Vilna During the Holocaust
Daily life in the Vilna Ghetto
Theatre and Music in the Ghetto
Today (17th January 1942) I received an official invitation to the first concert to be held at the initiative of the artists' group of the ghetto, on Sunday 18th January in the hall of the gymnasium at 6 Strashun Street. The invitation states that the artistic program will present dramatic and musical passages… I felt a feeling of humiliation… Here in the sad situation of the Vilna Ghetto, in the shadow of Ponary, where of 76,000 of Vilna's Jews only around 15,000 remain – here, at this moment – it's a disgrace…Hermann Kruk, A Diary in the Vilna Ghetto, p.136
The Bundists decided to boycott the invitation. Not one of them would go to the "sick concert". They posted announcements around the ghetto that read:
"In a graveyard you do not do theatre"
Individuals and groups took initiative and organised artistic performances and concerts even before the Judenrat established a department for dealing with these areas. The Judenrat and the police were convinced that the theatre would raise peoples' spirits and that the proceeds from the concerts would be directed towards social welfare. Before the first concert in the hall of the "Reali" gymnasium Josef Glazman apologised for holding a performance in the ghetto and eulogised the victims. Among the performers were the singer Lyuba Lewika, the cantor Idelson and the pianist Sonia Rechtig playing Chopin. Few were invited to the concerts and Germans and Lithuanians from the government in Vilna attended.
On the 17th of April 1942 the ghetto police ordered the registration of musical instruments that were owned by the public for the use of the orchestra. Those who initially opposed the theatre and orchestra came to accept their existence. The concerts, performances and lectures became an important social occurrence in a starving ghetto which was also mourning for its dead. A music school for 100 students was established. The conductor Yakov Gerstein re-established his students' choir and the conductor Wolf Durmashkin established an orchestra which held 35 concerts.
Hermann Kruk, who initially opposed the theatre, wrote in his diary on the 8th of March 1942:
And even so, life is stronger than everything. Life is once again pulsating in the Vilna Ghetto. In the shadow of Ponary life is happening and there is hope for a better morning. The concerts that were initially boycotted are accepted by the public. The halls are full. Literary evenings are full and the great hall cannot hold everyone who comes.Hermann Kruk, A Diary in the Vilna Ghetto, p.195
An association of authors and artists was established in the ghetto which encouraged creativity and spread art and culture. The association organised fortnightly literary and artistic gatherings "over a cup of tea" in which lectures were given and artistic performances were presented including recitals and singing in Yiddish and Hebrew. In February 1942 the musicians in the ghetto established an organisation which had 50 members. These organisations held creative competitions and cultural events and assisted artists in difficulty.
On the 26th of April 1942 the ghetto theatre opened in the "Small City Hall" with a production of "Shlomo Molcho" in the presence of the Judenrat, police, writers, artists and the general public. Performances and lectures were held on Sunday mornings for workers who returned late at night. There was also a puppet theatre. In 1942 there were 120 performances before 38,000 spectators. The theatre was active until the liquidation of the ghetto.