Ilya Gerber was fifteen years old when World War II began and almost seventeen when his hometown of Kovno was occupied by German forces. Very soon thereafter, a Jewish ghetto was established and Ilya was forced to relocate along with his family and about 30,000 other Jews. He kept an extensive diary while in the ghetto, but only the third volume survived. It is not known how much of his diary was lost, but the writing that remains reveals much about the struggles and hardships that faced the ghetto.
It was difficult to maintain religious observance under the harsh ghetto conditions, but many people took comfort in the effort. Sometimes, though, the comfort was hard to find. December 4, 1942 was the second day of Hanukkah. Ilya drew a picture of a menorah with two candles lit at the beginning of his diary entry for that day. He apparently wanted to observe the holiday, even if he didn’t have a physical menorah with real candles to light. Even so, his comments showed that he did not expect to experience the type of miraculous victory that the holiday marked. He wrote, “Today is the second candle lighting of Hanukkah. Miracles are not evident in the present century. They took place or happened when we did not [yet] exist. Evidently the luck of the Jews of old was greater than our luck. It is not our luck, alas, for miracles to happen to us.”
Ilya did not find hope in his reflections on Hanukkah that evening, but he did not give in to despair either. Instead, he observed that a little comfort might come from another source; the creativity of the people in recording their experiences. “Here they tell, recite, and sing about the life of the Jewish ghetto dweller at work. Every song is a piece of life that embraces a very special period of our times. A ghetto song mostly starts with the pain and misfortune of the Jewish people and ends with the hope for better things, for a bright and happy future.” Ilya knew that hope was as necessary for survival as food and that people would seek it wherever they could. The tragedy of the Kovno Ghetto, as with so many other places during the Holocaust, was that the hope didn’t last.
You may read entries from Ilya Gerber’s dairy in the book, by Alexandra Zapruder.
You may learn more about Ilya Gerber and other young dairy writers during the Holocaust here.
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