Music served as way to document what was happening during the Holocaust. Original pieces were composed or new lyrics added to existing songs in order to describe people’s experiences. The term "ghetto" origin- ated from the name of the Jewish quarter in Venice, established in 1516, in which the Venetian auth- orities compelled the city's Jews to live. During World War II, the Nazis aimed to control the Jewish population by forcing Jews to reside in marked-off sections of towns and cities they called "ghettos" or "Jewish residential quarters." Altogether, the Nazis created at least 1,000 ghettos in the occupied territories. The largest ghetto was in Warsaw, the Polish capital, where almost half a million Jews were confined in an area of 1.3 square miles. The Nazis usually marked off the oldest, most run-down sections of cities for the ghettos. Many of the ghettos were enclosed by barbed- wire fences or walls, with entrances guarded by local and
Nazi police and SS members. Living conditions in the ghettos were wretched with severe overcrowding, disease, and starvation. The Nazis regarded the establishment of ghettos as a provisional measure to control and segregate Jews while the leadership in Berlin deliberated upon options to realize the goal of removing the Jewish population. In many places ghettos lasted a relatively short time. Some ghettos existed for only a few days, others for months or years. Despite the terrible conditions, many ghettos sustained a rich cultural life. Many of those who had been prominent in musical activities before the war continued their work in the ghettos and the camps.
For centuries Vilna was one of the great centres of Jewish learning, theatre and publishing. It was known as ‘the Jerusalem of Lithuania’ because of this cultural and intellectual richness. Its Jewish population of around 60,000 made up almost 30% of the city’s population. Vilna was occupied by the Nazis in June 1941 soon after which the massacres and killings began. In September 1941, the remaining 40,000 Jews of Vilna were forced into ghetto. Despite harsh living conditions, the inmates established a vast range of cultural, intellectual and artistic groups marking a continuity with the pre-war culture of Vilna. Posters from the Vilna ghetto survived illustrating the numerous concerts, sports events, educational programs and public lectures, synagogue services, and variety of other cultural activities.
Theater "El Dorado" at Dzielna 1 street near Zamenhof Street in the Warsaw Ghetto showing comedy by Z. Kalmanowicz titled "Rywkełe dem rebns". Premiere on May 2 1941. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-134-0771A-22 / Zermin / CC-BY-SA
The ghetto also had religious and secular schools, orphanages, a large public library, a music school with more than 100 students and several theatres. The ghetto’s underground resistance group, the Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye (FPO - United Partisans’ Organisation) relied on songs to raise political awareness and build community, but they also criticised organised musical entertainment within the ghetto. This group and other political and religious organisations boycotted concerts, distributing leaflets that declared: “Theatrical performances should not be held in cemeteries”. However, as the suffering persisted, and the success of music in inspiring and comforting the people became clearer, most people came to accept the concerts. In general, the inhabitants of the Vilna ghetto strongly supported this variety of cultural activity. The Vilna ghetto was liquidated* on 23 September 1943 - the last survivors either killed or sent to camps.