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Restoring hope by repairing violins of the Holocaust

February 12, 2016 at 6:20 PM EST  | Updated: Mar 10, 2016 at 8:00 PM
At a music shop in Israel, a violinmaker has been collecting stringed instruments once owned by inmates of Nazi concentration camps. Largely silent for seven decades, they now speak for horrors of the Holocaust as part of a project called "The Violins of Hope." Special correspondent David C. Barnett from WVIZ/PBS ideastream reports from Cleveland on a series of concerts and exhibits they inspired.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A collection of violins largely silent for seven decades is giving voice to the horrors of the Holocaust.

David C. Barnett from Cleveland’s Public Television Station WVIZ’s Ideastream tells the story behind the instruments that were once owned by the inmates of Nazi concentration camps.

DAVID C. BARNETT: Stanley Bernath has a vivid memory of his arrival at the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1944. Bernath and his fellow Jewish prisoners were shipped to the camp in a cattle car, and marched to the front gate.

STANLEY BERNATH, Holocaust Survivor: The huge gate with a name on top in German, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” meaning work will make you free. As we entered, there is an orchestra playing Beethoven. It was an unbelievable sight. People were being killed and beaten, and there’s an orchestra playing.

DAVID C. BARNETT: That’s a story that Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein has heard before. The first time was 50 years ago, when a man brought a battered, old instrument into his shop that had once been played in a death camp.

AMNON WEINSTEIN, Founder, Violins of Hope: I was very afraid of it, because that’s the point. When I opened this violin, there was a black powder inside, which, for me, was from the ashes. And I know it from the man who played on it. He played on the way to the gas chamber.

DAVID C. BARNETT: For Weinstein, that instrument was a chilling reminder of the hundreds of relatives he had lost in those prison camps. And for the last 20 years, he’s been on a quest to collect and repair violins of the Holocaust.

Amnon Weinstein’s Tel Aviv shop is filled with violins, violas and cellos in various states of repair, and he reckons he and his son Avshalom have restored about 60 instruments, so far, as part of a project he calls the Violins of Hope.

This past fall, they packed up about a third of the collection for a series of concerts and exhibits in Cleveland.

AMNON WEINSTEIN: Bring me please the Five Star of David violin.

This is a violin that it took me 1.5 years to restore from scratches, beautiful violin, this Five Star of David, one, two, three, four, and the beautiful one on the back. Now it’s going to Cleveland to the concert.

And the last one, Auschwitz violin. This violin, what we know, the man who played on it played in the Auschwitz orchestra, main orchestra, the big orchestra that was every day in the morning and in the evening playing not far away from the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei.”

DAVID C. BARNETT: Holocaust historian Jay Geller says the ability to play an instrument saved numerous prisoners from the gas chambers.

JAY GELLER, Case Western Reserve University: The musicians who played in the camp orchestras were still prisoners, and they were still mistreated by the camp authorities, but they did have a special skill that made them particularly useful. So, in a sense, they were the prize cattle.

DAVID C. BARNETT: Geller says these musicians were sometimes used to entertain the commandants running the camps. In other instances, the orchestras served to lull the inmates into a false sense of security.

That’s what happened to Hedy Milgrom’s family members.

HEDY MILGROM, Senior VP, Jewish Federation of Cleveland: When my mom and her twin sister and her father and other siblings and nieces arrived at Auschwitz, and they tumbled off of this horrible cattle car that had been on for, I think eight days, whatever length of time it was, the first thing that they heard and saw was this orchestra.

And my mother turned to her twin sister and said — you know, took her by the arm: “See? It can’t be all that bad. Right? There’s music here.”

DAVID C. BARNETT: The story of these prison camp orchestras was told in display cases at Cleveland’s Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, the personal history of each instrument carefully documented, many of them intricately ornamented.

Historian Jay Geller says that, in Jewish households, a decorated violin was often a way to get around certain biblical restrictions on art.

JAY GELLER: In the Jewish tradition, the Second Commandment of the Ten Commandments is thou shall not make graven images. Historically, this had the effect that Jews didn’t do representational art. Jewish artistic endeavors focused on practical objects, especially objects for ritual use, but also to decorate and embellish objects that one might use on a regular basis, including the violins.

So, while these violins and other instruments were meant to be played as ordinary objects, they were also works of art. They could be embellished, decorated with inlay.

DAVID C. BARNETT: Amnon Weinstein is proud whenever people get to see the violins and learn about their history, but he’s especially happy when these instruments are played for live audiences.

AMNON WEINSTEIN: The violins are to play on, not to be like a furniture. That is very good for violin. You can keep them for 500 years.

But violins have to speak. And the most important part of the life of a violin is to be played in concert. And then they can tell stories.

DAVID C. BARNETT: The largest violins of Hope Concert took place in an historic Northeast Ohio temple, and featured 22 instruments from the Holocaust era played by members of the Cleveland Orchestra.

HEDY MILGROM: There is a power in music that is — that breeds resilience, that gives people hope.

DAVID C. BARNETT: The Violins of Hope are Holocaust survivors. Scarred by the war years, they were silent for decades. But now they have music to play. And Amnon Weinstein says each one has a story to tell.

AMNON WEINSTEIN: This violin is alive, is existing, and is going to talk to all the world. Each violin like that that you are going to play, it’s for millions of people that are dead. That is victory. And each concert is a victory.

DAVID C. BARNETT: And Weinstein says that’s why he continues to look for more violins to bring back to life.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m David C. Barnett in Cleveland.

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