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Violins of Hope

Every Violin Has a Story

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Because I remember, I despair.
Because I remember, I have the duty
to reject despair.
I remember the killers, I remember the victims, even as I struggle to invent a thousand and one reasons to hope.

Elie Wiesel

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By Elinor Burkett

The long-awaited arrival to New York of precious mementos of despair and survival comes eight decades after the Nazis seized power in country after country and demanded that Jews turn over their valuables. Many buried their precious violins in their gardens, thinking they would soon return to retrieve them.
Others left them in the hands of Christian neighbors, trusting years of friendship would survive the rising hatred. A few, unable to bear giving up the music that fed their hearts, hid them and, later smuggled their instruments on to deportation trains because, given the choice, who really needed to take clothes? Despite years of Jewish humiliation, dehumanization and systematic genocide, some of those violins miraculously survived…even if their owners did not.
Several of these violins endured because Nazi guards found it amusing to force Jewish musicians to play Beethoven as yet more families were unloaded from cattle cars, or to demand that emaciated prisoners entertain them with German folk tunes; others survived because Jewish partisans clung to them, even as they fought in European forests; and  because a handful of lucky refugees made it to Tel Aviv, where they formed the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.
Like the Jews liberated from the camps themselves, most of the surviving instruments were barely recognizable: permeated with ash from gas ovens, warped from the damp earth, battered by time and neglect.
But when father-and-son Israeli luthiers, Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, discovered their existence, they lovingly restored the violins. Their work is a gift to us and to generations to come: the gift of memory, the gift of hope.
As Jews, we are enjoined to remember. That is the most frequent and insistent commandment in the Bible. That call to memory has been woven into our DNA. Forgetting is not an option.
As Elie Wiesel reminded us in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “It is memory that will save humanity.”

But memory alone is a perilous exercise that can create an abyss of despair and stoke a vicious cycle of bitterness, hatred and lust for revenge. Hope is its essential counterbalance, the beacon of light that gives memory mystical power, allowing us to move on.

The Violins of Hope represent that delicate equilibrium because every violin has a story…

The story of Gualtiero Morpurgo, son of an ancient Italian Jewish family, who was given a violin by his mother with the advice that, while he might not become a famous musician, music would give him strength during desperate moments. Those moments came quickly: his mother was deported on the first train from Milan to Auschwitz and Gualtiero himself was sent to a forced labor camp. There, he played Bach’s Partitas on the violin he’d cherished and found the will to endure.

The story of a French violinist arrested in the mass round-up of Jews in Paris in July 1942 and herded into a cattle car, holding tight to his instrument. As it made its way across the French countryside, the train suddenly stopped by a group of men working next to the track. Peering out a narrow window, the musician threw the violin toward the workers, shouting, “In the place where I now go, I don’t need a violin. Here, take my violin so it may live.”

The story of Max Beker, a young violinist in Vilna, who was drafted after Germany invaded Poland in 1939 but soon captured by the Germans and sent to Stalag VIIIA in lower Silesia. The prisoners had a small orchestra and put together enough money to bribe a guard to buy Max a violin so he could join. At war’s end, he wound up in a displaced persons camp in Bavaria, where he joined the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra, whose slogan was AM YISRAEL CHAI – THE JEWISH PEOPLE LIVE.

The violins sing the refrain of the parents who carefully saved their money to bring music into their homes, the children who learned to bow their strings, the musicians who brought them to life, the audiences whose hearts swelled, and a people who looked to the future.

And they are simultaneously a testament to the endurance of mothers driven mad as they were separated from their children, to the terror of the doomed watching a fiery sky, to the hope that gave three million Jews the spirit to keep themselves alive.

At a moment when Holocaust denial has become a staple of international discourse, when young people know little about the time when millions were slaughtered and the number of witnesses to the horror is dwindling, Temple Emanu-El is proud to bring 30 Violins of Hope to the Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum for their first-ever exhibition in New York and to our Sanctuary.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s will bring them to life with the haunting intertwined strains of memory and of hope during a special Shabbat Service and Concert on January 27, 2023, to mark the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

The exhibition will open on January 31, 2023, in connection with guest speakers Richard Hurowitz and Abe Foxman, who will be discussing Hurowitz’s new book, In the Garden of the Righteous.

 

The exhibition will run through March 27, 2023, and is open Sunday through Thursday, 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM.

 

To arrange a tour of the exhibition please email: [email protected] or call (212) 744-1400 ext. 259

We are grateful for support of
Violins of Hope programming:

In memory of Robert B. Menschel
Betsy Cohn, in memory of Alan D. Cohn
The Rahm Family Fund
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