Above: Children's choir in the Warsaw Ghetto

The ghettos were cities within a city. Although they were places of confinement set apart for Jews, they also became centers of culture. Theater, music, libraries, and popular entertainment flourished in the ghettos, as in any city, but the culture of these island-cities was characteristically Jewish.

The Judenrat officially sponsored some of the cultural activities of the ghetto, but the early years also saw spontaneous expressions of street life and folk art. "Leszno Street has the distinction of being the entertainment center of the ghetto," Kaplan wrote in his diary: "Operating here are all the pleasure places which welcome the smugglers, the black marketers, and all those fortunate who live off our troubles. Every child in the ghetto knows who they are and what prices they charge."

In Lodz, a street musician named Yankele Herszkowicz would entertain people with his witty songs attacking the Judenrat, the Nazis, and the hardships of the ghetto. Hundreds of writers composed Yiddish and Hebrew works that today still convey the particular flavor of Jewish ghetto life. They include diarist Zelig Kalmanovitch (Vilna); poets Abraham Sutskeverk (Vilna), Yitzhak Katzenelson (Warsaw), Leyb Goldin (Warsaw), and Simkhe-Bunem Shayevitsh (Lodz); novelist Yehoshue Perle (Warsaw); and chronicler Peretz Opoczynski.

The culture of the ghetto was not without its opponents. In Vilna, many prominent intellectuals and activists objected to public entertainment. They expressed their objection in the saying: "Oyf besolylem shpilt men nit keyn teater" (One does not perform plays in a graveyard). Still, popular entertainments and cultural activities proved ineradicable—and not merely as welcome, temporary relief from the open or veiled presence of death. They were acts of self-preservation, statements of faith in the future, affirmations of human dignity.