Keeping Jewish stories alive – through music and Federation

Posted on: October 31st, 2017 by tgregory

By Kathy Carlson

Nashville Symphony Concertmaster Jun Iwasaki plays one of the Violins of Hope during a program at Akiva School. Accompanying him on piano is Symphony keyboard principal Robert Marler. PHOTOGRAPH/RICK MALKIN

The responsibility to keep Jewish stories alive – and the many ways to accomplish that goal – were two lessons from a special event inaugurating the Jewish Federation’s 2018 annual campaign and held at Akiva School.

To help communicate these lessons, the mid-October event featured music played on two vintage Violins of Hope, restored instruments that Jews played during the Holocaust. Musicians from the Nashville Symphony will play the Violins of Hope in the spring of 2018 as part of a collaborative effort drawing together Nashville’s Jewish, arts and community organizations. At the Akiva event, attendees learned how they can contribute to the Jewish Federation and also support the Symphony and the Violins of Hope.

Avshi Weinstein, left, holds one of the Violins of Hope that he and his father, Amnon Weinstein, have restored. James Grymes, author of the book “Violins of Hope,” listens. PHOTOGRAPH/RICK MALKIN

Fred Zimmerman, 2018 annual campaign chair for the Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, spoke of the Jewish people’s love for storytelling and the 6 million stories lost in the Holocaust.

“We in this room are the last generation to have the chance to hear these stories firsthand,” he said. “… Federation makes sure these stories are heard, known and felt.”

The Violins of Hope tell some of those stories. University of North Carolina-Charlotte musicology professor James Grymes has documented the stories in his book, “Violins of Hope,” and Avshi Weinstein has restored the instruments in the Tel Aviv workshop he shares with his father, Amnon Weinstein. Grymes and Avshi Weinstein spoke at Akiva.

Nashville Symphony Concertmaster Jun Iwasaki played two of the restored violins, accompanied by Symphony pianist Robert Marler.

So far, 64 Holocaust instruments have been restored, Weinstein said. Twenty-eight will be exhibited at the Nashville Public Library downtown next spring.

One of the two violins played at Akiva belonged to Feivel Wininger, a Romanian Jew and amateur violinist, author Grymes told the group. During World War II, the Romanian government forced Wininger and other Jews on a death march from their homes to the territory of Transnistria.

Those who made it to Transnistria had to fend for themselves in prison camps. At the camp, a former judge traded a valuable violin, an Amati, for any food Feivel could obtain through playing it. Feivel’s earnings came too late to save the judge and his family, and prison guards confiscated the violin. 

But word of Feivel’s abilities had spread. A peasant who lived near the camp wanted Feivel to play at a relative’s wedding and helped Feivel obtain a new instrument. 

It was hardly in the same league as the Amati, but it helped Feivel earn food to keep 16 people alive through the Holocaust, Grymes said. Feivel called the violin “Friend,” and told his young daughter it saved her life and that of her mother.

Years later, his daughter called on the Weinsteins to restore it. Feivel’s violin didn’t appear to be suitable for restoration, but once the Weinsteins learned its history, they were determined to restore it, Grymes said.

Concertmaster Iwasaki played a Sibelius lullaby on Fievel’s violin. Perhaps Feivel himself played lullabies for his daughter, he said.

Iwasaki played a second violin, called the Auschwitz violin. Weinstein said a member of the Jewish Men’s Orchestra at Auschwitz played it. The group played some 30 feet from the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate leading to Auschwitz.

After hearing the Violins of Hope played in Florida, an Auschwitz survivor living there told Weinstein, “For me to sit here today is a torture. … We were made to stand in the rain and snow to listen to music (by the men’s orchestra) just so the Germans could torture us.”

No one knows the name of the musician who played the Auschwitz violin, but it’s one of the few from Auschwitz, Weinstein said.

Iwasaki played the final movement of a sonata by Belgian composer Eugene Ysaye on the Auschwitz violin. The piece built on an earlier composition by Pietro Locatelli known as Au Tombeau or at the tomb. 

Afterward, Jewish Federation Assistant Executive Director Naomi Limor Sedek recalled her first visit to Israel in 1991. Sedek, the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, searched the photographs at Yad Vashem for relatives from the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos. “Even if there were relatives in the photographs, I wouldn’t have recognized them,” she said.

She was drawn to a photo of a man in a broken-down chair playing a violin and looking straight at the camera as if to say, “I’m not ashamed of who I am. I will not give up hope.”

“What right do we as Jews have to give up hope?” she asked. She pointed to this year’s demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., in which torch-bearing neo-Nazis marched at night shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and a white nationalist event planned for late October in Shelbyville. “Our work is not done,” she said.

“We will stand together, all of us,” Jewish Federation Executive Director Mark Freedman said. “Each (of us) in our own right has the opportunity to make the world a better place.” •