Abba Kovner (1918-1987) and Vitka Kempner (1922-2012) were both leaders of the Vilna (Vilnius) chapter of Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir, the Zionist youth movement. Vitka was born in Kalisz in Poland but fled to Soviet-occupied Lithuania in 1939 after the German invasion. Kovner was born in the Crimean city of Sebastopol but attended high school in Vilna.
In the autumn of 1941, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis established two ghettos in Vilna. The mass shooting of Jewish people in Ponary began shortly thereafter. Rumors of the killings reached the ghetto and Kempner and Kovner began to turn the youth group into a partisan cell. Kempner undertook the group’s first act of armed resistance, smuggling a bomb out of the ghetto to blow up a railway line.
As 1941 went on, Kovner became convinced that the shootings in Ponary were part of a German plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. On 31 December 1941, Kovner, Kempner, and the courier Tosia Altman read out the now-famous proclamation urging the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto not to be led like sheep to the slaughter. This was one of the earliest assessments of the Nazi plan for genocide and helped unify the resistance in Vilna into the United Partisan Organisation.
Kovner and Kempner could not, however, convince many of the inhabitants of the Vilna Ghetto to leave before its final liquidation in September 1943. Over the next nine months their partisan group, known as the ‘Avengers’, waged a successful campaign against the Germans. They are estimated to have killed 212 Germans and rescued 71 Jews.
Kovner and Kempner returned to Vilna after the Red Army liberated it in July 1944. Angered by the mass murder and devastation, they devised plans to take revenge on the Germans by poisoning the bread of a POW camp. They also worked with the Brichah underground organization to smuggle survivors to Mandate Palestine, before Kovner and Kempner were married in 1946. They emigrated to Mandate Palestine themselves shortly after their marriage. After commanding troops in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, Kovner became a celebrated writer and poet. He testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, reading the Vilna Proclamation into the record. Abba Kovner died in 1987. Vitka Kempner died in 2012.