Violins of Hope: reclaiming a lost heritage

Niv Ashkenzi will perform on a Violin of Hope on November 7 at the Kehillat Beth Israel Synagogue during the launch of Holocaust Education Month. Photo: Elyse Frelinger

by Sheila Hurtig Robertson

Virtuoso violinist Niv Ashkenazi is coming to Ottawa, bringing with him a prized instrument. But this is no ordinary violin. Rather, it is one of scores of violins played during the Holocaust by “Jews in ghettoes, forest hideouts and concentration camp orchestras” and lovingly restored by Israeli luthiers Amnon Weinstein and his son, Avshalom.

Countless recollections tell of the rich place of music in Jewish lives through the ages, even in times of despair. And the violin was at the heart of Jewish life for reasons that are “partly spiritual, partly practical. Orthodox Jews faced religious prohibitions in the arts of painting, sculpture and dance. Music was one of the few artistic outlets and violins were cheap, light and easy to carry. When persecution forced Jews to flee, they could grab their violins and run.”

“Music connects us to history in a way we can relate to, and that’s particularly true of the violins. Just thinking about the role violins played during the Holocaust makes us shiver as we feel, think and identify with the victims,” says Weinstein. Four hundred relatives of his father Moshe, a luthier who emigrated to Palestine in 1938 with his wife Golda, lost their lives during that terrible time ─ grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.

Weinstein had no intention of taking up his father’s profession. Initially a wood sculptor and jewellery designer, he also mastered the viola, playing in the Israeli Army Symphony Orchestra and maintaining its instruments. This led him to studies in violin making in Cremona, Italy, and, later, restoration techniques in France, all the while continuing his sculpting and jewellery design. Eventually he decided to concentrate on violin making and is now a world-respected practitioner of the art.

Weinstein’s life changed in 1996 when a man who had played the violin in Auschwitz asked him to restore it for his grandson. He had not played the instrument since leaving the death camp and the top was damaged from having been played in the rain and snow. Remembering his relatives’ fate, Weinstein accepted the challenge. Since then, he has tracked down and restored more than 60 string instruments, which he calls “Violins of Hope.” “Because where there’s music, there’s hope,” he says of the name. For him, the haunting notes of the instruments are always a victory. In an act of unfathomable evil, the Nazis tried to erase and silence the Jewish people. The Violins of Hope proved they failed.

“Each story starts with one violin, but it involves the pain and horrors of a person, a family, a people and the entire history of World War II,” Weinstein says. “Each instrument helped save the lives of one person or a family. Each signifies a person, a tradition and a lost soul. Each has its own story, it own voice… those voices of hope deserve to be heard.”

Violin of Hope performance a first in Ottawa

A Violin of Hope, one of the violins played during the Holocaust by Jews in ghettoes, hideouts and concentration camp orchestras, and restored by Israeli luthiers Amnon Weinstein and his son, Avshalom. Photo: Amnon Weinstein

Niv Ashkenazi’s performance will take place on November 7 at Kehillat Beth Israel Synagogue, 1400 Coldrey Ave., during the launch of Holocaust Education Month, a program of Ottawa’s Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship that will commemorate the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Kristallnacht remains notorious for violent attacks on Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues across Nazi Germany on November 9 and 10, 1938, setting off an explosion of human destruction that became the Holocaust.

Ashkenazi completed a residency with the Perlman Music Program and has won numerous competitions. Praised for his “lush sound…[and] passionate playing” and “formidable technical powers,” his performances include Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

In his May newsletter, Ashkenazi wrote: “In February, I had the opportunity to perform on some of the ‘Violins of Hope.’ Ammon has been so incredibly generous as to entrust us with one of the instruments from his collection… Being able to feature this instrument and its story will enrich the performance so much…” ( ).

Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a founder of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., will deliver the launch’s keynote address entitled “Kristallnacht: The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End”. A writer, lecturer, teacher and consultant in the conceptual development of museums and the development of historical films, he is the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute, an institution dedicated to Jewish life and the Jewish future, situated within the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

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Sheila Hurtig Robertson of the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship received the Centennial Medal and the Canadian Sport Award for Communications, and was named one of the Top 20 Most Influential Women in Sport.

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