In the late 1980s, Amnon Weinstein was approached at his workshop in Israel by a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The man asked Weinstein to repair his violin.
During the Holocaust, the man had been forced to perform as his fellow prisoners were marched into the camp’s gas chambers. Exposed to the rain and snow, the top of the violin had been damaged. The man wanted the violin repaired so that his grandson could learn the instrument.
Opening up the violin, Weinstein discovered a layer of black ash, likely the fallout from the Auschwitz crematorium.
That artifact is now one about 85 that make up the Violins of Hope, a collection of musical instruments that were played by Jews in camps and ghettos during the Holocaust. Nineteen of these instruments are currently on display at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture and the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia. At events over the next couple months, these instruments will be played to commemorate the history they took part in.
James “Jay” Grymes, a professor of musicology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of the book “Violins of Hope,” says that musicians in concentration camps were often forced to perform by their Nazi captors. While they were still prisoners and still subjected to slave labor under brutal conditions, they sometimes received slightly better treatment, possibly saving their lives. This exploitative practice was dramatized in Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue.”
“Some survivors do recall being forced to play and watching as their family members were being marched to their deaths, and not only not being able to do anything about it, but playing these schmaltzy marches to escort them along their way,” says Grymes, who grew up partially in the Richmond area and earned an undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Musicianship also saved Jewish lives through the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. Founded in 1936 by Polish violinist Bronisław Huberman, the orchestra provided refuge for nearly 1,000 Jews from the Third Reich.
“These were some of the finest musicians in the world,” says Grymes of what is now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. “They were concertmasters of the top orchestras of Europe who had been dismissed from their posts because of the antisemitic laws.”
After the Holocaust – which killed six million Jews, roughly two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population – many surviving musicians never touched their instruments again. A handful of musicians, upon arriving in Palestine, sold their German-made instruments to Weinstein’s father Moshe, a violinist and violin repairman, for pennies on the dollar.
“They never wanted to play on these German instruments again. They didn’t want to have anything to do with German culture,” Grymes says. “Moshe knew he would never be able to sell them. They were really, really fine instruments. He kept them in a shop, unsellable for decades.”
Growing up, Amnon learned violin repair alongside his father, then studied in Cremona, Italy, and Paris to become a world-class violin-maker. Taking over his father’s workshop after Moshe’s death, Amnon recognized the quality of the German-made instruments that his father had saved over the years.
“Everybody wants to play on instruments that the master musicians play on, and in the 20th century, the greatest violinists were invariably Jewish, and weren’t playing on German instruments,” Grymes says. “The French and Italian instruments are so much more expensive, because there’s demand, and the German instruments, which are of the exact same quality and sometimes better, are so much cheaper.”
In the 1990s, Amnon began collecting and restoring additional Holocaust violins, and the initial collection of about a dozen instruments began to grow. In 2008, the first performance of these instruments took place outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Since then, the Violins of Hope have toured the world to give a voice to those lost in the Holocaust.
Samuel Asher, executive director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, says Violins of Hope gives people an entry point into a topic that can seem overwhelming.
“It’s not easy to understand the Holocaust,” he says. “It’s not easy to understand a number like 6 million, and it’s not easy to understand a number like 1.5 million children who were killed along with their parents during the Holocaust. But, when you see each story of each violin, it’s much easier to comprehend.”
Violins of Hope performances and lectures will take place around Richmond in September and October; many of them are already sold out. One such event is Stories and Strings, hosted by the Carole and Marcus Weinstein Jewish Community Center on Sept. 26.
Leslie McGuigan, director of cultural arts for the center, says the violins keep the stories of the Holocaust alive. The event will feature performances by members of the Richmond Symphony on instruments from the Violins of Hope collection. The event will feature works by composers impacted by the Holocaust and stories from Grymes.
“What we’re hoping to do is tell the deeper stories of the violins. These violins were used many times for other uses than playing music,” she says, noting that they sometimes were used to transport food and other essentials. “The music itself is going to be very powerful and tell a story on its own.”
Asher says they’ve had tremendous response to the exhibits and events so far, and that educating about the Holocaust is an enduring responsibility.
“Studies have shown that if you have been to a museum, that if you’ve seen something about the Holocaust or learned something about the Holocaust, you’re less likely to be involved in racist, antisemitic or white supremacist activities,” he says. “The flip side is also true. If you haven’t, then you might be lured into some of these terrible things. It’s very important to learn the history, so it’s never repeated.”
Violins of Hope runs through Oct. 24 at multiple locations. For information, visit violinsofhoperva.com.