In 1941, they knewwipe out European Jewry.
On December 31, 1941, Abba Kovner spoke before an assembly of Vilna Ghetto youth and declared his far-sighted and far from conventional conviction that the Nazis were determined “to destroy all the Jews of Europe,” and that they, the Jews of Lithuania, were to be “the first in line.”
The 23-year-old Kovner was speaking nearly a month before the convening of the Wannsee Conference, in Berlin, at which the Nazis formally and in complete secrecy adopted the “Final Solution. In his remarks, Kovner implored the group of some 150 young people, gathered in a soup kitchen at 2 Straszun Street, not to be “led like sheep to the slaughter,” because, he said, “it is better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers.”
Vilna, one of Europe’s most important Jewish capitals, had been conquered by the Germans on June 24, 1941. Its 60,000 Jews were organized into a large ghetto, which was largely overseen by the head of the Jewish police, Jacob Gens. Early during the occupation Kovner, a leader in the socialist-Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair, took up refuge in a Dominican convent outside the ghetto, but he returned when he understood that the invaders were beginning to deport and murder Jews.
Read the whole thing.Much of the killing was taking place at Ponary, a forest and recreation site a little south of Vilna, which was transformed, shortly after the occupation, into a site for mass murder. Between June 1941 and July 1944, some 75,000 people, most of them Jews, were shot to death there, their bodies quickly cremated to minimize evidence. When Kovner spoke that New Year’s Eve, he seemed determined to look a devastating truth in the eye: “None of those who were taken away from the ghetto has ever come back,” he observed. “All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponary. And Ponary is Death!”