The unit opens with a series of posters from the Vilna ghetto. The notion that there were sports and concerts in the ghetto seems like a departure from the challenges of existence we have come to understand. (This is actually mentioned in source 5) While people were battling for basic existence, why would sports and culture be of importance? If people were not receiving enough food to subsist, how could they consider playing soccer or basketball? If people were seeing their friends and family die around them, or deported to places unknown, why would a concert be on their minds? This unit will shine a light on what sport and culture provided for the people held in the ghettos.
*The expectation is that this resource is used with students already engaged in a course of Holocaust studies, who understand the use of and conditions in ghettos during the Shoah.
Teachers should familiarize themselves with the intended flow of discovery that the source page offers in order to be able to provide necessary support and guidance to the students as they work with the resource:
- The posters provide us with a glimpse of the range of activities that took place in the Vilna ghetto. Who organized these events? Were sports and culture common in the ghettoes What can we learn about the ghetto internees from their participation in these opportunities? (The answers to these key questions will be gleaned from the sources that frame the posters.)
- Ruska uses the word "even"…"the ghetto even had a sports field.." What could be the message she is trying to impart?
1) Even in an overcrowded space they made room for a sports field
2) Even in an environment of unsure existence they made time and space for recreation
3) It wasn't just that the leagues existed, they even had a designated space
4) Even with murder taking place right outside the ghetto – Ponar – they were able to "play"
5) Even when tomorrow was uncertain, today was a day of life
- She makes a point of sharing the words of deputy Moshkat who sees the field as eternal evidence of the lust for life of the Jewish internees. Optimism was embedded in the sporting and cultural events that flourished in the ghetto while little else did.
- Dworzecki compares participating in cultural events to medication. Why does he make this comparison? What do the cultural events provide? Could people have survived in ghetto conditions without these opportunities? The first part of his excerpt mentions the heaviness and challenge that life in the ghetto presented. He provides a solid reason for the distraction that concerts and theatre offer - "You need to be able to think"
- What did the sports leagues provide for the ghetto internees? Why did these types of activities develop? What was misleading about "life" in Terezin? While much has been written about Terezin's cultural events, Meyer reminds us that it was merely a front, not an indicator of good conditions. The Germans were notorious for "spin"…for fabricating lies and deceptions.
- Who were the people in the ghettoes who sought respite? What image does our mind's eye see when someone mentions the Shoah? What does "Legacy" want humanity of the future to understand? Photographs of desperate and downtrodden people are so prevalent that we are inclined to forget that this was not their condition prior. While beggars and paupers were always part of the community, all Jewish citizens were condemned to the ghettoes, regardless of stature. The sparks of culture in the ghetto are not evidence of 'comfort' in the face of suffering, but shards of the Jewish cultural vibrancy that was part of the fabric of their beings. Hence, we can understand why music, art and drama, along with sport, was prevalent in the ghettoes, and even in some manners in the camps.
- What are Gela Seksztajn's expectations? Why is she creating and why is she hiding some of her work? While she is pessimistic about her own survival, she conveys a semblance of optimism that some will survive, and Jewish communal and cultural life will be renewed. A museum will be established to teach about the Shoah and her works will be evidence of the richness that had been. Again, we find tones of positivity and hope. The writer is not wholly defeated, nor is she foolishly hopeful. This balance of reality and hope permeated life during the Shoah. Like Dworzecki and Meyer, reality was harsh, cold and exceedingly difficult, but flickers of "normalcy" allowed for glimmers of hope that sustained the soul and often gave the despondent the will to persevere. The previous sources reflect on the attendees, Seksztajn gives us insight into the psyche of the artist, the musician, the soccer coach or player, who themselves were buoyed by that which they provided as distraction for others.
- Why was there opposition to the concerts at first? Jacob Gens comes right out and says it in simple words. They are living in a graveyard. Their entire lives are a graveyard. They deserve to "free" themselves through the concerts because "our bodies are in the ghetto, but our spirit has not been enslaved…" As we have seen multiple times already, the internees differentiated between their physical selves and their spiritual/emotional selves. They sought ways to let their spirits soar while they were physically constrained. This is likely the key to survival...at least on a day to day basis. Being in the presence of something other than death and starvation, gives the soul warmth and nourishment in the actual physical absence of these vital elements.
- The leagues of Terezin were multi-faceted. While they were an outlet for the players themselves, Taussig-Tesir also felt that he was "a role-model who instilled hope" in the youngsters. He also felt that they provided a positive memory for those who were imminently to be transported east to their deaths. Something bright to reflect on as conditions continued to worsen. "Hope was a rare commodity," he says, although it appears that our selection of sources has proven that across Europe, in a number of ghettoes, opportunities designed to instill hope were not totally foreign. Hope demanded mind over matter, and concerts, sports and music gave the mind respite over the harsh matter that was ghetto life.
- We return to Ruska Korczak to close our unit. She started us off with the news of a sports field in the ghetto. She spoke of the optimism that sports and culture allowed of a better tomorrow. But in closing she is sobering, "The ghetto has no 'tomorrow'…it lives from moment to moment." Indeed, the reality of life during the Shoah was uncertainty. Uncertainty of maintaining a ghetto job that ensured temporary security. Uncertainty of deportation. Uncertainty of passing a sadistic officer at just the wrong moment. Uncertainty of secrets being uncovered. Uncertainty of whether or when one would lose the final tiny remnants of dignity. "Who know what this day will bring?" she writes. We have learnt that, in the moment, hope can prevail and, when given the opportunity, people in the lowest of places can briefly hear, see or imagine beauty and normalcy that can sustain them, for one more day. One day, followed by one more day, and on in that manner was a key to survival in the depths of the Shoah.
Some supporting resources about ghettos:
The Ghettos (focuses on Lodz)
The Walls Tell Stories: Cultural Life in the Vilna Ghetto
Daily life in the Vilna Ghetto
The Great Deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto - Abraham Lewin’s Diary