Ilya Gerber had a very different experience in the Kovno Ghetto than most of the other Jewish inhabitants. He was just as much a prisoner under Nazi rule as his neighbors, but he didn’t suffer the same level of deprivation as most others. The reason for his privilege was a phenomenon known as “protektsiye”, which was a form of protection and favoritism extended to people who were well-connected to the ghetto leadership. These connections often resulted in more access to food and better lodging. Connections might also spare the privileged from being assigned to harsh labor details. Those who enjoyed “protektsiye” were often bitterly resented by the much larger number of people who did not.
Ilya had mixed feelings about his privileged status. On one hand, he did not ignore the injustices and deprivations that he observed in the ghetto. He wrote about his desire to see a more just and equitable world. He correctly blamed the overall situation on the German occupation, but he didn’t deny the role that his father’s “pull” played in bringing benefits to him. On the other hand, he did nothing to renounce these benefits. Perhaps there was nothing that he could have done anyway.
On September 18, 1942 Ilya wrote about the fate of his friend Beke Kot, which he had just heard about from another friend named Izke. Izke had been walking past the jail when he heard a voice call out to him from one of the grated windows. “Izke, help me! Try to get me out of here! Save me!” Beke had been captured in a roundup and was slated to be sent away to forced labor. He was desperately seeking a way to avoid that fate. Ilya concluded, “But Izke was unable to help Beke. How? In what way?! It was impossible at the moment. Beke has no one and is without pull, so he was taken away…”
In the end, “protektsiye” was just another illusion in the ghetto. Connections could offer protection only for awhile. Even the privileged were ultimately slated for destruction. The ghetto was liquidated by the Germans on July 8, 1944. There is no evidence to suggest that either Ilya or his father survived.
You may read entries from Ilya Gerber’s dairy in the book, by Alexandra Zapruder.
You may learn more about the history of the Kovno Ghetto here.
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