July 18, 2024
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Restored violins from the Holocaust serve as testaments to the human spirit.

The violin has been deeply ingrained in Jewish tradition for hundreds of years. The instrument so resonated within Judaism’s warm embrace of culture and the arts, that it inspired some of the most celebrated art in the world—Sholem Aleichem’s fiddler on the roof and its eponymous musical. And the fiddler we see so often in the paintings of Marc Chagall. And don’t forget the music of the world-renowned Jewish violinists Jasha Heifitz, Pinchas Zuckerman, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern, Gil Shaham, Itzhak Perlman, Nathan Milstein, Shlomo Mintz and Joshua Bell. The violin not only brought passion to Jewish celebrations and festivals, especially in the klezmer tradition in Chagall’s Hasidic childhood, it was also an easy instrument for Jewish musicians to carry with them as they were forced to escape persecution and pogroms, like the villagers of Anatevka. The portable violin could be taken and heard anywhere in the world. And yes, even in the death camps of the Holocaust.

During WW II the SS confiscated many violins from their Jewish owners and chose prisoners who were musicians to play in the orchestras they created in Buchenwald, Terezin and Auschwitz, among other camps. The orchestras not only entertained the commandants of the camps, but also gave the prisoners a false sense of security. Listening to such beautiful music allowed them brief moments of sanity amidst the incomprehensible atrocities.

According to historian Jay Geller of Case Western Reserve University, “The ability to play an instrument saved numerous prisoners from the gas chambers. They were still prisoners, and they were definitely still mistreated, but they had a special skill that made them useful.”

For the prisoners, the violin was a source of hope, and the musicians who played them were able to use their talent to lift up the souls of those destined to die for as long as they managed to live. Although most of the violins the prisoners played were destroyed, many made it out of the camps along with the survivors, but were hidden away because their memories were too painful to confront. But happily some of these broken-down instruments found their way to the Tel Aviv studio of Amnon Weinstein, one of the most respected violin makers in the world.

Weinstein learned violin-making from his father, Moshe, who arrived in Tel Aviv from Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1938, and who serviced the instruments of the then newly established Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. When Moshe died, Amnon Weinstein took over his father’s shop.

More than 50 years ago, a customer brought Weinstein an old violin from the Holocaust that he wanted restored. The customer told him he had survived the gas chamber because the Germans needed him to play in the death camp orchestra. “When I opened the violin,” says Weinstein, “there inside were ashes.” He was horrified that perhaps they were the ashes of victims of the death camp and could not bring himself to handle that violin, which reminded him of the hundreds of his relatives who had died in the Holocaust.

It was several decades later that Weinstein was ready to deal with this battered violin. And so, in 1996, he decided to dedicate the restoration of violins like these to the relatives he never knew, and put out a call for people to bring him violins from the Holocaust. And that was when he founded the Violins of Hope, spending more than 20 years locating and restoring violins that were played by Jewish musicians in the camps and ghettos during the Holocaust. In his shop in Tel Aviv are more than 60 violins, violas and cellos he has painstakingly brought to life to be played in concerts all over the world.

One of the most celebrated of the violins brought to him for restoration is the one that relates to the tradition of resistance of the family of his wife, Assi, the daughter of Asael Bielski, one of the three Bielski brothers, partisans who saved 1,200 Jews in the occupied Soviet Union in WWII (the film Defiance is the story of these brothers). The violin was brought by Seffi Hanegbi, a grandson of Moshe Gildenman (“Uncle Misha”), the Jewish partisan commander in the Ukraine who conducted a variety of guerilla missions against the Germans and their collaborators. Hanegbi said the battered violin belonged to the youngest member of the partisan group and had been gathering dust in the family home.

A magnificent violin that took Weinstein a year and a half to restore is what he calls the “Five-Star-of-David” violin. It has four stars on the front, and a magnificent inlaid Star of David in mother-of-pearl on the back. Getting around the biblical restriction that forbade representational art, Jews instead used their artistic endeavor to decorate objects that they used on a regular basis, like violins. Another violin came from a survivor of the Holocaust who was in the Auschwitz Men’s Orchestra, the main orchestra that played every morning and evening not far from the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”— ironically, work makes you free.

“Violins have to speak,” says Weinstein. “The most important part of the life of a violin is to be played in concert. And then they can tell stories. The violin is alive, existing. Each violin that is going to be played is for the millions of people who died [in the Holocaust]. And that is a victory. Each concert is a victory.”

That is why the Violins of Hope have been played in many concerts around the world—from the first concert in Istanbul in the Neve Shalom synagogue in the mid-1990s, to a concert of 16 of the instruments at the foot of the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem by the Borustan Istanbul Philharmonic in 2008, to a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic in 2012, to one in Monaca in 2013, to the recent performance of 22 instruments played by the Cleveland Orchestra in Ohio in 2015. There have also been concerts in Paris, London and the Swiss city of Sion.

One of the violins played in the Philharmonic Orchestra of Monte Carlo in Monaco is called the Drancy violin, after the internment camp in Paris from which French Jews were sent to Auschwitz. “During his journey, the owner of the violin threw it out the window of the transport train hoping someone would catch it. The violin broke and was given to a violin maker who kept it and then a French woman recovered it and brought it to me,” says Weinstein. “It’s one of the biggest repairs I have made to a violin.”

“A profound personal story lives within each violin, and together they possess the potential to leave an indelible impact on every person who sees and hears them,” says Richard Bogomolny, chairman of the board of the Cleveland Orchestra.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s concert with the Violins of Hope has further broadened its impact on Cleveland’s community. The faculty at Case Western Reserve has created opportunities for students and community members to learn about the role of music in the concentration camps and the regional office of Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit education organization dedicated to making a positive impact on society, has developed teacher workshops and lessons for northeast Ohio educators to use in their classrooms. The violins’ voices are still resonating loud and clear.

The extraordinary Violins of Hope show the resilience of the Jewish people in the face of horrific catastrophe, and the power of music to provide hope where none was thought to exist. That is why Amnon Weinstein, along with his son Avshalom, continues to look for more violins to bring back to life and to bring amazing music to the world.

This article was originally published on www.chabad.org.

By Linda Tucker

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