under conditions of terror, of disconnection, and paralyzation. They were in uniform. We were in a glass cell. And who dare ask how a man does not revolt and rise up in a glass cell? Only people with a strong decision can do so. And people with a strong decision are not amongst the desperate and the broken.


And they were broken. And they were desperate. I saw desperate people who had committed suicide. But I did not see people seized with despair become good fighters.


This war, too, which for some reason was called a war of despair...may [have] converted people into believers with faith that there was sense in dying one hour earlier to sacrifice oneself for something which had meaning.


But out of this despair a people who had no longer any image of man left, it was taken away from them. It was not simple for them to absorb this message which we sent them. It was not a chance and a miracle. On the contrary, the miracle is that this minority existed, which believed that proclamation and did what it did during those two years. The very existence of the fighting resistance organization, that is the amazing and incredible achievement. This was not the battle of an underground.


Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archives of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
RG Number 60.2100*039
Date Created
May 4, 1961
Duration 00:07:15
Sound Yes
Jerusalem, Israel
Reference Location
Wilno, Poland (historical)
Vilnius, Lithuania
Moving Image Type Raw Footage
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