Holocaust-era Instruments Sing Again as JCC Chicago Presents 'Violins of Hope'

February 6, 2023, 12:06 PM · A violin is a remarkable object - a piece of wood that can sing like a human voice. Maybe more remarkably, a violin can sit dormant for years - decades, even - then sing again, with the very same voice it had before its long silence. It just requires the hands of a luthier to restore its condition - and the hands of a musician to deliver its voice once again.

Thus is the power of the Violins of Hope, a collection of some 100 violins, violas and cellos that has been evolving over the past 20 years - curated, owned and restored by violin-makers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, father and son, who work in Tel Aviv and Istanbul.

Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein
Avshalom and Amnon Weinstein, founders of the "Violins of Hope."

The instruments all were collected since the end of World War II, and together they tell many stories of the Jewish experience through those years and beyond. Many belonged to Jews before and during the war. Many were donated by or bought from survivors of the Holocaust. Some arrived through family members, and many simply carry Stars of David as a decoration.

Since 2008, the "Violins of Hope" has become a cultural phenomenon, traveling across the globe to various cities where their stories are told through exhibits, concerts, educational programs, school visits and more. And there are some memorable stories: a violin thrown out of a cattle train on the way from France to Auschwitz; a violin buried under the snow in Holland; a violin that saved the lives of those who played it in a concentration camp orchestra and survived. The collection was even the subject of a 2014 book called Violins of Hope by University of North Carolina Professor of Musicology James A. Grymes.

This spring, the Violins of Hope collection will travel to Chicago, where it will stay for six months of cultural exhibitions, performances, and community education, with more than 75 events scheduled with symphonies, libraries, schools, synagogues, and civic centers across Chicagoland and Illinois. Sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Chicago, its goal is to deliver a message of hope, resistance, resilience, and unity.

Avshalom Weinstein told me that the foundations for the Violins of Hope actually began more than a half-century ago, with his grandfather.

"My grandfather bought German-made instruments from the founding members of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, today the Israel Philharmonic," Weinstein said. "These people, who came from Europe when the orchestra was founded by Bronislaw Huberman, had very good German-made instruments. After the war, there was a very strong boycott on everything German. Many sold their instruments to my grandfather, who knew he wouldn’t be able to sell them. He bought what he could, even though he knew that almost all his family had been killed and the entire family of my grandmother had been killed, too."

"The instruments stayed as a collection until my father had an apprentice from Dresden in 1991, Daniel Schmidt, a fantastic bow maker," Weinstein said. "When Daniel saw the collection, he asked my father to give a lecture in Dresden in 1999 to the German violin and bow makers about the violins. Then my father spoke on a radio show, asking if people had instruments with stories from the war."

"The next morning we received one," Weinstein said. "It was made in 1924 by a Jewish violin maker in Warsaw, Yaacov Zimmerman, and has a small Star of David on the back and a label that says in Hebrew: 'I made this violin for my loyal friend Mr. Shimon Krongold, Warsaw 1924, Yaacov Zimmerman.' Shimon had fled Warsaw when the war started, and he died in Tashkent. A friend of his brought the violin to his family in Jerusalem after the war."

"After that, we started getting more instruments," he said, "and today we have more than 100."

The Violins of Hope Chicago visit will kick off on April 20, with a Violins of Hope Opening Night Concert at North Shore Congregation Israel in Chicago, featuring the Ariel String Quartet with clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg; as well as violinists Julian Rhee, Masha Lakisova, Joshua Brown, Jacqueline Audas; cellist Katherine Audas; and pianist Raul Canosa. (Click here for the program and to purchase tickets.)

For the Ariel String Quartet, this is not the first time they have played or encountered the Violins of Hope. The quartet was formed when its members were teenagers at the Jerusalem Academy Middle School of Music and Dance, and so its members knew of Amnon and Avshalom's Violins of Hope project well before it gained wider recognition.

Ariel Quartet with Violins of Hope
The Ariel Quartet with Violins of Hope instruments, at Music at Kohl Mansion in Feb. 2020. L-R: Avshalom Weinstein, Gershon Gerchikov, Amit Even Tov, Sasha Kazovsky and Jan Grüning.

"I have known Amnon Weinstein since I was 12, and he has taken care of the instruments that the America Israel Cultural Foundation (AICF) has so generously loaned to my colleagues and me over many years," said Ariel Quartet cellist Amit Even-Tov. "We learned from him about the important work he and his son have been dedicated to for many years in collecting and restoring the instrument collection known today as the Violins of Hope. We have played several meaningful projects on these instruments, and playing them carries incredible historic significance for us."

