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Violins of Hope tell their stories in sound

The 18 violins that arrived in Charlotte last week from Israel could play classical music, folk – anything. They’ll cover a lot of musical territory during their visit.

But even when they’re silent, the instruments at the heart of the Violins of Hope festival have stories to tell. Some of them went through the Holocaust in the hands of refugees from Nazi invasions or prisoners in concentration camps. Some of them date back more than a century to the heyday of a music-loving Jewish lifestyle the Nazis tried to wipe out.

They’re able to talk to us because of Amnon Weinstein, an Israeli violinmaker who gathered them and restored them to playable condition. They’re making their first U.S. appearance as the climax of two years of work by UNC Charlotte – whose violin professor, David Russell, has been a friend of Weinstein’s for more than a decade.

The label inside one violin, dated 1924, bears the maker’s dedication to “my loyal friend Shimon Krongold” – a Pole who died fleeing the Nazis in World War II. Another instrument has come through the Auschwitz concentration camp. Some of the violins, decorated with the Star of David carved into the wood or inlaid in mother-of-pearl, simply represent people who looked at music as part of their lives.

The engineers of the Holocaust “wanted to kill not only the Jewish people, but Jewish culture,” Weinstein says. “But when we play these instruments, we are saying, ‘Here we are.’ ”

In Charlotte, the violins will play works by Jewish composers sent to concentration camps; music by Jewish musicians known as klezmers; and works by classical composers from Vivaldi to Beethoven to Mahler. Music, Weinstein says, is an international language.

“The violin is not just a Jewish instrument,” Weinstein says. “The violin belongs to everyone.”

‘Out of the ghetto’

The Jewish ghetto in an eastern European village of a century ago may not seem so far away if you look at it this way: Just as in a rural town or inner city of today’s United States, musical talent could pave the way to a new life.

“It was a way to get out of the ghetto,” Weinstein says. His wife draws a parallel:

“It was like football here,” Assaela Weinstein says.

The instrument of choice was the violin, and some of the greatest classical violinists of the 20th century came from such origins. But why the violin?

“The violin and viola – they imitate the sound of the human voice,” Weinstein says. “Jewish people liked it because it was very close to the sound of the cantor in the synagogue.”

A family that couldn’t afford a piano could find the money for an inexpensive, mass-produced violin, Weinstein says.

He adds an explanation that was a favorite of Isaac Stern, one of the most prominent violinists of the 20th century: Violins were compact. So Jews could carry them when they were pushed from their villages – a not-uncommon occurrence in Eastern Europe.

The Krongold instrument in the Violins of Hope collection bears out that idea. When Shimon Krongold fled the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, Poland, he took his violin with him to what now is Uzbekistan. Only the violin survived.

In the cities of Germany and central Europe, educated people were expected to be able to play a musical instrument. They gravitated toward classical music. In villages of eastern Europe, Weinstein says, the klezmer’s spirited music was the favorite.

“Here in America, you have fiddling,” Weinstein says. “The distance (musically) between fiddling and Jewish klezmer is nothing – just the tunes.”

‘Memorial to my family’

Weinstein is a second-generation violin maker. His father, a native of what now is Lithuania, emigrated to Palestine in 1938. Weinstein, born the next year, grew up playing the violin and viola, and his father began teaching him the violin-maker’s craft. He went on to study in Italy and France, but continued his father’s work back home in Tel Aviv.

The shop became a standby for Israeli violinists – including the internationally known Pinchas Zukerman and Shlomo Mintz, whose parents brought them as children, Weinstein says.

The Violins of Hope collection began with the elder Weinstein, though he never envisioned it. After World War II, Weinstein says, owners of German-made violins – repelled by the instruments’ origin in the Nazis’ homeland – would come to the Weinstein shop. They threatened to smash or burn the instruments unless the elder Weinstein would buy them. He did.

“For him, it was sacrilege to break a violin,” Weinstein says. One of the instruments his father bought – now among the Violins of Hope – belonged to an early member of the Israel Philharmonic, founded in 1936. Immigrant musicians who found life there too hard, and decided to go back home to Germany, gave their lives, Weinstein says.

Members of the Weinstein family were killed, too. After the elder Weinstein learned about it, Weinstein says, “my father ... never said one word about the Holocaust.” The younger Weinstein realized that music delivers a message reaching deeper than words.

“When you’re playing these violins or you’re listening to their sound, the sound is telling you of the suffering,” Weinstein says. “And when you can understand the suffering, maybe people will understand that war needs to go from the world – as quickly as possible.”

Weinstein began taking his violins to the public in the 1990s, after a student of his persuaded him to lecture on them in Germany. Then a friend in Turkey proposed a concert there featuring a few of the violins. More concerts followed in Europe and Israel. Weinstein’s collection blossomed after the rise of the Internet, which brought a surge of people contacting him about violins that had been passed down to them.

Now, Weinstein says, Violins of Hope has a series of meanings.

“It’s a memorial to my family,” he says. “It’s a memorial to thousands of instruments that the Germans confiscated. It’s a memorial to thousands of pianists and violinists and violists and cellists who were killed during the Holocaust.

“If I can contribute anything that helps the younger generation understand that atrocities of this kind can never happen again, I have done my job.”

‘They’re with us’

In the gallery at UNCC’s Center City Building, where the violins are on exhibit when they aren’t at work in concerts, a staff member takes one from its display case. There’s nothing distinctive about its appearance. But its past is a different story: It came from Auschwitz, where there was an orchestra of incarcerated Jews.

The concentration camps’ operators kept cabinets full of seized instruments, Weinstein says. Jewish musicians had to play to entertain German officers and even to escort doomed prisoners to the gas chambers.

The Auschwitz instrument in Charlotte was made in 1850 by a company named Schweitzer. Its mass-produced violins weren’t expensive, Weinstein says, but “some were wonderful.”

UNCC’S Russell takes the violin and plays. Its sound – firm, rich and strong – fills the gallery.

From listening to it, Russell says, no one would suspect that it had survived being played in the cold, snow or rain in a concentration camp.

“It’s fantastic that it lived through that, and with a little getting used to it, I could play it in a concert hall,” Russell says. “It would carry over an orchestra, and take all that color with it.”

He points out something else that no one listening could know: Playing it, he says, he can “feel the fingerprints” of long-ago players: When his fingertips land at just the right places on the strings, they release the instrument’s most powerful tones.

“If you play it where they did, it responds,” Russell says. “So they’re physically with us when this violin is played.”

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