The sound of violins is often compared to the beauty of the human voice. When played with talent and spirit, It is known to reach out and touch hearts. This was the role of violins in the war – to touch hearts, kindle hope for better times and spread it around. Wherever there was music, there was hope." - Violins of Hope website
For many Jewish families living in Europe at the onset of World War II, a violin was among the most treasured of possessions.
As the Nazi forces marched from Germany into towns and cities, systematically rounding up Jews to send to concentration camps where more than 6 million perished, families made frantic decisions about what few possessions to take with them. In some cases, particularly involving professional musicians, the violins were carried into the cattle cars, where young and old were herded together.
Many of the violins were confiscated by the Nazis. But a particularly strange, sadistic, and little-known feature of many concentration camps was the presence of small orchestras, where Jews were forced to play classical music, even as other Jewish inmates were marched into the gas chambers. For the Nazis, it was a perverse expression of artistic appreciation, and yet another way to torment the Jews, whom they considered subhuman, despite the Jewish musicians' ability to give voice to artistic expression in the brutal conditions of the camps.
The violins played in concentration camps, and other violins that belonged to Jews before the war, have been collected and restored to prime condition by violin makers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein. The collection--which now numbers 87 violins, violas, and cellos--tours the world as Violins of Hope, and professional musicians perform concerts on these instruments as a celebration of the human spirit.
A few of these history-laden violins came to Norfolk Academy on Monday with Avshalom Weinstein, who spoke to orchestra students about the journey of these violins and about his grandparents' role in the Jewish Resistance movement in the forests of German-occupied Poland.
The visit was organized by the Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater and the organization's director, Elena Barr Baum '84. More than 50 Violins of Hope are currently on display at several museums in Richmond, including the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Local musicians, including members of the Virginia Symphony, will play a concert with the violins on October 6 at 7:30 p.m. in Norfolk Academy's Johnson Theater, organized through a partnership of the school, the Virginia Arts Festival, and the UJFT Holocaust Commission.
In a riveting, 45-minute talk, Weinstein made it clear that every violin in the collection has its own distinct and complex story, and he recounted all that he told without the assistance of notes. He described to the students how Jewish musicians, prisoners in the camps, were required to play in all weather, including the most frigid winter temperatures.
He told the story of Henry Meyer, a violin prodigy, who the Nazis forced to play a concert inside a gas chamber, used for mass killing, “because it had the best acoustics." Meyer survived the camps and a death march, becoming a renowned teacher at Juilliard School of Music and a founder of the LaSalle String Quartet, but his parents and younger brother, Fritz, an extraordinary pianist, perished in the camps. For many years, Meyer bottled up his stories, but after hearing a speaker deny that the Holocaust occurred, he was moved to speak about his own experiences at the camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, and on a death march.
For Jews who survived the Holocaust and ended up in displaced persons camps across Europe, Israel was a desired destination. The Weinstein family put down roots in Tel Aviv, Israel, where Avshalom's grandfather became a luthier--the formal name for someone who makes (and repairs) violins. Over time, he amassed a collection of Holocaust violins, purchasing them one-by-one from musicians who after surviving the agony of playing in the camps, vowed that they would not play again, or from those who no longer wanted any items made in Germany, even a once-cherished violin.
Avshalom learned the skills of a luthier from his father, passed down from his grandfather, and with those skills, a responsibility to carry the lessons of these violins to audiences of young people and adults around the world. As the organization's website notes: “Our violins present the victory of the human spirit over evil and hatred."
Purchase tickets at vafest.org.
More about the Violins of Hope.