Abba Kovner primarily grew up in Vilna, Lithuania (at the time, part of Poland and known as "The Jerusalem of Europe"), eventually attending the University of Vilna where he learned to sculpt and "developed a passion for poetry." As a young man, he and his peers began exploring Zionism and he joined the Zionist youth movement Ha-Shomer Ha-Za'ir.
On June 24, 1941 the Nazis began their occupation of Vilna and soon after created the two Vilna Ghettos (Ghetto No. 1 and Ghetto No. 2) where the Jewish residents were herded into. Kovner began hearing rumors of killings and mass graves--The Nazis conducted several mass killings at Ponary, old fuel pits now used to bury thousands of men, women and children.
In the beginning of 1942, Kovner released a manifesto into the ghetto that in part said "Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter!" Many were skeptical of the manifesto including it's assertion that Hitler planned to exterminate the Jews of Europe, as no one had heard this notion prior to the declaration.
Inspired by the manifesto and the increasing plight of the Jews, youth groups in the ghettos began forming including the United Partisan Organization ("Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye" or FPO), which Kovner became the leader of in July 1943 (after its original leader, Yitzhak Wittenberg, turned himself into the Nazis to prevent reprisals in the ghetto, despite certain torture and death).
The FPO pleaded with the Jews within the ghetto to rise up against the Nazis but they refused in part because the ghetto leaders, fearing retaliation, opposed the plan. As the Nazis began their destruction of the ghetto in 1943, the FPO briefly fought the Germans but eventually fled via the city's sewers to the Rudnicki Forest where the partisans assembled.
From within the forest Kovner led a group of partisans called The Avengers ("Nokmim") in guerilla operations against the Nazis, which included blowing up many miles of train tracks, bridges, water infrastructures and supply depots as well as attacks against Nazis and their local collaborators. They also rescued Jews who had escaped from the Kalais Labor camp.
According to former member Benjamin Levin, the group took no prisoners, "preferring to shoot enemies on the spot." According to the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, the group killed 212 enemy soldiers.
Levin also described partisan life in the forest with conditions where they "slept in makeshift bunkers carved from tangled scrub, drank green pond water that left a sandy film on their throats, and lived on a diet of bitter mushrooms and berries."
In July 1944 Vilnia was recaptured by The Soviet Red Army and the partisan groups-- Along with The Avengers there were three other major partisan groups operating in the region. As they liberated the city, Nazi collaborators were rounded up and "shot on the spot."
At the war's end, Kovner founded an organization called Nakam ("Revenge"), whose aim was vengeance for The Holocaust. The basis for the organization was laid out by Kovner at a 1945 Passover gathering of survivors where he invoked Psalm 94, "He will repay them for their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness."
The group was purportedly responsible for dozens of acts of retribution where former Nazis were found strangled or hanged. Many died as the result of car accidents where there were mysterious "mechanical failures." In one case a former senior Nazi who was waiting for a minor operation was found to have keresone in his blood stream.
The group's most ambitious plans involved retributive mass poisonings: Plan A was to poison the water supply of Munich, Berlin, Weimar, Nuremberg and Hamburg (Editors Note: Boy was this a terrible idea!) and Plan B was to poison SS POWs held at Stalag 13 in Nuremberg.
Plan A was foiled when Kovner was arrested by the British Military police aboard a ship heading back to Europe with two canisters of poison hidden in condensed milk cans. The poison was thrown overboard by members of the group and Kovner was sent to prison in Cairo for a brief stint.
With Plan A now abandoned, Plan B was implemented in April 1945, when several thousand loaves of bread at Stalag 13 were "painted" with poison. According to an April 20, 1946 NY Times article, all of the men became "seriously ill", however reports vary as to the number of those killed by the poisoning, some say hundreds, others thousands.
Kovner also helped found the Berihah movement, which helped Holocaust survivors escape Europe to what was then British Palestine.
In 1946 He married former Avenger's Liutenant Vitka Kempner and went on to serve as a Captain in the Israeli Defense Forces.
His later life was dedicated to poetry and literature and he played a major role in the design and construction of "several" Holocaust museums. In 1970 Kovner was awarded the Israel Prize for Literature.
A life long smoker, Kovner died of cancer at the age of 69 in 1987.