Recently, some very special concerts were given in the United States. They are part of a worldwide tour of unique instruments which were last played before and during the Holocaust in Europe.
This tour, called “Violins of Hope”, has been traveling the world for the last few years with a couple of special purposes in mind: to play these instruments in memory of their former owners, and to keep alive the music that they played, some of which was the “klezmer” folk music of the Eastern European Jewish community.
One of the people behind the project in Amnon Weinstein, a master luthier who has devoted much of his life to finding and repairing violins belonging to victims of the Nazis.
One of the things common to the violins of the era is that many of them are inscribed inside. Most of the inscriptions relate to marriage, the birth of a child, an anniversary or other happy occasions.
A few, inscribed in the 1930s, record ominous warnings about what was happening in Europe at the time. A colleague of Weinstein’s found a violin with the inscription “1933 Hitler came to power.”
Weinstein has a collection of over 45 violins from the time, and in 2012, he found another. This time, the inscription both chilled and puzzled him. Inside the violin was the inscription “Heil Hitler!”, with a deeply engraved swastika in it.
Weinstein got the violin from an American violin maker, who in turn had bought it from an Orthodox Jewish violin seller. The man told Weinstein that if he didn’t buy it, the man would burn it. He had played it for years before noticing the swastika and didn’t want to own it any longer. Weinstein bought the violin.
When he opened it up, he saw clearly the swastika and “Heil Hitler.” What stood out for him aside from the actual inscription was the force that was so obviously used to inscribe the instrument. Weinstein had a graphologist (a person who analyzes writing) analyze it, and he said that the writer had been a very aggressive person.
Weinstein admits that he may never find out who originally owned the violin, but he did piece together bits of its story. In 1936, three years into Hitler’s regime and as the pressure mounted on Germany’s Jews, the owner of the violin went to a violin repair shop. Many if not most violin repairmen – luthiers – were not supporters of Hitler.
His banning of the works of so many artists, many of whom were Jewish (Mendelssohn, for example) irritated many in the musical world, luthiers among them. In the Europe of the time, many middle and upper-middle class families taught their children to play violin and piano. This was especially true of the Jewish community in Germany. Most of the luthiers business would have come from Jewish customers.
How did the hateful inscription get there then? The owner of a violin shop would never have done this, Weinstein believes. The customer was likely someone known to the repairman, and probably a repeat customer.
What Weinstein believes is that a young apprentice, caught up in the hatred all around him, carved the inscription, and re-sealed the lid before his boss was any the wiser. The inscription cannot be seen from the outside – it was a sick practical joke: the Jewish player playing an instrument with a dedication to Hitler inside it.
Though Weinstein is immersed in the Holocaust on a daily basis, there are some good stories to go along with the bad. A few years ago, he received a broken violin which had been thrown out of a train headed from the Drancy camp in France to Auschwitz.
The broken violin was handed down, along with its story, from one generation to the next, until it came to Weinstein for repairs. In 2013, this violin, with others from the period, played in a sold-out world tour, bringing at least one aspect of their owners legacy back to life.