Ilya Gerber was sixteen years-old in the fall of 1942. He lived in the Kovno Ghetto and was a keen observer of the attitudes of his fellow ghetto residents. He often wrote from the perspective of an outside observer, as if he was not in the same situation himself. In some ways he was not. His family was well-connected to the Judenrat, or Jewish leadership council. Because of this connection, he had enough food to eat and was protected from some of the harsher realities of ghetto life. In other ways, though, he was in the same boat as everyone else. A privileged position in the ghetto did nothing to protect him in the long run from falling victim to the Nazis’ genocidal intent.
On September 24 1942, Ilya wrote, “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have already passed; we have them behind us. I want to mention that the population tried to be devout during this time of repentance. People organized minyanim [religious quorums] in private homes (the synagogue was closed [by the Germans] on the twenty-sixth of last month). …People tried to fast, some of them did in fact fast, while others ate like in the good old days. Finished praying, finished beating their breasts, people had a bite to eat, and Yom Kippur was gone without a trace. Gone, left behind, people have forgotten about it.”
Ilya’s description of Yom Kippur illustrated the difficulties involved in maintaining religious observance in the ghetto. Questions arose that could not have applied in normal times. For example, should a person fast on a religious holiday if he is already starving, or should he eat if the opportunity arises? How can a person devote time to introspection when it takes every ounce of effort just to survive? Ilya implied that people kept the holiday as best they could, made the decisions that seemed right at the time, then moved on quickly to the challenge of the days ahead. They didn’t have the luxury to ponder moral questions for very long. Perhaps Ilya was able to entertain such thoughts and make such observations because he had not yet experienced much deprivation. In the end, though, his fate was no different from those who suffered more at the start.
You may read entries from Ilya Gerber’s dairy in the book, by Alexandra Zapruder.
You may learn more about Jewish life in the Kovno Ghetto under the German occupation here.
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