Witness Kovner: There was a delusion that not everyone was
destined for the same fate. Here they were even paying
taxes every month to the Judenrat. With these taxes, the
Judenrat was supposed to maintain the ghetto.
Presiding Judge: This certificate is numbered T/287.
Witness Kovner: There is another certificate. I don’t know
whether it is in my file – perhaps it is in files I have
not brought with me – the one in which the Judenrat is
ordered to collect these taxes.
Attorney General: Did you take evidence from a boy Miller,
aged 11, who reached Vilna?
Witness Kovner: A little girl.
Q. A girl, aged 11, who arrived in Vilna and described
what was happening in the Ponar forest?
A. We recorded more than one testimony.
Q. Was this one of the pieces of evidence that you
collected in your own handwriting?
A. Not in my handwriting. Some other comrade, a woman whom
I don’t remember, wrote this down.
Q. Do you remember the document?
Q. What was it?
A. The question of what was happening in Ponar worried us.
And we sought…we looked for people who had been saved
and there were those who had been saved – both wounded and
not wounded – I remember that we took evidence from them.
Here there are two shocking, lengthy pieces of evidence.
Q. About what was happening in Ponar – that they were
killing Jews there?
A. Yes. But if the Court will permit me, I shall describe
some evidence which I myself collected, and which I don’t
have with me.
Presiding Judge: First of all, what you are holding in
your hand. When was this collected?
Witness Kovner: In 1942.
Q. By whom?
A. By members of the underground.
Q. And is this from the same archives?
A. From the same archives. These are two testimonies, one
of the teacher Tama Katz and one of a girl aged 11,
Presiding Judge: These two testimonies will be marked
Attorney General: You learned that in Ponar they were
simply murdering Jews?
Witness Kovner: If you will allow me, I shall describe the
thing which is engraved in my memory most of all.
Q. What was engraved in your memory most of all?
A. This is the story of a woman named Sara Menkes, who was
rescued from the pit, and she told me of the execution of
a group of women, in October 1941. She told me about this
several weeks later. In this group there was, amongst
others, one who you could say was a pupil of mine. For
several months I had taught her in the gymnasium, the
daughter of Epstein, a teacher at the gymnasium in Vilna.
Her name was Tsherna Morgenstern. I shall describe it
briefly: they were taken to Ponar. After they had waited
at some point, a group of them was taken and lined up in a
row. They were told to undress. They undressed down to
their shirts. A line of men of the Einsatzgruppen stood
facing them. An officer came out in front of them, looked
at the row of women, and his glance fell on this Tsherna
Morgenstern. She had wonderful eyes, a tall, upstanding
girl with long plaits. He looked at her for a long time,
and said: “Take one step forward.” She was terrified, as
all of them were. At that moment nobody spoke, nobody
asked anything. She remained where she was, evidently
panicstricken, and did not step forward. He ordered her,
asking: “Hey – don’t you want to live – you are so
beautiful – I say to you: ‘Take one step forward’.” Then
she took a step forward. He said to her: “It would be a
pity to bury such beauty in the ground. Walk, but don’t
look backwards. There is a path here, you know this path,
walk along it.” For a moment she hesitated and then she
began walking. The rest of us – Sara Menkes told me –
gazed at her with a look in our eyes, I don’t know whether
it was only of fear and also of envy. She walked forward
weakly. And then he, the officer, drew his revolver and
shot her, as the first, in her back. Why should I tell
Q. Then the underground was organized and you issued a
call to the Jewish youth in Vilna to join its ranks? This
was the first manifesto – it seems to me that it is in
A. Yes. This is my handwriting.
Q. Was this the first announcement to be issued in Vilna?
It says here on the cover “Der erste ruf” (The First
A. This was the first announcement of revolt, not only in
Vilna. Allow me to read it. I shall try to read it
directly in Hebrew. It is written in Yiddish, although I
remember that I wrote the original in Hebrew – afterwards
I myself translated it into Yiddish thereafter it was
published in typewritten form. [He reads the manifesto]:
“Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter, Jewish youth!
