Revenge according to Abba Kovner

“Avenge us”. To the supplication that arose from the murdered Jews and appeared everywhere after the war – on the walls of ruined synagogues or on small pieces of paper left by those who made it their last wish before perishing – Abba Kovner, poet and fighter, wanted to respond. He sought to extend the partisan struggle against the Nazi state with a large-scale revenge action. He made plans that either failed or were not carried out. The legacy of Abba Kovner is that of a dead end, according to Danny Trom: the dead end of a revenge thought to be necessary and unattainable.

 

Abba Kovner © Joann Sfar

 

And finally

We were all defeated

The dead. And the living

Abba Kovner[1]

 

“What about revenge? Did you ever think about it?” asked a high school student confronted with the story of the Holocaust, reports Marianne Rubinstein, the author of Tout le monde n’a pas la chance d’être orphelin (Verticales, 2002, untranslated) and C’est maintenant du passé (Verticales, 2009, untranslated). “I found it hard to answer,” she confesses.

Indeed, the question of why there was no revenge from the Jews persists. And it embarrasses us, and yet it resurfaces again and again. Why? 

*

Hannah Arendt was not always right, but on at least one point she was clear-eyed. While the Second World War was raging, she publicly called for the creation of a Jewish army in the journal Aubau in late 1941[2]. Not that she was the only one to advocate this. The idea of a Jewish brigade was in the air, and a volunteer unit, the Jewish Brigade Group of the British Army, with 5,000 fighters, mainly from the Yishuv, was integrated into the British army. In its small way, this unit participated in the liberation of Europe. But this was not the main aim of Arendt’s appeal. She was aiming for the creation of a Jewish army, with a Jewish command and a Jewish flag, because only on this condition, she insisted, would the Jews be in the victors’ camp after the war. The Jewish army was for her a way of pre-empting the political future of the Jews of Europe.

But, as we know, there was no Jewish army. Let us understand: the Jews of Europe were exterminated, not without having fought, on an individual basis, as soldiers in the Allied armies, in the Jewish Brigade under the command of the 8th British Army, in the fighting units in the besieged ghettos of the East, or in the partisan units in the forests of the East. But since at the end of the war diplomacy would take over, and it would then be a matter of settling up, Arendt anticipated that in the absence of an army of their own, the Jews would be politically absent from the European scene. In retrospect, her analysis proved accurate: the Jews were defeated. They suffered a war of extermination to which they could not respond.

Arendt’s insight can only be illuminated in the light of modern warfare, which Clausewitz defined as a duel between states, symmetrically disposed, which measure their respective powers, each of the parties committing the resources at its disposal and able to be used in the confrontation. In the case of the Jews, the Nazis waged a war of eradication against a civilian population, unarmed, a very unconventional war against an enemy that they saw as omnipresent, as the nerve center of a vast conspiracy. In response to this aggression, modern warfare would indeed have required a Jewish state, or at least a Jewish army, to confront the Nazi state. But there was no such state. And an army without a state cannot exist; it is called a militia.

Like the duel, the modern, rational war is declared, takes place in a determined period of time, and then ends. It admits retribution, the opening of a new trial of strength, but it excludes revenge. For modern warfare is a regulated modality of the relationship between states, which, like “cold monsters” as Nietzsche called them, are devoid of affect. Revenge, on the other hand, feeds on an archaic affect that was legal in the premodern world. Revenge maintained a permanent state of war. In the premodern world, warlike activity, cyclical, is continuous, punctuated by truces.

A soldier of the “Jewish Brigade Group of the British Army” carries a shell on which is written in Hebrew: “A gift for Hitler”, Wikimedia commons.

Alien in theory to modern warfare, the will to revenge and therefore also the anticipation of the revenge of others is certainly perceived as an artifact of an earlier age, but will nevertheless continue to permeate conflicts. The vengeful dimension was obviously consubstantial with the war of extermination against the Jews, which, precisely from this point of view, as methodical as it was, was not modern: vengeance against the humiliation that the Jews had supposedly inflicted on Germany since the “Versailles Dictate”; anticipation[3], on the Eastern Front, of a Jewish vengeance to come that justified their eradication. The question then arises: why, in the absence of a Jewish war, was there no Jewish vengeance?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to situate oneself not in the moment of the war, but in the post-war period.

*

The post-war period is the time when conclusions are drawn from the war, a pivotal phase of pacification that supposes a general settlement of accounts between formerly belligerent states. The reshuffling of borders (called in premodern language “a land grab”) and compensation (formerly called “booty”) are among the usual means of this settlement. From the First to the Second World War, in order to avoid repeating the Treaty of Versailles, which was considered calamitous for all, and whose punitive nature was recognized, Europeans learned that a balanced settlement, accepted by all parties, would settle accounts between states once and for all. This is precisely what Arendt anticipated: the Jews were excluded from the post-war political settlement. The settlement gave birth, in stages, to a political organization called “Europe,” from which the Jews were absent. The formerly belligerent states were progressively integrated into a whole that transcended them, a whole that effectively neutralized their enmities, while the Jews were kept off the radar.

