Making music in hell

In Tel Aviv, in a basement redolent with sawdust and varnish, is a workshop where violins played by Jewish victims of the Holocaust are lovingly restored.

Amnon Weinstein learned the art of violin making at the side of his father, Moshe, who was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, and worked with the newly established Israel Philharmonic Orchestra after he arrived in Israel in 1938. It was Moshe Weinstein who provided violins for young players such as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Shlomo Mintz. Amnon went to Europe, where he was tutored by craftsmen like Étienne Vatelot of Paris and Gaetano and Pietro Sgarabotto Parma. Amnon took over his father’s shop the day Moshe died.

Amnon and the violinist Shlomo Mintz dreamed of finding the violins of Jewish musicians killed by the Nazis. They launched a radio appeal for people to come forward with stories about “Holocaust violins” with the aim of restoring the violins and hearing them played again. It was a way of honouring the memory of the musicians and artists who were lost.

In the post-1945 era, no musician in Israel was prepared to perform using an instrument made in Germany and so many of the instruments brought to Israel by musicians that had survived the Shoah ended up with Weinstein’s father. Most were run of the mill, some with Stars of David engraved on them, indicating that they had been used to play klezmer music. Weinstein’s father hoarded them and his son Amnon inherited them.

Weinstein(3)Weinstein’s collection includes the violin of Motele. Having survived one massacre, Motele joined a group of Jewish partisans. By placing explosives in his violin case, Motele smuggled them into a German officers’ club. The attack was successful, but Motele was caught and shot. After the War, the commander of the partisans brought the instrument with him to Israel. Several of the other violins now in Weinstein’s possession were played in concentration camps. Together the collection is called “Violins of Hope.” They undergo careful restoration in Weinstein’s studio and from there proceed to concert halls.

“In that way they serve as a memorial to all those anonymous violinists who were murdered, and to all the klezmorim who created an extraordinary Jewish culture, and to the thousands of violins that the Nazis confiscated from the Jews,” says Weinstein.

On 27 January 2015 the Berlin Philharmonic played some of the “Violins of Hope” to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The concert was also given in memory of Alma Rosé, niece of the composer Gustav Mahler, who led the “Girls Orchestra of Auschwitz”. Mainly amateur musicians, the ensemble included string players, accordions and a mandolin. It had to play at the camp’s main gate each morning and evening as the prisoners went to and from work assignments.

The cover of the printed program of the concert carried an image of a violin with strings of barbed wire, taken from James A. Grymes’ book Violins of Hope (2014) subtitled “Violins of the Holocaust – Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hours.” The dedication reads: “We played music for sheer survival. We made music in hell.”



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