In late August 1941, the Nazis created two ghettos in Vilna, a city in Lithuania with a large Jewish population. Abba Kovner, a poet born in Russia in 1918, went to high school in Vilna, and was able to flee with some of his friends and find shelter outside the city. Throughout the fall, the Nazis began to execute Jews from the Vilna Ghetto in the Ponary Forest, which became the murder site of approximately 7,000 Jews from the ghetto and the surrounding area. In order for the Nazis to deceive the Jews as they were taken from Vilna to Ponary, they were told that they were going to a labor camp. In December 1941, it became clear to many Jews in the Vilna Ghetto that the Nazis were planning a full annihilation. Many people in Vilna, especially the youth activists, began to speak about resistance, including Kovner and his friends. They recognized that what was happening in Vilna would soon spread: the Nazis planned to kill all the Jews in Europe.
On January 1, 1942, at a meeting of Zionist youth, Kovner read his Ghetto Manifesto, a treatise urging Jews to rise up and fight against the Nazis. Here, Kovner pleads with his fellow Jews to recognize that they will be killed in Ponary and not, as they were told, made to work:
They Shall Not Take Us Like Sheep to the Slaughter!
Jewish youth, do not be led astray. Of the 80,000 Jews in the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” [Vilna] only 20,000 have remained. Before our eyes they tore from us our parents, our brothers and sisters. Where are the hundreds of men who were taken away for work by the Lithuanian “snatchers”? Where are the naked women and children who were taken from us in the night of terror of the provokatzia?
Where are the Jews [who were taken away on] the Day of Atonement?
Where are our brothers from the second ghetto?
All those who were taken away from the ghetto never came back.
All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponary.
And Ponary is death!
Doubters! Cast off all illusions. Your children, your husbands, and your wives are no longer alive.
Ponary is not a camp—all are shot there.
Hitler aims to destroy all the Jews of Europe. The Jews of Lithuania are fated to be the first in line.
Let us not go as sheep to slaughter!
It is true that we are weak and defenseless, but resistance is the only reply to the enemy!
Brothers! It is better to fall as free fighters than to live by the grace of the murderers.
Resist! To the last breath.
January 1, 1942, Vilna Ghetto.