The Allies dealt with the exceptional case of the Jews in the judicial arena, albeit marginally. The Nuremberg trial was the high point of this.  The Nazi war of extermination was reconfigured as a crime. To make it punishable, a new category of crime had to be forged, a crime against a collective. This was the way in which the Jews, absent from the international political scene, were reintegrated into the post-war settlement of accounts. Exterminated, they became a legal subject, deemed capable of asserting a right, of claiming a justice that was raised for the first time to the international level. But in such a framework, the symmetrization of the relationship could not be honored: an impolitical collective had been eradicated, indiscriminately, almost in its entirety, while the state that had taken the initiative and ensured its execution with the support of its auxiliaries recruited throughout Europe, would be judged as a political actor, through its few representatives.

*

This asymmetry was experienced by many during the war. The young Hans Jonas, Hannah Arendt’s friend, a refugee in Mandatory Palestine, was one of those who joined the Jewish Brigade at an early age. Jonas confesses in his Memoirs that, perched on his tank, crossing German cities in ruins, including his native city, he experienced for a moment a “malignant joy.” The enjoyment of the spectacle of the destruction of the enemy is certainly vengeful. And from this passive enjoyment to active vengeance, there is only one step, called “acting out.” As the Jewish Brigade, with its Star of David flag, became aware of the unprecedented nature of the crime scene on the ground, it partially escaped the control of the British command. Sporadic acts of revenge against German prisoners of war, and even civilians, increased, leading to its emergency evacuation from occupied Germany to Belgium. The war was over for them.

Abba Kovner, the founder and leader of the United Partisan Organization (in Yiddish: Fareynikte partizaner Organisatzye), who fought in the Vilna ghetto and then in the Baltic forests, was acutely aware of this insoluble asymmetry. This is precisely why he refused to consider that the war had ended with the fall of the Third Reich. He stubbornly refused to place himself in the post-war period. The settlement would have to be made, urgently, immediately, in a war that the Jews refused to close. Kovner wanted to prolong the partisan, unconventional struggle against the Nazi state with a large-scale action of revenge. Scores had to be settled during the war, because no settlement would be reached in the post-war period. The mass killing had to be answered promptly by a mass killing, to settle the score.

Portrait of Abba Kovner holding a rifle in Vilna, after the fall of the city to the Red Army. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The plan of Abba Kovner and the Jewish commando unit of some 50 men and women, mostly Zionists and Communists, which he assembled for the first time in Lublin at the very end of 1944, failed. The realization of Operation Nakam, which means “vengeance” in Hebrew, consisted of a “Plan A” – poisoning the drinking water of four German cities – or, failing that, a “Plan B” – poisoning the food of SS prisoners -, complex plans hastily drawn up in order to take advantage of the chaos in which occupied Germany was plunged. Kovner solicited support from the Jewish Brigade, then left for Palestine to plead his case to the leaders of the Yishuv, while his commando studied the urban water distribution networks and waited for the delivery of the poison. In Palestine, Kovner received a flat refusal from the leaders of the Yishuv, whose logistical and technical support was indispensable to the success of his mission. In the end, only a few thousand SS prisoners who were interned ate poisoned bread, which at most caused them to have diarrhea… Kovner was forced to leave Europe without a fight. Despite his charisma and undeniable skills acquired in the underground struggle, he remained alone.

“Avenge us”: this plea was heard from the murdered Jews, it appeared everywhere, written on the walls of ruined synagogues, inscribed on small pieces of paper left by those who made it their last wish before perishing. It echoed in the ears of the partisans who scoured the Jewish neighborhoods and villages for survivors. Who, then, would fulfill it? And, above all, who would ensure that vengeance, commensurate with the crime, would protect the remaining Jews from any future repetition of such a crime? To these questions, which Kovner formulated for himself, he answered: I, the fighting Jew. A book, written by an author with unabashed Zionist sympathies[4], has been dedicated to this tragic hero; its reading attests that the impossible revenge still colors our political actuality today.

Why does Dina Porat, who admires the partisan Kovner so much, abandon him in the post-war period, suggesting that the hero whose hagiographer she is, was seized by an evil passion, even an uncontrollable madness? Yet Kovner kept a cool head, wrote down his views and plan of action, and kept the allegiance of his network. For the Zionist leaders, Ben Gurion chief among them, the war was over. The Jews had indeed suffered the greatest defeat of all, because they had not been sheltered in the state now in the making. So the State of the Jews, already imminent, would soon be able to present itself as the heir of the murdered Jews. It would impose itself as the Jewish political actor in the post-war period, to the exclusion of all others, which would later give rise to tensions between Israeli diplomacy and the World Jewish Congress led by Nahum Goldman, who would pose as a competitor when the State of Israel had to deal with the new post-war world. The 1952 treaty that bound the State of Israel, as well as an ad hoc American Jewish organization called the Claims Conference, to the Federal Republic of Germany, born in 1949, settled accounts once and for all, in terms of money and manufactured goods.