Do not believe those who are deceiving you. Out of 80,000
Jews of the Jerusalem of Lithuania, only 20,000 remain. In
front of your eyes our parents, our brothers and our
sisters are being torn away from us. Where are the
hundreds of men who were snatched away for labour by the
Lithuanian kidnappers? Where are those naked women who
were taken away on the horror-night of the provocation?
Where are those Jews of the Day of Atonement? And where
are our brothers of the second ghetto? Anyone who is taken
out through the gates of the ghetto, will never return.
All roads of the ghetto lead to Ponar, and Ponar means
death. Oh, despairing people, – tear this deception away
from your eyes. Your children, your husbands, your wives –
are no longer alive – Ponar is not a labour camp. Everyone
there is shot. Hitler aimed at destroying the Jews of
Europe. It turned out to be the fate of the Jews of
Lithuania to be the first. Let us not go like sheep to the
slaughter. It is true that we are weak, lacking
protection, but the only reply to a murderer is
resistance. Brothers, it is better to die as free fighters
than to live at the mercy of killers. Resist, resist, to
our last breath.”
Please note: The date is 1 January 1942, in the Ghetto of
Presiding Judge: This will be T/289.
A. The fighting force was not organized at that time. It
was no so easy to organize the fighting force, not because
it was very difficult to take up arms and fire. This is
perhaps the easiest and simplest thing. I had already
experienced several campaigns and battles, and I myself
can testify to
the fact that this is probably the easiest thing. But how
can one explain the apparently simple thing that someone
has decreed a common fate for everybody, that not only
those who have gone – have gone. How could we remove the
illusion that there was no escape, that whatever happened,
it was death, and how could you raise them up from their
despair? Your Honours, a question is hanging over us here
in this courtroom: how was is that they did not revolt? In
Vilna too they had gone – by 27 December 1941 there were
already no more than 40,000 Jews. And confronting us in
this courtroom is the question: how is it that they did
not revolt? I, as a fighting Jew, would rise in protest
with all my strength at this question, if it contains a
vestige of accusation. And to a person sitting opposite me
here and to the 80 million who in the streets of their
town sang the song “Wenn’s Judenblut vom Messer spritzt”
(When Jewish blood spurts from the knife…) I do not owe
any such reply. But if I ask myself…if I were to be
asked, then, only in order to understand the truth, Your
Honours, in order to fight under all conditions and not
only under ghetto conditions – one first of all requires
organization. And an organization of fighters could come
about by virtue of the order of a national authority, or
by virtue of an internal movement. For the Jews of Europe
the order of a national authority did not apply, nor could
it apply. By virtue of an internal movement – then an
organization like this under these conditions of terror,
separation and paralysis, when we and not they – we were
in a glass cage – who would dare to ask: How is it that
you did not rise up in a glass cage? An organization of
this nature can be created only with people determined in
their resolve, and people who are determined in their
resolve are not usually to be found amongst those beyond
despair, subjugated, and those tortured to the extreme.
And they were subjugated and tortured to the extreme. I
saw desperate people who committed suicide. I did not come
across despairing people who made good fighters. Even this
war which for some reason has been called a war of
despair, created people who believed, people who believed
that there was a cause and a reason for dying one hour
earlier for the sake of something which was greater than
life. Because of this despair in which most of them found
themselves, because of the fact that they had been
deprived of their human image, it was not an easy matter
for this manifesto to be accepted. It is not accidental
and it is not to be wondered at. On the contrary, it is
astonishing that there existed a minority who believed in
this manifesto and did what they did in the course of two
years. The surprising thing, in my opinion, is that a
fighting force existed at all, that there was armed
reaction, that there was a revolt. That is what was not
rational. It was like a struggle of any underground.
Presiding Judge: Mr. Kovner, we have to make progress.
This manifesto – it is in your handwriting, I understand?
Witness Kovner: Yes.
