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Kovner, Abba


Nationality: Israeli (originally Russian: immigrated to Palestine, 1945). Born: Sevastopol, 14 March 1918. Education: Hebrew secondary school, Vilna. Family: Married Vitka Kempner; one son. Military Service: Fought in Israel's war of independence, 1948. Career: Member, Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir (Zionist youth movement); coleader, Fareinikte Partisaner Organizatzie (F.P.O.); cofounder, Beriha (underground organization to smuggle Jews out of Europe); moved to Palestine after World War II and joined Kibbutz Ein ha-Horesh; cofounder, Yalkut Moreshet (journal on the Holocaust), 1963. Award: Israel prize in literature, 1970. Died: September 1987.



Selected Poems: Abba Kovner and Nelly Sachs. 1971.

A Canopy in the Desert: Selected Poems. 1973.

My Little Sister and Selected Poems, 1965-1985. 1986.

Megilot ha-'edut. 1993; as Scrolls of Testimony, 2001.

Kol shire Aba Kovner. 1996.


'Ad-lo-or: Po'emah partizanit [While Still There Is Night]. 1947.

Peridah meha-darom: Po'emah [Farewell to the South]. 1949.

Admat ha-hol: Po'emah [Earth of Sand, a Poem]. 1961.

Mi-kol ha-ahavot. 1965.

Ahoti ketanah. 1967; as My Little Sister, in My Little Sister and Selected Poems, 1965-1985, 1986.

Peridah meha-darom: Po'emah. 1969.

Feridah me-ha-darom: Po'emah. 1969.

Hupah ba-midbar. 1970; as A Canopy in the Desert, in A Canopy in the Desert: Selected Poems, 1973.

Ha-Sefer ha-katan. 1972.

Lahakat ha-ketser mofi'ah 'al Har-Gerizim: Po'emah. 1972.

Tatspiyot [Observations]. 1977.

El [To]. 1980.

Shirat Rozah. 1987.

Slon Ketering: Po'emah. 1987.


Panim el panim [Face to Face]. 1953.


Yom zeh: megilat 'edut. 1962.


The Tree of Life: A Scroll of Testimony on the Fifteenth Anniversary of Israel's Independence: Presented for Recital. 1961.

Der boym fun lebn: Edus megile: Tsum fuftsntn yortog zint dem antshteyn fun Medines-Yisroel. 1963.

This Day: Testimonial Scroll: Presented for Recitation. 1964. Hupah ba-midbar. 1970.

Rising Night after Night (cantata libretto). 1976.

Megilot ha-esh: Umah 'omedet 'al nafshah: 52 parashot ke-neged 52 shevu'ot ha-shanah/The Scrolls of Fire: A Nation Fighting for Its Life: Fifty-two Chapters of Jewish Maryrology (in Hebrew and English). 1981.

'Al ha-gesher ha-tsar: masot be-'al peh [On the Narrow Bridge] (essays). 1981.

Masa' el erets ha-milim: Po'emon: Ve-hu sipurshir le-yeled 'im dimyon [A Journey to the Land of Words] (for children). 1981.

Ha-Mal'akh ha-katan, Mikha'el [Michael, the Little Angel] (for children). 1989.

Mashehu 'al livyetanim [About the Whales] (for children). 1989.

Le-'akev et ha-keri'ah [Beyond Mourning] (letters). 1998.

Editor, with Pesell Freedberg, Painters in the Kibbutz (in Hebrew and English). 1961.

Editor, Rekviyem le-Terezyenshtadt, by Josef Bor. 1965. Editor, with Berta Hazan, Yaldut ba'ah ba-esh: Yeladim bemilhemet sheshet ha-yamim. 1968; as Childhood under Fire: Stories, Poems, and Drawings by Children during the Six Days War, 1968.

Editor, with Hana Volavkova, Tsiyurim ve-shirim shel yalde geto Terezinshtadt 1942-1944. 1966; as I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezín Concentration Camp, 1942-1944, 1978.


