When World War II broke out in 1939, Warsaw’s Jewish population was the largest and most socially diverse in Europe. Its 380,000 inhabitants made up almost a third of the total city population, and by the time the ghetto was established in November 1940, they numbered well over 400,000. Concentrated within the ghetto walls—crammed into a fraction of the city space, in increasingly unbearable living conditions, the community organised and sustained a rich and diverse cultural life. Apart from the ‘model ghetto’ Theresienstadt, the Warsaw ghetto offered more performances, of more varied range and subject matter, and in more locations, than any other Nazi internment centre. It had a symphony orchestra, five theatres, chamber groups, choirs and cafés, and numerous concerts and informal musical events were held.
Even before the ghetto was sealed, a wide range of musical entertainments had sprung up to suit the needs of the community. Several cafés and clubs offering live musical entertainment were opened, and Leszno Street was jokingly referred to as ‘the Broadway of the Warsaw ghetto’. The ghetto newspaper reported that
The demand for artists is big. … Each coffee-house, each bar and restaurant … advertises its own rich program of sensational attractions.
Five professional theatres, both Yiddish and Polish, also operated in the ghetto. They staged serious theatrical offerings as well as lighter revue shows consisting of choral singing, dancing, musical comedy and other skits. These revues relied heavily on pre-existing musical repertoire: film music, American ragtime, cabaret, tangos, operettas and musicals (in contrast to ghettos like Vilna, where revue programmes consisted almost entirely of original material).
In addition to the theatres, one of the earliest cultural initiatives in the ghetto was the establishment of the Jewish Symphony Orchestra in late 1940. Between November 1940 and April 1942, it had four permanent conductors: Marian Neuteikh, Adam Furmanski, Szymon Pullman and Israel Hamerman. The first concert, conducted by Neuteikh, took place on 25 November 1940, and included works by Beethoven and Grieg. In general, the orchestra performed standard symphonic repertoire, with works by Mozart, Schubert, and particularly Beethoven dominating programmes, although after Pullman’s arrival in 1941 the repertoire was expanded somewhat. Although the musicians performed in challenging conditions, with inadequate lighting, bad acoustics, crumbling venues and insufficient heat, the concerts were cheap and relatively well attended.
Instrumental and vocal concerts were also regularly held. Some of the most popular performers included Diana Blumenfeld, Helena Markowitz, Liliana Roman, and the 20-year-old soprano Marysia Ayznshtat, known as the ‘nightingale of the ghetto’.
Although much of the musical activity that took place in the Warsaw ghetto drew on pre-existing repertoire, many new songs were also composed in response to the events, such as those by Paulina Braun. Some were written to provide encouragement to the ghetto inmates, some paid tribute to the heroism of certain ghetto characters, while others criticised the Jewish authorities. The pervading expression among them was one of loss – of home, livelihood, community, and family – and their spirit was most often one of sadness, despair, and cynicism.
Deportations from the Warsaw ghetto to the death camp Treblinka began on 22 July 1942, and within the space of seven weeks, approximately 300,000 people – 75% of the population – were deported to their deaths.
Gilbert, S., 2005. Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kalisch, S. & Meister, B., 1985. Yes, We Sang! Songs of the Ghettos and Concentration Camps, New York: Harper and Row.
Rovit, R. & Goldfarb, A., 1999. Theatrical Performance during the Holocaust: Texts, Documents, Memoirs, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.