Q. How did you distribute it after it was printed?
A. This was the first manifesto published by the
emissaries of the underground to all the ghettos they
could reach, Kovno, Warsaw; at that period in Warsaw
people were not yet aware of the mass killings and were
not yet thinking of armed resistance; Bialystok, Grodno.
Three of our delegations were executed after they had been
route with these manifestos. They managed to destroy the
material. Other emmisaries, mainly young girls, arrived at
their destinations, and delivered these manifestos. Some
of them fulfilled their mission, but too late. There was
another ghetto which was shocked after hearing the
contents of the manifesto and what had occurred in Vilna,
but contended that “it is impossible that such a thing
could happen to us.”
Attorney General: What ghetto was this?
Witness Kovner: It was a large ghetto, the Bialystok
Ghetto. And serious public personalities, people who
wanted, possibly with all their hearts, to work for the
rescue of their Jewish community, argued: “This thing
cannot happen to us; we have so many factories – they need
workers, they need us.”
Q. Someone else is going to give evidence about Bialystok,
Mr. Kovner. So perhaps we should now go back to the
operations you organized, which consisted of the smuggling
of groups of youth, actually, into Bialystok.
Presiding Judge: I would ask you to be brief on this
subject as well. You should always remember how we started
Attorney General: I am now coming to a very important
subject, and I would crave the Court’s patience. This, in
fact, concerns the Accused.
Presiding Judge: I do not believe that you can complain of
a lack of patience on the part of the Court.
Attorney General: No, Your Honour.
You organized the smuggling of groups of youth into
Bialystok, is that correct?
Witness Kovner: Yes.
Q. And you sought aid from outside?
Q. This aid came from a German officer whose name was
Anton Schmid, correct?
A. I am prepared to explain.
Q. But please reply, first of all, to my questions.
Q. Who was Anton Schmid?
A. Anton Schmid was a Feldwebel (N.C.O) in the Wehrmacht,
of Austrian origin, the commander of a unit whose task it
was to gather soldiers who had been cut off from their
units. And the episode of Anton Schmid is one of the
amazing and rare episodes in the history of those days.
Q. You came into contact with Anton Schmid?
Q. The first to make his acquaintance was Mordechai
Q. And since the end of October 1941 the undergound of
pioneer movements had connections with Anton Schmid and he
risked his life in order to come to your help?
Q. And he did not do this for financial gain?
Q. He furnished your men with papers, he placed military
vehicles at your proposal?
Q. Was this what was called “Operation Bialystok?”
A. We called it “Operation Bialystok.”
Q. Do you remember having a secret meeting with Anton
Schmid one evening? This was in January 1942?
Q. You were waiting for one of your girl couriers who was
supposed to arrive by train and who came late?
Q. Schmid was also nervous?
Q. You had a number of drinks?
Q. You asked him to give you details about Gestapo men and
the German authorities?
Q. What did Schmid say to you?
A. When I questioned him and asked him to explain to me
who these people were and on what it depended…for I had
my reservations, I was one of those who did not approve of
the smuggling of people into Bialystok, not because of the
risk involved – and the risk was great, and we sent out
many people to cover a distance like this from Vilna to
Bialystok, and in army vehicles – but all the time the
thought worried me: if we have a common fate, if this is
total extermination – then what is the point in our
escaping from one centre to another? I wanted to know on
whom this depended, since there were people who presumed
that this was dependent on one local commander or another,
or this Gestapo officer or another. I asked him about
Schweinberger and about Hinkes, and about Muerer, Weiss
and Lohse. At a particular moment I remember his saying to
me that these men had nothing to say. There was one – I
remember exactly there was one dog called Eichmann, and he
was organizing all
this. Since I heard this name for the first time and I did
not know who and what he was, I wanted to know more
details. At that moment, he sobered up and said: “Man, I
did not utter a word, not another word.”
Q. Do you remember his words in German?
Q. What did he say in German?
A. “Diese alle haben nichts zu sagen: es gibt einen Hund,
der Eichmann heisst und der arrangiert alles.”