Berliner Philharmoniker

Violins of Hope

A concert and exhibition project to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust

By Albrecht Dümling

Amnon Weinstein, a violin maker from Tel Aviv, has collected violins of former concentration camp inmates, restored them, and researched the history of their owners. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2015 on 27 January, the instruments will be presented in an exhibition and a concert with Guy Braunstein and members of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Many musicians who were persecuted in Nazi Germany as “non-Aryans” found a new home and new fields of activity in Palestine. There, the violinist Bronisław Huberman founded a symphony orchestra whose opening concert on 26 December 1936 was conducted by no less than Arturo Toscanini. Only the best musicians were selected for this “most outstanding of orchestras in the smallest of countries”. But for many members of the orchestra, their world fell apart when a few years later, the extent of the Holocaust also became known in Palestine. For these musicians, the whole of German culture suddenly became questionable. Could they continue to play German music as they had been doing? Even the musical instruments they had brought from Germany appeared to them now as worthless. Under the shock over the mass murder of European Jews, several members of the Palestine Orchestra destroyed their violins.

Shock and grief

However, some baulked at such a barbaric act and offered their instruments to the violin maker Moshe Weinstein for next to nothing. Weinstein had moved from Poland to Palestine in 1938 and opened a violin workshop in Tel Aviv a year later. After only carrying out repairs in the early years, he began purchasing instruments in 1945. The first violin he bought was an instrument made in 1775 by the violin maker Benedict Wagner from Ellwangen. It was offered to him cheaply by a member of the Palestine Orchestra because he no longer wanted to play on a German instrument. Later, Weinstein acquired more German violins which, despite often being of very good quality, were unsellable in Israel due to their provenance. As a result, they remained in his possession.

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Amnon Weinstein at work (Photo: Lucille Reyboz/BluePress)

Weinstein’s son Amnon also became a violin maker. He was first taught by his father, then in Cremona, Italy, the Mecca of violin making, and also in Paris. After his father’s death in 1986, Amnon Weinstein took over the business. Although all his relatives who had remained in Eastern Europe had been murdered in the Holocaust, he tried to repress this dark past from consciousness – until the end of the 1980s, when a man who had played violin in Auschwitz walked into his shop. He wanted to give his instrument, which he had no longer touched since then, to give his grandson in good condition, so he commissioned Weinstein to carry out the repairs. The top of the violin was damaged because it had been used in the rain and snow. Weinstein took the instrument apart and discovered ash residue inside. A terrible thought occurred to him: Could these ashes have come from the crematoria in Auschwitz?

A terrible thought

Amnon Weinstein was able to further investigate this question only years later. A major impetus for this came from the Dresden bow maker Daniel Schmidt who, from 1992, worked for two years in Weinstein’s workshop in Tel Aviv. Schmidt asked again and again about the origin of instruments there, and interviewed several Jewish musicians who had emigrated to Palestine or Israel from Germany. This interest inspired Amnon Weinstein to look for other instruments of persecuted Jews, to restore them, and to explore their history. In 1999, he was invited to a meeting of German violin and bow makers in Dresden to talk about German violins in Israel. Following this speech, he intensified his search. Israeli television reported on the project, and Weinstein was subsequently offered other relevant instruments. Today, his collection includes about 50 violins which for Amnon Weinstein are symbolically connected to the Holocaust. As they had accompanied such terrible fates but had also saved lives, he called them “Violins of Hope”.

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“Violins of hope” (Photo: Lucille Reyboz/BluePress)

Almost all the instruments in this collection have been restored and can again be played. They have already been played at memorial concerts in Jerusalem, Paris, Madrid, London and Rome. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2015 on 27 January, they will be played at the Berlin Philharmonie by members of the Berliner Philharmoniker – an emotional highlight for Amnon Weinstein. Some instruments from Weinstein’s collection will be shown in an exhibition in the foyer of the Chamber Music Hall. Each of the instruments symbolises an individual story which is related as part of the exhibition.

Individual stories

One violin, for example, belonged to a boy who survived a German massacre in 1944 in Ukraine and afterwards joined a Jewish partisan group. He managed to smuggle explosives into a German officer’s club in his violin case. The attack was successful, but the boy (called “Motele”) was later caught and shot. The partisan commander took his violin to Israel where Amnon Weinstein came across it. After many years work, this instrument has now been restored.

Violins which saved lives

Also on display is the violin from the Lemberg-born Heinrich Haftel Heinrich who had studied under Jenö Hubay in Budapest and Carl Flesch in Berlin before he became Bronisław Huberman’s student. Huberman saved his life when he engaged him for the Palestine Orchestra. Other violins exhibited were played in Auschwitz or accompanied their owners on the long odyssey of exile. As part of the exhibition, the great Jewish violinists Joseph Joachim, Fritz Kreisler, Carl Flesch and Max Rostal are also remembered, all of whom were leading soloists and teachers in Berlin. An epilogue is devoted to four Jewish concert masters of the Berliner Philharmoniker: Tossy Spivakowsky, Syzmon Goldberg, Michel Schwalbé and Guy Braunstein.

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In the violin maker workshop

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