A Holocaust victim's diary depicting life in the Kovno ghetto

‘The urge to deny the horrific reality – or alternatively to adapt to it and concentrate on the here and now and cling to a seemingly ordinary life – was characteristic of life in the ghettos’

November 16, 2018 21:42
4 minute read.
A Holocaust victim's diary depicting life in the Kovno ghetto

A BARBED-wire fence along Panrow Street, separating the two parts of the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania.. (photo credit: COURTESY: YAD VASHEM PHOTO ARCHIVE)

"We – the youth – meet up almost every evening to enjoy ourselves just like kids. For us, the ghetto is not a ghetto: We don’t feel it amongst ourselves; we don’t want to feel like we are living behind barbed wire, isolated from the rest of the world and the rest of humanity.”

18-year-old Ilya Gerber wrote these words in his 1942 diary describing life in the Kovno ghetto. His writings and drawings portray the image of a young, vibrant, intelligent and sensitive young man attempting to sustain a sense of normalcy within a complex reality in which the future was shrouded in ambiguity. In July 1944, the Kovno ghetto was liquidated and Ilya was deported to Dachau. On April 28, 1945, on the verge of liberation, Gerber was shot and killed while marching forcibly from Dachau to Wolfsratshausen, Germany. He was not yet 21 years old.

Since its liquidation, various materials have been gathered from the ruins of the Kovno ghetto in an effort to discover what took place there, and to remember the people who lived – and died – within its walls. The remains of Gerber’s diary were taken from place to place, finally ending up in the archives of the Jewish Museum in Vilna. The precise date Gerber began to keep his diary is unknown, but his passion and talent for both writing and illustration is evident, and clearly held an important place in his life. From the diary entries, it appears this diary was the third notebook: It starts with an entry of August 26, 1942, and ends on January 23, 1943.

In his diaries, the young Gerber deals with a variety of topics: from the culture of rumor-mongering and fears of being abducted into forced labor to songs written in the ghetto. He was clearly an aficionado of poetry and music. Thanks to his command of the German language, he also incorporated into his diary German press bulletins, mainly regarding events at the front. A review of the diary indicates that Gerber was a critical reader who realized the true meaning of the rhetoric of various German leaders. His analysis shows, for example, that despite Hitler’s convoluted speeches, his words embodied his racist and murderous ideology aimed at the total annihilation of the Jewish people.

The pages of Gerber’s diary also illuminate the more subversive and lesser-known aspects of life in the Kovno ghetto, as well as the feelings and reactions of its residents. The diary introduces its readers to the day-to-day atmosphere of the ghetto and presents its Jewish leadership from a contemporary perspective. As a young man, Gerber did not succumb to the fear of death in the ghetto. He maintained social ties and met with his friends on a daily basis. Despite the enormity of the catastrophe in the ghetto, they sang, danced and rejoiced at every opportunity, especially during celebrations of their birthdays, although the fear that they could be next always lingered.

“Each one of them mourns his tragedy and is not interested in the disaster of others. As long as the trouble does not know me, and I do not know him [the victim]… and if I identify with him, what does it help him… Would it make it easier – no, the opposite – it could also hurt me... I do not mourn anyone else, and do not want anyone to mourn me. Just leave me alone.”

The urge to deny the horrific reality – or alternatively to adapt to it and concentrate on the here and now and cling to a seemingly ordinary life – was characteristic of life in the ghettos. This was especially true among the youth. Gerber portrays in his diary a faithful reflection of the world of 16- to 21-year-olds, who endeavored to live a normal life in abnormal circumstances – a life of friendships, love and entertainment.

“That evening I wanted to be happy, I had to be happy, because I wanted to forget... The red light and the simple gaiety affected me... I was dancing with everyone... The night was beautiful and full of stars... I remembered Henny again – she should have been there today. But on the other hand, in fact, I do not want her to come in to the group. Why? I do not know (maybe because she, too, does not want to)?” Henny Spitz (who survived the war) was Gerber’s great love for a period, and the diary accompanies the short and unfulfilled love affair from its inception to its demise.

In his diary, Gerber also refers to songs that he collected in the ghetto. He brought examples and even tried to characterize them.

“The ghetto creates many songs, but unfortunately, there are very few melodies – in fact, almost none, even though my father is a musician of the best kind and he once composed many melodies… now, the song of the ghetto usually begins with the pain and sorrow of the Jewish people and ends with hope for a better, easier and more welcoming future.”

Ilya Gerber’s story and his diary will be presented on November 19 at the International Conference on Jewish Leadership in the Lithuanian Ghettos, presented by the Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research. In addition, during the course of 2019, the full diary will be published by Yad Vashem Publications with annotations by Yad Vashem Researcher Dr. Lea Prais.

This article was written in cooperation with Yad Vashem.

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