‘Violins of Hope’ Survived the Holocaust, Now They Tour the Bay Area

A sampling of the Holocaust-era violins collected by Israeli luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein. The men and the violins are on tour throughout the San Francisco Bay Area as part of "Violins of Hope," running through March 15, 2020. (Courtesy of Amnon Weinstein)

Ask a musician: every instrument has a story behind it. Who played it, where, why and how. One father and son team in Israel has built a collection of 87 violins (and counting) that survived the Holocaust. Now they’re in the San Francisco Bay Area through mid-March, sharing those violins and their stories.

Most of the violins have been restored: revarnished, restrung, the bridge, chin rest and other parts replaced. But some have been left untouched, so you can see they’ve been to hell and back, literally. Violins are light enough to carry, even on a death march; valuable enough to bury in the backyard, or sell, if you’re starving.

Many musicians in the concentration camps could lengthen their lives by playing in orchestras there, because many Nazis liked to listen to classical music and forced their prisoners to entertain them. A surprising number of violins survived the Holocaust, even though their owners didn’t.

Tel Aviv luthier Amnon Weinstein, himself a son of Holocaust survivors from Lithuania, began collecting these violins after another Holocaust survivor brought him one to restore. When Weinstein opened up the man's violin, he found ashes inside from the concentration camp the man had once played in.

Initially appalled, Weinsten began to lovingly restore them as vehicles for the transmission of history. His collection expanded on that of his father's, who held on to instruments other Holocaust survivors were desperate to discard as they sloughed off all things German to start life anew in Israel.

Amnon Weinstein repairing a violin in his Tel Aviv workshop.
Amnon Weinstein repairing a violin in his Tel Aviv workshop. (Courtesy of Amnon Weinstein)

Weinstein's son Avshalom inherited his father's love of violin-making, as well as his passion for keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive as the world's collective memory of it fades with passing of the last generation of survivors. "There was music everywhere. Every camp had at least one orchestra," he said.

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Now they have 87 violins, a viola and a cello. That may seem like a lot, but consider that almost every Jewish household in Europe owned one or more violin before World War II. Each violin has a story, though not all the violins come with family members who know of it. Sometimes, the story is one of resilience and survival against the odds. Sometimes, the story is one of inevitable tragedy.

When the Weinsteins don't know who the violin belonged to, they name it after a survivor they do know. One restored violin is named, for instance after Amnon's wife's grandfather, one of the three brothers who formed the Bielski brigade in Belarus who inspired the movie Defiance.

Father and son began touring in 2008, combining stories they know of with performances by local musicians. Both Weisnteins feel these violins must be played, not just put on display.

So it was this past week at New Museum Los Gatos, that violinist Hannah Tarley, whose ancestors hailed from Belarus, picked up one of these surviving violins to play a Yiddish song from the 19th century called Oyfn Pripetshik. It’s considered one of the most poignant musical memories of pre-holocaust Europe.

As Tarley played before an audience full of members of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, many of them began to hum along, haunting proof of the way music has the capacity to survive the loss of so much cultural memory.

The lyrics of the fourth stanza reference the long history of persecution of Jews in Europe, but today, they eerily seem to prophesy worse horrors to come:

Ir vet, kinder, elter vern,
Vet ir aleyn farshteyn,
Vifl in di oysyes lign trern,
Un vi fil geveyn.

When you grow older, children,
You will understand by yourselves,
How many tears lie in these letters,
And how much lament.

Violins of Hope San Francisco Bay Area Project has something — a concert, an exhibition, a classroom visit — planned for eight Bay Area counties. The two-month residency, involving more than 40 local arts, educational, community and religious institutions, is the brainchild of Patricia Kristof Moy, the executive director of Music at Kohl Mansion in Burlingame.

Detail of an affordably priced German model circa 1870s, designed for an unknown Klezmer musician, hence the inlaid mother of pearl Star of David.
Detail of an affordably priced German model circa 1870s, designed for an unknown Klezmer musician, hence the inlaid mother of pearl Star of David. (Courtesy of Amnon Weinstein)

Moy, also the descendent of Holocaust survivors, saw the Weinsteins in Cleveland several years ago and committed herself to lining up the funding and organizational support to bring them to the Bay Area.

"We really had no idea when we started planning this five years ago that our world would be in the state of turmoil that it's in," she said. "This extraordinary project is more timely than we ever knew. It's the violins of hope. It's not the violins of despair. To hope is to be human."

Violins of Hope San Francisco Bay Area Project runs through March 15, 2020, featuring more than 70 events region-wide including concerts, lectures, exhibits, films, community forums, ecumenical services, interfaith dialogues and educational workshops. For more information click here.

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