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Violins recovered from the Holocaust will be played in Maine this month

Violins of Hope
Chuck Burton
In this April 9, 2012 photo, violins are shown on display at the Violins of Hope exhibit at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, N.C.

In the death camps and ghettos of Nazi Germany, prisoners performed orchestral works as others were being beaten or led to their deaths. Most of them are now gone, but nearly 100 of their instruments have been collected, restored, and are being played by musicians around the world.

Maine Public's Irwin Gratz spoke with Israeli violin-maker Avshalom Weinstein. He, and his father Amnon, have recovered these instruments and brought them back to life. Some 60 of these so-called Violins of Hope are in Maine this month, where they're being played at various events.

Information about the events is available at the Portland Symphony Orchestra website.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

avshalom weinstein.jpg
Irwin Gratz
Maine Public
Avshalom Weinstein

Weinstein: It's the same work, but of course, emotionally it's very different. We have instruments, which was made by a Jewish violin maker. There is another one which was made by a Jewish violin maker. It's actually his first violin that he made in the school in France, in Mirecourt. His name was Jacob Hackert. He was born and raised in the Netherlands and later on, went back home. He opened the very successful workshop. He tried to flee to Switzerland, but he was caught, unfortunately, by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, killed there [on May 22, 1944]. We have instruments which were in camps, in ghettos, and the people who played them managed to bring a little bit of extra food to the families, and this is how they survived. I mean, sometimes a few pieces of bread made the difference between dying and actually living. It's something that we can talk about it, you can read it, you can think you understand. But I don't believe we can really understand. Not to the real extent of what was actually going on.

Gratz: So that brings me to my next question. One of the things you're doing while you're here as well, is you're going to be speaking to school groups. Is it a challenge to talk about the Holocaust, with very young people?

It is, it's very difficult to talk. Like I said, I'm a third-generation survivor. On one side, on my father's side, we lost about maybe 400 family members. My mother's side, both my grandmother and my grandfather who died in the war, they had 11 brothers and sisters, and the kids today, for them, this is ancient history. We live in a society, I mean, my kids lives today, they've been to more countries in their age, and my son is not even nine years old, then most of the population probably in the world. I mean, we cannot, they cannot understand it. Not yet. The numbers are overwhelming. On one hand, so we try to bring the very single people's story. Try and give it a little bit of more real connection to that, you realize that it might have been your parents, your grandparents, your uncle, your nextdoor neighbor, someone that you, a face you can recognize, and not just numbers, millions. And it is a challenge. It's not an easy topic to talk about. They don't realize that. In the end, I lost more family members that they probably know.

Irwin Gratz
Maine Public
An instrument maintained by Violins of Hope with a Star of David carving on the back. It's on display here at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland.

I was watching an interview with your father. And he was talking about the fact that after the war, a lot of these instruments, if survivors have them, were kind of locked away. People didn't want to see them, which is completely understandable. It just made me wonder though, as you have brought these instruments back to life and perform with them, has there been any negative reaction to that?

I'll tell you one thing. We didn't have something about specific instruments of honor saying don't talk about. They wouldn't bring us the instrument if they don't want us to talk about it because the whole point of us doing it is to bring back the story. But I did have, we did a project in Sarasota in Florida. I think it was 2015, one of the persons who came to the concert was a survivor. And he wasn't a young person as you can imagine, probably middle-end of his 80s. And when the concert lecture finished, he called me to the side and said, 'Listen for me today, to be here, it was basically a torture.' Said 'We were made in the camp to stand for hours in rain and snow without moving because the officers, the Nazi officers, wanted to hear this and that music.' So from this point, yes, there are still things like that.

What's the reaction you do get from adults generally, to the concerts performed by these instruments?

If you go to a concert, let's say you have 40 or 50 violins, violas and cellos on stage. At least half of them are going to be old, probably over 100 years old, meaning they've seen lots of things. But because you don't know the history, it's very different. When we have a concert, so we try to have in the foyer, we put the table with some instruments and you will see there is going to be a traffic over there. I mean, people are going to stand and look and read and ask, because it's an experience that you don't have all the time. It's on one hand, you look on museum artifacts, but then you can also hear them. So it comes from very different places, and it has a very strong reaction.

And music heard in this interview, was performed at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland Monday night by Charles Dimmick and Amy Sims on violin, Willine Thoe on viola and Sein Lee on cello. A full Portland Symphony will perform with them this Sunday and Tuesday for Maine Public radio