Violins of Hope
(Violins of the Holocaust—Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour)
by James A. Grymes
Harper Perennial, 2014
319 pages, $15.9
Author James A. Grymes, noted professor of musicology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, grew up in Virginia Beach and is a graduate of Salem High School. His latest book, Violins of Hope, is a unique contribution to Holocaust literature and the outcome of a significant labor of love. It is dedicated to those whose violins made a difference at a time of monumental challenge, when Nazism sought to silence the free flow of humanity’s transforming music and the arts in general. The National Jewish Book Council recently named the book an award winner in the Holocaust category.
The meticulously researched account by the academic author is far from dry— the reader will even shed tears—beginning with the Weinstein family in Tel Aviv, Israel, whose second generation continues to repair violins along with broken hearts. Those violins serve as eloquent, though bruised witnesses not only to the Holocaust’s vast tragedy, but also to the power of music to save lives and even move ardent Nazis. Both Moshe and Golda Weinstein, who moved to then Palestine from Lithuania as professional musicians in 1938, lost their entire families in the Holocaust. The crying absence of the many slaughtered relatives was deeply felt at holiday time, when Moshe, Golda and their children Amnon and Esther sat at a table along with “four hundred ghosts.”
Upon Moshe’s passing in 1986, his son Amnon took over the business and later his grandson Avshalom was also trained to become a luthier. Amnon repressed the Holocaust for years following his traumatic exposure early on to the nightly cries of the refugees who were housed in his home. He changed course when approached by a survivor who played his violin in Auschwitz, but had not touched it since. The man, who finally decided to give it to his grandson, wanted Amnon to restore the damaged instrument. Upon opening up the violin, Amnon shockingly found human ashes that blew into it from Auschwitz’s crematorium, while ordered to perform outdoors. However, only in the 1990s did he feel the need to find and restore those special Holocaust violins.
A well-received 1999 presentation by Amnon in Drezden, Germany, before the Association of German Violinists and Bowmakers would spur him on in his sacred, world-wide project of collecting Holocaust related violins. Especially those unidentified ones are most dear to him, representing the many unknown victims. The simple built violins are priceless to Amnon, testimony to the ordinary Jews who lovingly sustained their culture. “Amnon has never known the names of any of his uncles, aunts and cousins who died in the Holocaust. Since they were buried in mass graves, there are no graveyards to help him piece together his genealogy…his only way of connecting with his family is through the craft his father taught him: repairing violins…each violin is a tombstone for a relative he never knew.”
The author was motivated to write this book following a week’s visit with Amnon and his wife Assi in Tel Aviv in February, 2011. Assi, a journalist, is the daughter of one of the heroic Bielski brothers, the fighting partisans immortalized in the book and film, Defiance.
There is a theory that the violin, featured prominently in Jewish cultural life and Klezmer music, was created by Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 who ended in Italy. Some Jewish violinists such as Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern, acquired universal acclaim. Currently Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Shlomo Mintz are acknowledged virtuosos. The author exposes us to the Palestine Orchestra’s (now the famous Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) both trying and triumphant history with its opening performance in Tel Aviv on Dec. 26, 1936, and conducted by no other than Arturo Toscanini of the New York Philharmonic. Giant Toscanini pledged not to visit his homeland Italy nor Germany given their fascism and anti-Semitism.
The founder of the Palestine Orchestra, celebrated Jewish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, also stood up to Nazism. When Jewish musicians could no longer be employed in Germany, he conceived of establishing a first-rate Jewish orchestra in Palestine that would disprove the Nazi propaganda that Jews were not great artists. While putting together what The New York Times described on Feb. 9, 1936, as an Orchestra of Exiles, from 1935 through 1939, Huberman saved about 1,000 lives. Following the Holocaust’s heavy losses, some anguished musicians destroyed their German-made violins, with others practically giving them away to Moshe Weinstein. At the declaration of the founding of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, this unique orchestra played the national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope) of a reborn people. Indeed “Wherever there were violins, there was hope.”
Rabbi Israel Zoberman is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Chaverim in Virginia Beach. He is a son of Polish Holocaust survivors.