Ariel Quartet violinist Gershon Gerchikov heard about the project early on, when he would drop off his instrument with Amnon Weinstein for maintenance during visits home. "I was very much enamored by the idea, and am thrilled to see how it evolved into what it is today," Gerchikov said.

Since they knew the Weinsteins and their work as luthiers, the quartet members also knew that "these instruments were well cared for and in actual playable shape," Even-Tov said. The Weinsteins' skill and knowledge "guaranteed that the project was developed with the appropriate approach and understanding of the emotional depth and delicacy that goes into presenting these instruments in concert today."

"Like countless others, our families have suffered unspeakable loss during the Holocaust," Even-Tov said. "Playing on instruments that have 'witnessed' that time in history is meaningful in many different ways. What draws me to this project and convinces me about its approach is the unique situation that an instrument which provided hope and provided a glimpse of a chance at survival for very few -- this instrument not only still exists today, but may be brought to sound the same way it did then - that’s an incredibly powerful thought."

"Growing up in Israel, I spent my childhood around my grandmother and her friends, listening to stories of survival, heroism and resilience of the war and the Jewish Holocaust," said violinist Alexandra Kazovsky. "Holding these remarkable instruments in my hands connects me back to these stories and gives me the opportunity to give back and honor the people who played them."

The quartet also feels a certain significance in the fact that their ensemble is comprised of three Jews and one German.

"I grew up in Germany, and studying the Holocaust has always been a huge part of my educational life and personal historical interest," said Ariel Quartet violist Jan Grüning. "Having visited historic sites, memorials and museums, I can safely say that the ability to make music today on an instrument that was played by prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp when my father was about to turn into a teenager is one of the most incredible and powerful experiences of that history that I have physically felt. As far as I know, the Ariel Quartet is the only professional ensemble consisting of Jewish and German members, so the motivation to make music together on these instruments was always very real and intuitively obvious to us all."

The quartet will perform Osvaldo Golijov’s 1997 clarinet quintet "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind," with clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg. "We have played this piece many times and always love coming back to it," Grüning said. "It is one of those truly cathartic chamber music works that leaves you changed forever once you've heard it. Its background relates to Isaac the blind Jewish prophet, and it features several prayers and prayer-like improvisational moments, so the connection to Violins of Hope is palpable."

"This piece, perhaps more than any other I know in this genre, depicts a particular mindset in Klezmer music that I can only describe as ecstatic madness," Gerchikov said. "I often feel that various cultures that have this quality in their music are those in which these two states of mind were historically intertwined, to the point where they often become one and the same."

A number of young musicians also will perform on the Violins of Hope opening night concert in Chicago, including violinists Joshua Brown, Julian Rhee, Masha Lakisova and Raul Canosa. They are all past and present Arkady Fomin Scholarship students with Vadim Gluzman and Angela Yoffe's North Shore Chamber Music Festival.

"It’s a project with which I feel a close personal connection; my grandmother is a survivor of the Holocaust, and the impact that this had on her and my family is something that has always stayed with me," Brown said. "I was still quite young when I first heard about the Violins of Hope, but I had already learned a great deal about the history of the Holocaust, in large part due to my family history, so I was immediately struck by such a meaningful mission."

"I felt all the more connection to the project as a musician, and hoped that one day, I could participate in carrying on the legacy and history of my fellow musicians who suffered so much as a result of the Holocaust," Brown said. "Of course, when Angela and Vadim offered the opportunity to perform on one of the violins alongside wonderful friends and musicians from North Shore Chamber Music Festival, I couldn’t say yes quickly enough!"

"Simply playing these instruments is meaningful enough, but I’m also fascinated by the historical and educational aspect of the Violins of Hope," Brown said. "I feel that it is important to continue to educate people on the history of the Holocaust, and tell the stories of the musicians who owned these instruments. It will be a powerful experience to celebrate their memory through our music."

"This project offers a variety of angles, a combination of which may speak to different people differently," Grüning said, "but to me, aside from the palpable connection established by playing on and hearing an instrument of such historic significance, it offers an important reminder of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime in the not-so-distant past and serves as a powerful example of music and art created in the most unimaginable circumstances."

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For more information about Violins of Hope Chicago and the many events it will encompass, click here. Violins of Hope’s JCC Chicago residency is underwritten by MacArthur Foundation, Pritzker Military Museum & Library, and Jelmar. The Opening Night Concert is being presented with generous support from the Zollie and Elaine Frank Music Fund at North Shore Congregation Israel.

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February 9, 2023 at 06:51 PM · An extraordinary story. Thank you, Laurie.

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