That the Jews of Europe had been politically defeated could be admitted; it is even the core of the Zionist doctrine which leads to this conclusion: from now on, the State of the Jews, alone, would represent the Jews on the international scene. The Eichmann trial of 1962, in which Kovner testified, would be the proof of this 10 years later.

A Hebraist poet and leader in Vilna of a Zionist left-wing youth movement with Marxist leanings, The Young Guard, Kovner decided in extremis to fight on the European front rather than go to Palestine. Then, forced to renounce the vengeful mission he had given himself, he left Europe. He left the European front, without fulfilling the call for vengeance of his murdered people. He never resigned himself to this impossible revenge.

Certainly, Kovner settled in 1946 in a kibbutz, joined the Haganah, then the Tsahal. And his growing poetic work would be celebrated in his new homeland, even though it constantly took his readers back to the European front, where the Jews suffered the greatest defeat ever. For the State of Israel was born too late. It missed the test of modern warfare on the European front. Kovner thus joined the Yishuv, which would become a state, a state that is for him, by definition, since its birth in 1948, a state of the aftermath, a state born when it was too late to resolve the asymmetry in a war that was now over. The Israeli public agreed to read Kovner, but as a witness, and the State of Israel to celebrate the Partisans and Ghetto Fighters, but to commemorate them, to relegate them to a bygone era.

*

Let us summarize what the tragic epic of Kovner teaches us. From Zionism, it is clear that we inherit a state for the Jews: but what is the legacy of Abba Kovner? Kovner bequeaths us a dead end, that of a vengeance thought to be necessary and unattainable.

Let us note that the vengeance of the Jews, in their own tradition and in their tormented history in Europe, is an act which falls to God. This postponement is inscribed in the Scriptures, a motif that is found abundantly in the prose of those who escaped the murderous raids of the medieval crusades. The nerve of Kovner consisted in wanting to substitute himself for Him. But was not the restoration of Jewish sovereignty traditionally dependent as well on divine will, whereas the State of Israel proceeds from a human will?

God had brought about the exile, God had brought about persecution in exile, says the tradition: the Jewish people must endure, not without lamenting – here too the Scriptures provide an abundant reservoir of formulas – not without sometimes accusing God. In 1945, Kovner was a Zionist and an avenger, inseparably linked. Stuck on the European front while waiting to leave to join the Yishuv, he juxtaposed, in this precise conjuncture, two expressions of the modern politicization of the Jews: active restoration on the land; vengeance undertaken by oneself. They are modern because they both postulate a degree of agency that Jewish tradition denies. Both tend to defy a traditional ban.

In its most resolute Eastern European form, the one to which Kovner himself adhered, Zionism aspires to abolish the exile. The avengers, on the other hand, aspire to rectify the exilic condition, definitively, but without abolishing it, because for Kovner, vengeance is the only way to ensure security for the rest of the Jews of Europe. The two perspectives contradict each other. The surviving Jews, evacuated from Europe, are now safe in a state, the Zionists claim. The Jews will secure their existence in Europe, Kovner added, if and only if they first avenge the dead. Kovner assumed this obvious contradiction: Zionist achievement did not dispense with the need to take on the second, Jewish vengeance, on the European front. Kovner’s impotence sealed the defeat of the Jews of Europe, which has repercussions indefinitely, up to the present day, as long as the Jews, even if only a remnant, still declare themselves alive.

Sépulture d’Abba Kovner, à Ein HaHoresh en Israël, Wikimedia commons.

Not that we should regret the failure of the avengers. But their tragic epic invites us to face the defeat anticipated by Arendt. Moreover, it forces us to consider the defeat without turning our eyes away, without turning our backs on Kovner. Peace in Europe was paid with a price that we must certainly assume, while keeping the European front open. We have to declare that the accounts cannot be settled, in the manner of Kovner. For the war of extermination once waged against the Jews of Europe is, for the Jews of Europe, a never-ending war. It continues in the present. We remain, as it were, fixed to this front. And it is only on this condition that the chapter in the history of the Jews of Europe, which the Zionist project wanted to end, will remain open.


Danny Trom

Thanks to Joann Sfar for his drawing of Kovner !

Notes

1 Kol ha-ahavot [Tous les amours], Tel Aviv, Sifriath Po’alim, 1965, p.178.
2 « Die jüdische Armee – der Beginn einer jüdische Politik ? », November 14 1941. Article republished in Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings, op. cit., p. 134-185.
3 Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich, Oxford Paperbacks
4 Dina Porat, Le Juif qui savait. Wilno-Jérusalem. La figure légendaire d’Abba Kovner, Paris, Le Bord de l’Eau, 2017. Not translated into English

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