by Dee Grano
“Some say the violin is the closest instrument to the human voice… when the violins are played, we hear the voice of the person who was lost.”
– David Russell
Those voices are getting a chance to speak this month at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, thanks in large part to Russell’s work. The university’s Anne R. Belk Distinguished Professor of Music and master violinist has been instrumental in getting 18 violins that survived the Holocaust brought to Charlotte.
“There is hope that these voices will remind us to never go down that dark road again,” said Russell, who will play some of the featured instruments. “Violins of Hope” opens Monday, April 9, to school and tour groups, and then to the general public April 16.
Spectators will get the unique opportunity to hear the actual “Violins of Hope” played during several concerts: the multi-media “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.
Israeli craftsman Amnon Weinstein – one of the top violin makers in the world – began to collect and restore these specific violins, several of which were played by Jewish prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. The first Holocaust violin he encountered was filled with ashes.
While the origin of the ashes is unclear, the instrument is known to have played in one of the orchestras at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“When Jews were sent to the camps, thousands were sent to immediate death while the rest were assigned duty and labor,” explained musicologist Jay Grymes, professor of music at UNC Charlotte. Upon arrival, prisoners who could play music were assigned to the orchestra where they played a “soundtrack for camp life” – work detail, death marches and public executions.
“Some instruments have extensive water damage on the top which means they were played outside or in the snow,” Grymes said. Musical instruments are usually pristinely kept, even by amateur musicians. “No one would ever play in those conditions unless they had to,” Grymes added.
Some violins took Weinstein up to two years to restore. In severe cases, Weinstein had to completely disassemble the instrument – scraping the inside, repairing cracks and applying varnish after perfectly replacing the sound post of the violin, which Russell calls “the soul of the instrument.”
Weinstein’s quest to restore these violins is deeply personal, according to Grymes, who is writing a book about “Violins of Hope.” Many members of Weinstein’s family died in the Holocaust. ‘Where is our family?’ he would ask his mother,” Grymes said. “She would point to piles of dead bodies in a book on the Holocaust and say, ‘There is your family.’”
“He is restoring these instruments to restore the family he lost,” Russell added.
Grymes believes each violin that survived the Holocaust served a specific need, and each story is different. 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.
In the case of Feivel Wininger, the violin served as 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 exhaustively for parties and suffered abuse to bring leftover food to sustain his family.
Erick Weininger 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 said.
“Everyone who hears about this project wonders how they never have before,” Grymes said. 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.
“We hope that our artistic contribution complements and amplifies the message of resilience and hope that surround this week of events,” says Jonathan Martin, executive director of the Charlotte Symphony. In addition to the “Triumph of Hope” performance, the symphony has implemented outreach to students through several in-school performances that feature traditional Jewish music and music composed in the concentration camps.
Learn more about these stories of sacrifice and survival in “Violins of Hope,” and experience the transformative power of music. Find more information on the exhibit and performances at the event website, www.violinsofhopecharlotte.com.