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Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum
Valstybinis Vilniaus Gaono Žydų Muziejus

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Where was Abba Kovner born?

 
 
According to the Short Jewish Encyclopaedia (Jerusalem, 1988, volume 4, p. 401-402, Russian l.) Abba Kovner (1918–1987), the famous fighter of the Jewish underground resistance and Israeli writer, was born in Sevastopol in 1918. The same birthplace was indicated in the book by the well-known historian Dina Porat1 as well as in some other books2 and articles.
 
However, the Lithuanian Central State Archive (LCVA) stores documents testifying that Abba Kovner was born in Ashmyany (documents in Polish). We provide an excerpt (Document No 1) from the Parish Register for registration of Jews who were born in Ashmyany in year 1918 that is signed by the rabbi of the Jewish community of Ashmyany:
 

Document No 1. Date of birth: 14 March 19183, Place of birth: Ashmyany, Father’s name: Israel Kovner, Mother’s name – Rohla4 Taubman,
Son – Abel who was circumcised by Abram Bensky. LCVA, f. 175, ap. 9, b. 217, l. 370

This excerpt from the Parish Register was linked to the application of Abba Kovner that was received in October 1939 at the Stefan Batory University’s Faculty of Arts. In June 1939 Abba Kovner presented three documents in his application to get a Polish passport (Document No 2), Abba Kovner proofs his identity by letting two witnesses confirm that he is the person on the picture (Document No 3) and a document written by the Rabbi of the Jewish community in Ashmyany that confirms that Kovner was born in Ashmyany in 1918 (Document No 4):
 
 
Document No 2. The father’s name indicated in the document is Israel, the mother’s – Rohla, the date of birth – 14 March 1918, the place of birth – Ashmyany, the address – Poplawska (Paupio) St. 7 flat 1. The Document was filled in on 30 June 1939. LCVA, f. 64, ap. 26, b. 169, l. 191
 
 
Document No 3. Certificate. This document indicates the names of the two witnesses who confirmed Kovner’s identity, as well as the names of their parents. The names of Abba’s parents and their address, Poplawska St. 7, flat 1. LCVA, f.64, ap. 26, b. 169, l. 192
 

Document No 4. This document, written by the Rabbi of the Jewish community in Ashmyany, confirms the registration of the birth of Abel Kovner in Ashmyany. LCVA, f. 64, ap. 26, b. 169, l. 193
 
We can see Abba Kovner’s date and place of birth in his father’s (Israel Kovner) registration card (Document No 5). This card also indicates the dates of birth of his other sons – the oldest Gedalia and the youngest Michel.
Document No 5. The registration card of Israel Kovner indicates his parents – father Michel and mother Rachel Samet, his date and place of birth: 1876, Ashmyany, the name of his wife – Rohla Taubman and her parents’ names: father – Berko, mother – Chaja Feiga Pasevich, date of birth: 1885, place of birth – Sokoluv5. It also indicates the occupation of Israel Kovner – merchant, address: Polawska St. 7.
 
The oldest son Gedalia was born on 8 March 1911 in Vilna6, the middle son Abel was born on 14 March 1918 in Ashmyany, the youngest Michel – in 1923 (his place of birth is not specified). The reverse side of the document describes the previous address of the family – Ashmyany and a record saying that on 25 July 1934 Israel Kovner passed away. LCVA, f. 64, ap. 28, b. 49076, l. 1–1 a. p.
 
During the First World War Israel Kovner left Vilno and went back to his home place in Ashmyany, where Abel and Michel were born. He returned to Vilno on 27 August 1927, Ruhla with younger children returned on 9 September and the oldest son Gedalia returned to Vilno almost one month before his father – on 22 July. This is testified by the record made in the register of the house on Poplawska Str. 7 (Document No 6):
 
 
Document No 6. The register of the house on Poplawska Str. 7 holds entries made under numbers 125–128 where names of father, mother and two sons – Abel and Michel are written and Gedalia written under number 119. LCVA, f.64, ap. 6, b. 8752, l. 7 a. p.–8; 6 a. p.–7
 
Israel Kovner was selling leather and had his shop on Juljusza Klaczki Street No 13 (Document No 7):
 

Document No 7. LCVA, f. 64, ap. 1, b. 10793, l. 2
 
Gedalia became a craftsman; he was working at home and making leather briefbags (Document No 8):
 
 
Document No 8. LCVA, f. 64, ap. 1, b. 10780, l. 3
 
After his father’s death Abba Kovner left the “Tarbut” Gymnasium. On 14 June 1935 he received the school certificate No 13 issued for the academic year of 1934/35 (Document No 9). The certificate was signed by Dr. Josef Shuster, the principle of the Gymanasium:
 
Document No 9. School certificate of the sixth form pupil Abel Kovner indicates the date of birth: 1918 and place of birth: Ashmyany.
LCVA, f. 175, ap. 9, b. 27, l. 371, 371 a. p.
 
