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Violins of Hope Author Speaks in Yom Hashoah Program

Amnon Weinstein (UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture)
Amnon Weinstein is an Israeli violin maker who restored the instruments in the collection that became known as Violins of Hope. He holds up one of the instruments adorned with a Jewish star indicating it was played by a Jewish musician during the Holocaust. Photo courtesy the UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture.

For centuries, the violin has played a central role in Jewish culture. During the Holocaust, the instrument not only provided much needed comfort but served as a means to save the lives of musicians - and sometimes their family's lives as well.  A book by Dr. James A Grymes called Violins of Hope: Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind's Darkest Hour tells some of these stories.  

On Sunday, April 11th, Grymes will speak in an online Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) program presented by the Virginia Holocaust Museum. The program will also feature a performance by violinist Jocelyn Vorenberg and pianist David Fisk. You can find more information on that program here.  The program is free to watch, but registration is required. 

Coming up in August, 2021, the travelling exhibit Violins of Hope, featuring many of the actual instruments from the Violins of Hope collection, will come to Richmond. The restored violins will be on display at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Black History Museum and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. 

The following interview originally aired in 2015. 

Transcript: 

PETER SOLOMON: For 20 years, an Israeli violin maker and repairman named Amnon Weinstein has scoured the world for violins with a connection to the Holocaust. When he finds them, he restores them, not simply to be displayed as museum pieces, but to be made playable so they can once again be heard on a concert stage. He calls the instrument collection Violins of Hope.

Author Jay Grimes first learned about the Violins of Hope when the collection was brought to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he teaches music history. His interest led him to visit Amnon Weinstein and his workshop in Tel Aviv and to write the book Violins of Hope: Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind's Darkest Hour. Grymes says the story behind the Violins of Hope begins with Amnon Weinstein's own family history.

DR, JAMES A GRYMES: Growing up in Israel, Amnon was sort of haunted by this family he never knew. 400 of his family members, whose parents had left behind when they immigrated in 1938 to Palestine. All 400 of them had died. And his family - his parents - had refused to talk about them any further. And so this Violins of Hope project was a way for him once he grew to adulthood, and became a world renowned violin maker and repairman. It's his way of connecting with his lost heritage.

SOLOMON: How did that materialize? What started it?

GRYMES: So a lot of the musicians who founded the what's now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, they came from Europe, and they had been forbidden from performing in their European orchestras. And they brought with him these really nice German-made instruments that they played in at that time, the Palestinian Orchestra. Now the Israeli Philharmonic. And after the war, when they learned the full extent of the atrocities that the Nazis had committed, they refused to play on their German instruments any longer. Many of the musicians destroyed their instruments. Others sold theirs for  pittances to Amnon’s father Moshe, who was a violin repairman, and those violins just remained in Amnon’s workshop. They were unsellable in Israel as German-made instruments. Until after Moshe passed away, Amnon sort of discovered these instruments and became fascinated by them, and he decided to start exploring other instruments with connections to the Holocaust.

SOLOMON: One of the many moving accounts in Jay Grimes book is the story of a Romanian Jew named Fievel Weininger, whose talent for playing the violin enabled him to save 16 lives.

GRYMES: Fievel Weininger was an amateur Romanian violinist who was taken on a death march through the wind in the rain and the snow to the ghettoized territory of Transnistria. Along the way of this death march, his uncle died and his mother died and his young daughter Helen, she was a year and a half at the time. She grew so weak, she kept getting smaller and smaller, and she lacked the strength to even cry, but somehow they carried on, and in Transnistria, Fievel Weininger got his hands on a violin, and he started playing it to be played at these parties for Romanian soldiers and Ukrainian farmers. And through playing the violin, he was able to secure enough firewood and water and food to bring home to protect his life and save the lives of 16 family members and friends, including young Helen.

SOLOMON: Jay Grymes says that it was serendipity that Weininger’s violin came to the attention of Amnon Weinstein

GRYMES: After the Holocaust, Fievel Weininger immigrated to Israel, and continued to play on that same violin that he simply called "friend," and he would play the violin. And he would tell his daughter, Helen, who was growing at that point, stories about how this "friend" had saved her life and her entire family. Over time, he stopped playing as he got older and older, but when he turned 90, he decided he wanted to play again. And he asked Helen to get his violin repaired. And she took it to Amnon, not because of his specialty as a holocaust violin specialist, but because he's simply the best violin repairman in Israel. And at first, he told her, "You know, this violin is not worth repairing. It's very old. It's not in good shape. Why don't you just buy your father a new violin?," which she thought was a fantastic idea. And she took it back to her father Fievel. With that suggestion, he just started crying. And he said, “Look, you have to understand this is my friend. I want to see my friend. I want to play him one last time.” So finally, she understood and she took it back to Amnon and finally she told him the story about this violin that had saved her family's life, including her life, and Amnon immediately pledged to restore the instrument, which he did, and then brought it back to Fievel. And he was, at that point, unfortunately, his arthritis was too far gone for him to play anymore. But every day from that point forward till the day he died, he would take the violin out at least once a day and he would hold it they would hug it  and his eyes would well up with tears out of gratitude for this violin that that saved his family.

SOLOMON: This Sunday April 11th at 3 PM  the Virginia Holocaust Museum will observe Yom HaShoah –  Holocaust Remembrance Day - with a virtual program including a presentation by Jay Grymes and a musical performance by violinist Jocelyn Vorenberg with David Fisk at the piano.  It’s a free event but registration is required. Find information at www.VAHolocaust.org