Researched and emotional

by | Mar 31, 2017 | Book Reviews

Violins of Hope (Violins of the Holocaust-Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour)
James A. Grymes
Harper Perennial, 2014
319 page, $15.99

Author James A. Grymes is a noted professor of musicology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who grew up in Virginia Beach.

His latest book, Violins of Hope, is a unique contribution to Holocaust literature. 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.

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. The 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.

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 grandson Avshalom was trained to become a luthier as well. 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 the violin, Amnon shockingly found human ashes that had blown into it from Auschwitz’s crematorium. Still it was only in the 1990s that he felt 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 and restoring Holocaust related violins.

The unidentified ones are most dear to him, representing the many unknown victims. The simply 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. Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Shlomo Mintz are acknowledged virtuosos.

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, the Palestine Orchastra, founded by Jewish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, played the national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope) of a reborn people. Indeed “Wherever there were violins, there was hope.”

—Dr. Israel Zoberman is the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim.