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UNC Charlotte professor’s book shares message of music, the Holocaust

What substances might you have found, decades ago, coating the Violins of Hope?

Spilled blood and cracked varnish. Faded wood stain and traces of acid rain. Flecks of rust on the strings and flecks of ash from a source too terrible to contemplate on the soundboard.

Before they were Violins of Hope, they were Violins of Horror, testifying to the fates of Jews who played them before and during the Holocaust. Over the decades since World War II, Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein has restored them to concert quality, inspiring a traveling exhibit that came to UNC Charlotte in 2012.

Now James A. Grymes – “Jay” to all who meet him – has brought those stories to life in “Violins of Hope,” a HarperCollins paperback that has won praise from the likes of composer John Williams. (The quintuple Oscar-winner called it “a work of research and scholarship that forms one of the most moving chronicles in the history of Western music.”)

The interim chair of UNCC’s music department will appear at a lecture/concert Thursday titled “Stories and Music from Violins of Hope.” He’ll provide the stories, reading from the book before signing copies. Musicians will play tunes such instruments might have played in the ghettos or death camps: Yiddish folk songs, marches mocking the Germans, polonaises from Warsaw adapted for string trio.

“Talk about 11 million deaths, and it’s hard to wrap your mind around so large a number,” says Grymes. “When you read individual stories, they become personal. We don’t understand the diversity of the Jewish experience: Some died, some survived, some got out (of Nazi-ruled countries) by the skin of their teeth. Poles, Ukrainians and Romanians had different stories to tell.

“It wasn’t just a question of defeating bad Nazis to make everything fine again. Ukrainians and Romanians persecuted Jews with vigor. It’s easy to consider Nazism an aberration of history, but (anti-Semitism) can resurface anywhere.”

Grymes, whose name reveals his British heritage, doesn’t play the violin and is as Jewish as Yorkshire pudding. So what inspired him to spend two years researching and shaping these tales?

“Maybe being a musician myself,” says the former bassoonist. “The thought of having to use music, something I love so much, to try to keep my family alive is meaningful. And I had a lot of emotional moments.

“The most powerful came when I wrote about Feivel Wininger and his family’s death march to Transnistria (a dumping ground for Romanian Jews). The mother died. The uncle died. They had a 14-month-old daughter named Helen, and at the time I was writing, I had a daughter named Helen the same age. To experience that as a father was moving.” (Helen and Feivel survived.)

The book turned out to be one of the happy accidents that have shaped Grymes’ life. He thought he was destined to be a band director but fell in love with music history. He went to grad school at Florida State University because his bassoon teacher had gone there; he got a master’s in performance for bassoon but realized he really cared about methodology.

At FSU, he needed a thesis topic when the Dohnanyi family phoned: Grandpa Ernst, the long-dead composer and FSU faculty member, had left papers in the attic. The faculty sent Grymes over for a courtesy visit, and he found “a treasure trove of works, some unpublished or unperformed. I wrote my dissertation about his Symphonic Cantata, and we gave the first performance since the premiere.”

Resonating with readers

Dohnanyi provides a bridge to World War II. Grymes, who became an expert on him, believes the composer was unjustly accused of anti-Semitism and support for the Nazis in Hungary during the war. (He left in 1944.)

So before the Violins of Hope exhibit came to UNCC, Grymes went to Israel to see if a book on the instruments might be viable.

“It took shape in my head quickly,” he recalls. “Each chapter needed its own methodology. Wininger had written a small autobiography, and his daughter had written a biography. So there I filled in the historical record with other accounts. With the Auschwitz Violin, we don’t know who actually played it, so I pieced together other narratives with the same experiences.”

These have resonated with readers across the country, from an editor at Westchester (N.Y.) Magazine (which made this a suggested book for summer) to a blogger at Lovely Bookshelf, who says “Grymes’ writing style is accessible and engaging to all readers. His sentences are short and snappy, giving the book a fluidity and quick pace I didn’t expect with such a heavy topic.”

Wendy Bartlett, collection development and acquisitions manager for Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio, took a special interest. The book mentions Günther and Rosemarie Goldschmidt, who made their way to the United States before becoming George and Rosemary Goldsmith; she played for the Cleveland Orchestra from 1967 to 1981, and her son is Martin Goldsmith of NPR fame.

‘Pluck the heartstrings’

The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in nearby Beachwood will present the Violins of Hope exhibit in spring 2015. So Bartlett “knew this book would, no pun intended, pluck the heartstrings of the music-loving community. It shows experiences from men and women, families and single people, rich and poor, people from different countries. If you were teaching the Holocaust in high school, you could take kids to the exhibit and have them read this book and understand what happened.

“Grymes humanized these stories. ... My favorite was the young kid who saw his family killed, becomes a freedom fighter and dies during heroic (resistance) action. Somebody should make that into a movie!”

Grymes hasn’t thought that far ahead. He’s recovering from a year where he finished editing the book, served as interim chair of the music department (he’ll do that for one more year), started a drumline for UNCC’s football team and oversaw a drumline camp to get students into it. And he spent the year before that one writing.

“Not a day went by from summer 2012 to Aug. 1, 2013 – not one day – that I didn’t work on it,” he says. “I’d come home from work, my daughter would be asleep, and I’d get busy.

“My agent wants me to have book two ready. But I have to have a project I’m passionate about, and it’s a high price to pay to take another year away from my daughter. So for the time being, I’m just trying to reach the widest audience with this compelling story.”

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