According to Dina Porat, after Abba has left the school he was learning autonomously and spent much time at the Strashun library. Then Abba Kovner became a member of the left wing Zionist youth organization “Ha-Shomer Ha-Za’ir” (“Young guard”) and later he was in charge of its Vilno unit7.
 
On 13 October 1939 Abba Kovner made an application to the dean of the Stefan Batory University’s Faculty of Arts and asked to be accepted into the first course as an external student (Document No 10). In his application we can see the same picture as in his passport application. The following was linked to his application: a copy of his birth certificate (Document No 1), his school certificate (Document No 9), his personal card of the person entering the university (Document No 11) and his autobiography (Document No 12):
 
 
Document No 10. LCVA, f. 175, ap. 9, b. 27, l. 367
 
 

Document No 11. LCVA, f. 175, ap. 9, b. 27, l. 372
 

 

Document No 12. In his autobiography, Abba Kovner writes: “I spent my young years in my native town Ashmyany, where I started my school. Later I moved to Vilno – another culture, gymnasium, a new environment. When I was in the seventh grade my father died – our home got poor and I had to give up further studies in gymnasium – I still haven’t finished school. My interest in art and particularly in painting, started when I was still attending school (however I didn’t get much of it in gymnasium). I painted and made sketches. I have not much left of it – just the desire and wish to paint. Having no possibility to become a student of Faculty of Arts I would like to become at least an external student. Abel Kovner” (translated from Polish by Barbara Znaidzilovska). LCVA, f. 175, ap. 9, b. 27, l. 373

 A protocol of examination of the first trimester of the 1st year (1939/40) says that 54 students of the Faculty of Arts remained, including Kovner Abel (LCVA, f. 175, ap. 13, b. 220, l. 72–73).

 
On 15 December 1939 Abba Kovner entered “Tarbut” teacher’s courses in Hebrew language in Vilno, established instead of Teachers’ seminary in Hebrew that was closed in 1937):
 
 
Document No 13. In the record book of teachers courses of 1939/40 Abba Kovner is registered under the number 154/154. The column date and the place of birth are indicated: 14 March 1918, Ashmyany, the column place of studies specifies: “Tarbut Gymnasium in Bialystok”. We believe that while filling in the record book a mistake was made: instead of Vilno they wrote Bialystok for the second time as in the line above. Kovner received a course graduation certificate on 18 April 1940. The management of the courses was probably in a hurry: in summer 1940 the courses were closed by the Soviet system. LCVA, f.222, ap. 1, b. 41, l. 1, 16 a. p.–17
The presented documents clearly prove that Abba Kovner’s place of birth was not Sevastopol but Ashmyany, nowadays located in the territory of Belarus.
 
Irina Guzenberg, Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, History Research Department
________________________
1 Porat, Dina. The Fall of Sparrow. The Life and Times of Abba Kovner (originally published in Hebrew in 2000). Translated and edited by Elizabeth Yuval. English translation 2010. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, p. 3.
2 Cohen, Rich. The Avenders. A Jewish War Story. Published in the USA by Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, p. 41.
3 In some later documents the date is indicated according to the new style: 28 March 1918.
4 In some documents – Ruhla, sometimes – Rose.
5 Sokołów Podlaski, 99 km from Warsaw, 28 km from Siedlec, Wikipedia.
6 Dina Porat indicated Gedalia Kovner’s birthplace as Feodosia, op. cit. p. 3, whereas different documents and also lists of Vilno ghetto prisoners made during General Census on 27 May 1942, Gedalia indicates his place of birth as Vilna, s. LCVA, f. 1367, ap. 2, b. 3055, l. 1–2, 2 a.p.; f. R-643, ap. 6, b. 68252, l. 1, f. R-743, ap. 4, b. 1576, l. 199 a. p.–200.
7 This article does not analyse Abba Kovner’s activities in the organization “Ha-Shomer Ha-Za’ir”. From January 1942 Kovner representing the organization “Ha-Shomer Ha-Za’ir ”, became a member of FPO (underground organization of the Vilnius Ghetto) headquarters and after death of Icik Vitenberg he was in charge of FPO. 
 
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