One day in the late 1980s, a graying man, with a prisoner identification number tattooed on his arm, walked into a Tel Aviv shop that sold and repaired violins.
The aging customer, a survivor of the Holocaust-era Auschwitz death camp, presented the shop owner’s son, Amnon Weinstein, with a decayed, weather-beaten violin. When Weinstein later inspected it, he found the interior contained black ashes that had been released in the air from the camp’s crematoria — the ovens that had burned hundreds of thousands of murdered Jews and others.
The survivor, who had been forced to perform outdoors in snow and rain as part of a camp orchestra, had unknowingly gathered human remains within his battered violin.
Weinstein, who lost hundreds of relatives in the Nazi-organized genocide of European Jews, had seen other violins with a similar provenance. His father, Moshe Weinstein, an Eastern European immigrant, had founded the violin-making and repair shop in 1939. (The business today is no longer a storefront but a private space informally called the “Weinstein atelier.”) These experiences inspired Amnon’s later efforts, and those of his son Avshalom Weinstein, to begin locating, collecting and restoring violins that survived the Holocaust even when their owners often didn’t.
The two men created the nonprofit Violins of Hope as a powerful, haunting way to communicate the human toll of Nazi atrocities. On March 1, a Benaroya Hall audience will experience a rare opportunity to see and hear two of the Weinstein-restored violins from the organization’s permanent collection, in a chamber-music concert presented by Seattle’s Music of Remembrance.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra violinists Mikhail Schmidt and Artur Girsky will perform on the hallowed instruments. They will be joined by fellow virtuosos from SSO, including violist Susan Gulkis Assadi and cellist Walter Gray, each of whom will play venerated instruments with similar, Holocaust-related histories.
Seattle Symphony clarinetist Laura DeLuca will be soloist on a selection from Israeli composer Betty Olivero’s 1997 score for the classic 1920 film “The Golem.” Other pieces in the Violins of Hope concert are by European composers lost to concentration camps and Jewish ghettos, including Erwin Schulhoff (whose fascinating, 1923 “Five Pieces for String Orchestra” is on the bill), and Gideon Klein (the mesmerizing, 1944 “String Trio”).
The Holocaust brought tragic chapters to music history, as violinists and other musicians often found their artistry exploited for Nazi purposes. Performers did what they had to do to survive.
“Many refugee musicians who were barred from playing in European orchestras came to Israel because of the Palestine Orchestra, where they could pursue their livelihoods,” says Music of Remembrance artistic director Mina Miller. (The Tel Aviv ensemble Palestine Orchestra, which debuted in 1936 and brought much of its maintenance business to Moshe Weinstein, is now known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.)
Once Europe’s borders were sealed by the Nazis, any flight from oppression, and from arrest and deportation to the camps, became far more difficult. Musicians who managed to hold onto their instruments despite brutal circumstances were often put to work in one or more camp orchestras. They might entertain guards or, horrifyingly, play for fellow prisoners marching to their deaths in gas chambers.
Miller says it’s no wonder so many displaced Jewish violinists who played German-made instruments wanted nothing to do with their violins after World War II. Some instruments were sold to help alleviate poverty, while others were given to Moshe Weinstein to donate to talented students. Some violins that ended up in closets or attics for decades found their way to Violins of Hope.
“People hear about us and come to see us with old violins,” says Avshalom Weinstein by phone from Istanbul. “Wherever we have a project, people come forward and say, ‘we have a violin that belonged to my father, my mother …’ This is how Violins of Hope finds more and more instruments.
“We learn the story about each violin and the musicians who owned them. Each violin tells a different story, is about a different family, a different everything. They’re all important.”
The narratives behind the two violins at the Benaroya concert are strikingly different. One involves another Auschwitz survivor who sold his violin to a relief worker. The other belonged to a Viennese butcher and talented instrumentalist, Erich Weininger, who survived the Dachau and Birkenau camps only to be imprisoned by British forces for attempting an illegal entry into Palestine. Weininger was detained for five years on the island of Mauritius, off East Africa. There, he and several other musicians formed an orchestra, the Beau Bassin Boys, popular well beyond prison walls.
These details all matter, of course. But James A. Grymes, a professor of musicology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and author of the superb book “Violins of Hope: Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour,” says it is voices from history one can hear when a bow touches the strings of a Violins of Hope instrument.
“It’s quite profound for an audience to hear the past cry out that way,” says Grymes. “But even more inspiring is how one can see the performers react to holding these instruments and becoming part of such an unbelievable legacy. Violinists say you can feel the very subtle imprint on a fingerboard of the original owner. They can physically sense the person who once played it.”
For a while, those Holocaust shadows are among us.
Violins of Hope, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, March 1; Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $5-$55; musicofremembrance.org