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Pandemic Temporarily Silences Violins That Survived the Holocaust

Organizers found ways to make the instruments’ voices heard after the cancellation of planned concerts in California

This 2016 image shows one of the instruments included in Amnon Weinstein's Violins of Hope collection, which features pre-World War II violins once owned by Jewish musicians and music lovers. (Photo by Menahem Kahana / AFP via Getty Images)
smithsonianmag.com

In one more twist of fate for prized possessions that survived the Holocaust, dozens of violins and other stringed instruments recently returned to their Tel Aviv home after spending six months hidden beneath a stage in California.

The instruments represent a large part of the Violins of Hope collection owned by Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom. All of the 88 violins in the trove date to before World War II, when Jewish musicians and music lovers treasured them as prized possessions.

Per the Los Angeles Times’ Catherine Womack, the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts at Cal State Northridge initially brought around 60 of the instruments to Southern California for a series of spring concerts featuring the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, Rotterdam Philharmonic and Jerusalem Quartet. The violins were then set to go on exhibition at the Holocaust Museum Los Angeles. But as events were postponed or canceled, the Soraya decided to place the instruments in storage under its main stage.

“The fact that 60 Holocaust violins, handcrafted in early 20th-century Europe, [spent months in] hiding on our campus in Los Angeles this year, I think about it all the time,” Soraya Executive Director Thor Steingraber tells the Times. “It’s just so unlikely, and so heartbreaking.”

With the pandemic showing no signs of letting up, organizers sent the instruments back to Tel Aviv in September. Before that, though, violinists Niv Ashkenazi, Janice Markham and Lindsay Deutsch had the chance to play them in front of the empty, 1,700-seat auditorium. The Soraya will eventually share a filmed version of the concert with the public.

“It’s nice to actually get to have them come out again before sending them off,” Ashkenazi tells Tara Lynn Wagner of Spectrum News One. “It’s an emotional experience especially once it sinks in, the stories connecting them to a physical object.”

Ashkenazi is the only musician in the world to have an instrument from the Violins of Hope collection out on a long-term loan. In April, he released an album of performances played on the instrument; titled Niv Ashkenazi: Violins of Hope, it includes music by artists directly affected by the Holocaust, including Robert Dauber, who composed his “Serenade” while interned at Theresienstadt and died in Dachau three years later, at just 26 years old.

Atlas Obscura’s Matthew Taub chronicles some of the instruments’ dramatic and tragic stories. One violin’s owner was forced to play for Nazis while he was imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration and death camp. Later, as a refugee, he sold the instrument to an aid worker whose son eventually donated it to the collection. Another former owner threw his instrument from a train bringing French Jews to Auschwitz in the hopes that someone would find it. Someone did—and kept the violin for the rest of his life. After that man’s death, the instrument found its way to the Weinsteins.

Many of the violins were “donated by or bought from survivors,” according to Violins of Hope’s website. “[S]ome arrived through family members and many simply carry Stars of David as a decoration and an identity tag declaring: [W]e were played by proud klezmers,” or musicians specializing in an Eastern European genre popular in the Jewish tradition.

The Weinsteins have dedicated themselves to giving the instruments new life. As they explain, many are “rather cheap and unsophisticated.” But the father-son duo hopes to rebuild the violins to be worthy of concert hall performances.

“The Nazis used music and especially violins to humiliate and degrade Jews in ghettos and camps,” they write on their website. “Our concerts are the ultimate answer to their plan to annihilate a people and culture, to destroy human lives and freedom.”

Before Covid-19 outbreaks closed schools and performance spaces, the Soraya was able to take one of the violins to dozens of schools, allowing students to hear them played—and learn about the Holocaust.

At one visit last November, the Times reports, eighth-grader Joan-Kristen Gray examined an abalone shell Star of David inlaid into the back of a violin.

“It’s not like reading about it in a history book,” she said. “The violin told a real story that really happened.”

About Livia Gershon
Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

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