Critical Studies:

"Fantastic Elements in Holocaust Poetry: Abba Kovner's 'Ahoti Ktanah"' by Carl Schaffer, in The Poetic Fantastic: Studies in an Evolving Genre, edited by Patrick D. Murphy and Vernon Ross Hyles, 1989; "Abba Kovner: The Rent Canopy and the Cleft Covenant" by Eli Pfefferkorn, in Modern Language Studies, 24(4), Fall 1994, pp. 11-24; "The Sheliah Tsibur as a Poetic Persona: Abba Kovner's Self-Portrait," in Prooftexts, 15(3), September 1995, pp. 227-47, "Paradise Betrayed: Or, the Betrayal of Paradise: Vilna As Memory in Abba Kovner's Poetry," in Hebrew Studies, 37, 1996, pp. 83-98, and "'Meteor-Yid': Abba Kovner's Poetic Confrontation with Jewish History," in Judaism, 48(1), Winter 1999, pp. 35-48, all by Zvia Ben-Yoseph Ginor; "Intertextual Relations and Their Rhetorical Significance in Abba Kovner's Daf Kravi" by Reuven Shoham, in Hebrew Studies, 37, 1996, pp. 99-118; Ghetto in Flames: The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust by Yitzhak Arad, 1980; The Avengers: A Jewish War Story by Rich Cohen, 2000.

* * *

Abba Kovner's Holocaust poetry emanates from his own personal experience. He witnessed the events that propelled him to fight as a partisan in the forests of Lithuania. His literature rests on realistic foundations but grows beyond the boundaries of realistic fiction. His works are multifarious, interwoven with a surreal subreality of sorts, one that is haunted with nightmares of the Holocaust. In one of the final interviews given by the poet, he stated that poetry is "a request for pardon for what we do in our lives, and for what was done to us." He wrote lengthy narrative poems, weaving a dense tapestry of hard images and austere settings. In his poems Kovner seeks the meaning and significance of the suffering experienced by the people of Vilna. The city is never named but remains paramount in the memory of the Holocaust as contained in his poems.

Commonly referred to as a "poet-warrior," Kovner expresses in his work the polarities typical of the Holocaust experience and the body of literature it has generated. For instance, his poems often express the pain of memory and the force of life and of continuous survival. Thematic duality also dominates his poetry—voice and silence, love and death, light and darkness all emerge simultaneously from his work. Furthermore, his poetry expresses the tension between the poet's own view of the past and the wider perception of it as a sickness. Kovner often sets himself apart from implied others—often the reading audience—echoing the feeling of isolation caused by his experience and the gap between his own perceived reality and that of others. Apart from the tension between one's own version of history and that which belongs to the public, Kovner's poems also convey the vulnerability of the poet and survivor who intimates his own perspective. The poet expresses the torn state of his soul through a vast lexicon of personal codes and metaphors.

Kovner's body of work was rejected by the contemporary mainstream literary culture. His works loosely follow Russian symbolism, taking on the form of long, epic narrative poems. Kovner was writing at a time when Hebrew literature was becoming more streamlined, focusing on the public and concrete local reality of the young state, rather than the individual. In addition, idiosyncratic experiences of the Diaspora had already been relegated as irrelevant to modern Jewish experience. Thus, Kovner's work stood out as deviating somewhat from literary traditions and from the Holocaust literature that came to represent the Holocaust experience as though the Jewish nation had been led "like lambs to the slaughter." He protested against this slogan as early as his time as a partisan fighter in Vilna and continued to express his resentment for this perception in his poetry.

It is important to mention Kovner's own ambiguity about the genre "Holocaust poetry," in which his work was often placed. It was his belief that the work he created was within the realm of modern Israeli and the Jewish experience, implying that the Holocaust must not be treated as a closed book, a separate segment of Jewish history and identity. In a letter to his daughter he wrote that the genre title "is loaded with a negative meaning, denoting one who is enclosed in the experiences of the past, in the atrocities, who clings to them obsessively without the ability to turn his face to the here and the now, to life and not to death." Kovner's Holocaust is a personal interpretation of Jewish history, and the poems he prolifically wrote about it are personal in form, language, and content.

—Ziva Shavitsky

See the essays on A Canopy in the Desert and My Little Sister.

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