Israeli violin-maker Amnon Weinstein has handled thousands of violins throughout his career, but one encounter with an instrument will remain, indelible, in his memory forever. Fifty years ago, Weinstein came across a violin from the Holocaust, the first instrument he had ever come across with such a story. The customer who brought the instrument to him came because the instrument was in terrible shape, and he brought the story of the instrument with him, too. The customer had survived the Holocaust, along with his violin–which he had played on the way to the gas chamber when he was delivered from certain death at the last moment because his German captors needed him for the orchestra at the death camp, where he and other Jewish musicians were forced to play as their countrymen, friends, and families were herded to their deaths in the chambers. The customer who had brought the instrument to Weinstein had not played that violin since. When Weinstein opened the case, he said, there were ashes. Horrified by not only the specter of the Holocaust itself but by the sinister nature of the possible and probable explanation of the ashes–was this dust the incinerated remains of victims just like members of his own family?–Weinstein was unable to handle the violin at all: “I could not. I could not.”
It took until 1996 for Weinstein to feel that he was ready to confront the violins that survived the Holocaust–and there were many. The violin, featured in so much Jewish folk music, was perhaps the most important instrument for the Jewish people, Weinstein says. Since putting out a call for violins played during the Holocaust, he received a large response. He has to date restored more than 30 Holocaust violins, many inlaid with an intricate Star of David in mother-of-pearl. Furthering the importance of the instrument, Weinstein notes that Orthodox Judaism forbade displaying portraits or sculpture, so violins often hung as art on the walls: “Never [would you] see a Jewish house without an instrument on the wall. It was a kind of tradition,” he says. Weinstein’s aim is not only to honor the instruments as voices of those lost during the Holocaust, it is to break his family’s silence on it. His family, which lost hundreds of relatives to the Nazi purge, never spoke on the matter and was helpless to resist when the horror began. This, Weinstein says, is his resistance.
Weinstein’s resistance, these “Violins of Hope,” were brought closer to home for many Americans this past week and weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. David Russell, Professor of Violin at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, was instrumental in bringing 18 of Weinstein’s restored instruments to the city for exhibition and, most poignantly, for a series of concerts.Weinstein’s restored violins were first played publicly in 2008 in Jerusalem and then exhibited and played in 2010 in Switzerland. This will be the first time violins from Weinstein’s collection will be exhibited or played together in North or South America. The exhibition opened on April 9th and ran through the 16th, and the concerts concluded on April 21st. The concerts included the multi-media presentation “Hope in Resistance” at Myers Park Baptist Church on April 12; “Hope in Dark Places: Music and Poetry from Theresienstadt” (music from imprisoned composers and artwork from captive children) at Queens University’s Dana Auditorium on April 17; and “Triumph of Hope” with the Charlotte Symphony on April 21.
Each of these violins tells a different story, says UNC Charlotte’s musicologist Jay Grymes. The violin of Shimon Krongold was returned to his brother’s family during an unexpected visit from a complete stranger who knew Krongold. For his niece, Edna Rosen and her family, the “violin as memorial” is all that remains of their uncle. Contrastingly, in the case of Feivel Wininger, the violin served as a savior. Wininger was deported to Transnistria where cold and disease killed his mother and narrowly spared his wife and infant daughter. With a borrowed instrument, he played to exhaustion at parties for his Nazi captors, suffering abuse to bring leftover food to sustain his family. Yet another story is that of Erick Weininger, who was deported to Buchenwald, then Dachau and eventually to a prisoners’ camp in Haifa where a British soldier tried to take his violin. Weininger tossed the instrument to his friends who successfully played “keep away” from the soldier. “When not in mortal danger, Weininger played in an orchestra which provided a sense of normalcy,” Grymes says.
The stories behind these violins are as varied and as unique as their previous owners, but the message that Weinstein and his collaborators hope to send is unified. Says Russell, “There is hope that these voices will remind us to never go down that dark road again.”