By Charles Bernsen
In explaining why he has spent the past 21 years locating and restoring violins played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust era, Amnon Weinstein points to the unique capacity of music – particularly the violin – to convey the pathos of that terrible event.
“Music connects us to history in a way we can relate to, and that’s particularly true of the violin, which is considered the closest instrument to the human voice,” the master Israeli violin maker says. “People in the camps heard the sound of violins going to work and coming back as orchestras played at the gates. Just thinking about the role violins played during the war makes you shiver and feel, think and identify with the victims.”
Weinstein calls the 60 instruments he has restored the “Violins of Hope, and he has taken them to only a handful of venues – Berlin, Rome and Venice in Europe; Charlotte, Cleveland and South Florida in the United States.
Next year 22 of the Violins of Hope are coming to Nashville, where they will be played by members of the Nashville Symphony during three concert performances in March and then be on view through May 28 at a free exhibition downtown at the Nashville Public Library.
But Violins of Hope Nashville will involve much more than the concert and exhibition, said the project’s coordinator, Steven Brosvik, chief operating officer for the Nashville Symphony. Along with the symphony and the library, there are expected to be more than a dozen groups taking part in the project, including the Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, and many of them are planning events that will tie into Violins of Hope and its theme.
• The three performances of the symphony’s Violins of Hope concert on March 22-24 at the Schermerhorn Center will include the debut of a new symphony by the Jewish composer Jonathan Leshnoff commissioned especially for the event.
• The Federation will hold its annual Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) event at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where one of the violins will be played during the service.
• The Nashville Ballet will stage a run of performances of “Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project,” a full-length ballet by Austin, TX choreographer Stephen Mills designed to encourage conversations about the Holocaust, genocide and human rights.
• The symphony will host a special concert on May 9 featuring the renowned Jewish violinist Joshua Bell.
• In the months before the Violins of Hope arrive, book clubs across the city will be encouraged to read Violins of Hope, a book about Weinstein and his project, and the library will host its author, James Grymes, for a lecture.
• After the March concert, the Violins of Hope will be on display until May 28 in the downtown library’s art gallery near the permanent collection in its Civil Rights Room, creating the opportunity for events exploring human rights issues that connect the Holocaust and the Southern civil rights movement.
Other partners who may plan events connected to the Violins of Hope include the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the Southern Festival of Books.
“The idea is to make this a citywide event and conversation,” Brosvik said.
Brosvik said he learned about the Violins of Hope in 2015 from Daniel Grossman, the symphony’s vice president for marketing, and then arranged a visit to see the instruments in Cleveland, where the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage had mounted a major exhibition, including historical materials, multimedia experiences, and live performances.
“I came back and we pretty quickly decided we would like to do something similar,” he said. Brosvik got in touch with Federation Executive Director Mark S. Freedman, who approached Weinstein.
It turns out that Weinstein was quite amenable in bringing the violins to Nashville because of its musical reputation. He also has a deep interest in African American music.
In deciding where to take his instruments, Weinstein said, “We work with the people with whom we share a common language, people we like and especially with those who we feel are truly caring and dedicated – as it is quite difficulty to make one of these exhibits happen. It takes a lot of work, money – and mostly heart.”
Freedman said the project will cost upwards of $500,000, which will be covered by a special joint fundraising effort involving all of the co-sponsors.
As he does whenever his instruments go on exhibit, Weinstein will be on hand for the opening of Violins of Hope Nashville along with his wife, Assi, and son, Avshalom, who is also a violin maker and has helped his father restore the Holocaust instruments.
For Weinstein, the Violins of Hope are personal. His father Moshe, a Lithuanian violin maker, immigrated to Israel with his wife, Golda, and opened a little violin shop. But the rest of his family – more than 400 people – perished in the Holocaust.
Many of the violins Weinstein restores were played in concentration camp orchestras, others belonged to musicians who were part of the East European klezmer culture. Some are emblazoned with a Star of David. Many of the owners died in the Holocaust, of course, but others survived – often because of their status as concentration camp musicians.
Each violin tells the story of an individual – Weinstein calls them “stories of hope” – and that’s what makes their testimony so compelling.
“You can’t talk about a mass of people and a mass of pain. You can’t know six million stories,” he says. “But you may be able to identify with the story of a 12-year-old boy who was found asleep in a forest with a violin case under his head.”
The violins will be displayed in lit glass cases along with the histories of the instruments and their Holocaust owners. But for Weinstein, it’s important that the instruments not be mere silent artifacts on exhibition. They must be played in concert before live audiences.
Only when they are singing, he says, do the Violins of Hope reveal completely the stories of those whose voices were silenced. •