Abba Kovner

The Jewish writer and fighter.

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At the Kibbutz

From a workroom in his kibbutz, Kovner undertook projects that would commemorate not only the Nazi destruction but the rich civilization that had been obliterated--and that would convey both the horror and the richness to the future. While much of modern Israel was determined to forget its Diaspora past, he relentlessly insisted on maintaining deep roots in Diaspora Jewish history, culture, and faith, even if all three were now, for him, irretrievably vanished. "There can be no Jerusalem," he wrote, "without the Jerusalem of Lithuania." His crowning effort in this respect was the creation of Tel Aviv's Museum of the Diaspora (Beit HaTefutzot).

And he wrote. In his chronicles Scrolls of Testimony and Scrolls of Fire, he strove to compose the equivalents of a new Talmud and a new Haggadah for the post-Holocaust age. He also wrote many volumes of poetry, infused, despite the trammels of history and a sense of titanic loss, by a surprising inner freedom. He was not, in the end, a great poet. Instead, his strength lay in his insistence on a personal voice that was at the same time ineradicably linked with the collective. As the Israeli thinker Eliezer Schweid put it, he was hyphenated: "a poet-warrior, poet-leader, poet-pioneer, poet-kibbutznik, and poet-educator."

To each of these roles--to which one may add those of chronicler and witness--Kovner brought poetry's pathos, love of language, implicit prayer, and touch of prophecy. He was one of those artists whose life, taken as a whole, was itself the great work, an insistent, total engagement with his people and time.

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