A Forest of Voices from Long-Silenced Violins

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The first notes of the Violins of Hope in Cleveland were heard by a handful of people in a back room of the famed Temple-Tifereth Israel, recently renovated into the Maltz Performing Arts Center.  Take 45 seconds to listen to what happened when the sounds of an historic instrument echoed through a building that has heard so much history:

 

by David C. Barnett

A collection of stringed instruments --- largely silent for seven decades --- is giving voice to the horrors of the Holocaust.  The Violins of Hope were once owned by the inmates of Nazi concentration camps, during World War Two.

Clevelander Stanley Bernath got his first look at the Mauthausen concentration camp through the slats of a cattle car, in 1944.   The teenager and his fellow Jewish prisoners were yanked off the train --- some were beaten and some were shot as they marched to the front gate.

"As we entered, a symphonic orchestra was playing Beethoven,"  he recalls.  "It was an unbelievable sight. People were being beaten and killed and there’s an orchestra playing."

That’s a story that Israeli violinmaker Amnon Weinstein has heard before.  The first time was fifty years ago, when a man brought a battered, old instrument into his shop that had once been played in a death camp.

"It took me time to begin to touch something like that," he says.  "And I asked him a lot of questions, and from him I know a lot of things about how they played, where they played and everything."

For Weinstein, that instrument was a chilling reminder of all the relatives he had lost in those prison camps.  And for the last twenty years, he’s been on a quest to collect and repair violins of the Holocaust.

Weinstein’s Tel Aviv shop is filled with violins, violas and cellos in various states of repair, and he reckons he’s restored about 60 instruments, so far.  About a third of his collection, called the “Violins of Hope”, has come to Cleveland for an exhibition at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Weinstein is happy that hundreds of people will get the chance to see these historic instruments up close, but he’s really excited about a series of concerts with local performers actually playing them.

"Violins have to speak," he says.  "And the most important part of the life of a violin is to be played in concert. And then, they can tell stories."

Jay Geller says the ability to play an instrument saved some prisoners from the gas chambers.  Geller is co-teaching a class in Holocaust art and history at Case Western Reserve University, this fall.

"Being a musician, and selected to play in the camp orchestra was a highly-prized position.  They were, if you will, the prize cattle."

This past weekend, Peter Otto was one of 21 members of the Cleveland Orchestra who got to play one of the Violins of Hope in their local concert debut.  For Otto, the relationship between a person and his or her violin is deeply personal.  After making this initial acquaintance, he rested the scroll of the instrument gently against his cheek and tried to imagine its previous owner.

"I’m right now holding something in my hand that someone at some point cared very deeply for.  And that hopefully gave this person some sort of --- I don’t want to say 'peace' --- but even if it’s just a way to express their suffering."

Amnon Weinstein says, for him, each violin is like a memorial.

"In part for my family, a memorial in part for the six-million people.  But, this is a forest of sounds for all those people. And this is very, very important."

And Weinstein says that’s why he continues to look for more violins to bring back to life. 

 

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