As a collection of violins, they weren't crafted by the great makers, many distinguished only by Stars of David inlaid into the spruce or maple.
But amid the terror, they created beauty.
Now the 18 violins tell many stories of pain, loss, survival - and hope. They were once owned and played by Jews in the Holocaust.
All 18, restored by Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein, are being brought to Charlotte in April by UNC Charlotte's College of Arts + Architecture. Called "Violins of Hope," they'll be shown free to the public starting April 15 in UNCC's new Center City building, set to open for the upcoming fall semester.
It will be their U.S. debut.
"These are not the famous old Italian violins, like a Stradivarius ..." said David Russell, a UNCC violin professor and Weinstein's longtime friend. "But these particular instruments are even more special because of their history."
Around the exhibit, the violins will be played in six concerts over two weeks at venues that include uptown, Queens University of Charlotte, Myers Park Baptist and Temple Israel. In the final concert, internationally known violinist Shlomo Mintz will play one of the violins with the Charlotte Symphony at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.
There will be films, documentaries and other Holocaust-related exhibits. But the violins, and the importance of music through one of history's most horrific episodes, will be the centerpiece.
Some belonged to klezmer musicians, a traditional European Jewish music nearly extinguished by the Holocaust. The Nazis established camp orchestras to create a false facade of civility. The violins saved the lives of those who played them and, for others, provided momentary relief from the despair.
"The music was a lifeline to those people who were interned in the camps," said Russell, who arrived at UNCC two years ago after 24 years at the Cleveland Institute of Music, one of the country's great conservatories. "It allowed them to have a few moments outside of the reality of the hell they were in."
'Here is your family'
Weinstein has been collecting the violins since 1996.
As a boy, he would ask his parents: "Where is my family? Everybody has a family. Why don't we?" Russell said. "One day, they showed him a photograph in a book of bodies stacked and said: 'Here is your family.'
"Whether he knows it or not, I think he is trying to restore his family through each one of these violins."
Each has a story of survival.
One belonged to an Auschwitz survivor and member of the camp orchestra who credits the violin with saving his life. He didn't want it anymore after the war and sold it.
Another, crafted by a German violin maker, represents 3,000 lives saved by Bronilav Huberman and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1936. Most of the Jewish violinists fleeing Germany and Austria brought them to Palestine, and refused to play them because they were German-made. Many were destroyed, given away or sold - this one to Moshe Weinstein, Amnon's father.
And then there's "Motele's Violin," owned by 12-year-old Motele Schlein. The Nazis had killed all the boy's family. Jewish resistance troops found him in the woods in Ukraine. They took him into the village of Ovruch, where a German officer ordered him to play at a local pub where Germans gathered each evening.
One day, Motele used his violin case to sneak in explosives. He shoved them into cracks in the cellar and after performing late one night lit the fuse. He was 200 yards away when it blew.
Instrument of mourning
Russell first knew of the Holocaust violins in 2002.
He and Mintz, the Israeli violinist set to play in Charlotte, were helping Weinstein at his yearly workshop at the Kibbutz Eilon in northern Israel. Suddenly, Mintz handed Russell a violin to play.
He didn't know why, but he started to play a prayerful, mournful piece by Ernest Bloch that harkens to Jewish suffering over the ages.
Weinstein and the others asked him to stop. The violin had been played in the orchestra the Nazis organized at Auschwitz.
"The orchestra played to calm the fears of people getting off the (death) trains," he said. "They thought, 'if they're playing music here maybe it's not so bad after all.' Understanding the power of that particular violin that played music at those moments really shook me. I knew I had to be a part of the project."
Weinstein's violins have been shown and played in Jerusalem, and last year in Switzerland.
Planning for the event has begun. Weinstein is due in Charlotte next month.
"The atrocities that happened during the Holocaust is reason to feel a sense of shame for humanity and our ability to go to such dark places," Russell said. "When I learned about Amnon bringing life back to these violins and allowing those former owners to be heard, I found in it a chance for redemption and to focus on matters of hope rather than despair."
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