Audience first in North America to hear restored Violin of Hope

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 9, 2012

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Notes of despair — and hope — swept through Salisbury Saturday night.
They came from a violin once part of the Jewish men’s orchestra at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The Nazis forced their musician prisoners to play morning and night while standing behind the infamous sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei” — “work sets you free.”
They also had to play beside the tracks as many of their fellow Jews arrived at the camp by train.
They played as others were marched off to the gas chamber, or they played as the dead bodies of fellow Jews, worked to death at the camp, were piled in front of them.
But because they could play, many of the musicians survived. And because they survived, many stopped playing after the war.
As he performed with the restored instrument at Catawba College’s Omwake-Dearborn Chapel, violinist David Russell said he heard the voice of the man who had owned it and played it. He hoped his Salisbury audience could hear it coming through the instrument, too — the anguish, pain and suffering of what the musician witnessed at Auschwitz.
But Russell also wanted the Salisbury crowd to hear the hope, solace and escape the music provided for the Auschwitz violinist and all who had heard the music in their darkest hours.
Embedded in the music, Russell explained, was the power of music to overcome.
Three days ago, the 18 Violins of Hope — violins recovered from the Holocaust and restored to concert-playing quality by master luthier Amnon Weinstein — arrived in North America for the first time. In coming weeks, they will be played in several concerts and serve as the focus of exhibits and educational programs coordinated through the College of Arts & Architecture at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
But the concert-goers in Salisbury Saturday night were the first public audience in North America to hear one of the Violins of Hope played.
Russell, the Anne R. Belk distinguished professor of music at UNCC, did the honors, with his wife, Zaiba, accompanying him on the piano.
More than 500 people attended the free concert, sponsored by the Salisbury Symphony Guild.
Weinstein, of Israel, also was a special guest and served as bookends to Russell’s playing of three pieces, including two from “Schindler’s List.”
Since 1996, when he started this project, Weinstein said he has received 75 instruments, all with different stories tied to the Holocaust. “The instruments are coming and coming and coming all the time,” he said.
Weinstein, who lost hundreds of relatives to the Holocaust, operates a third generation luthier shop in Tel Aviv, Israel, that builds and restores violins. Over time, Holocaust-connected violins would arrive at Weinstein’s shop as descendants brought them forward. Or Weinstein searched for musical instruments from the Holocaust in flea markets and antique markets, as he traveled internationally.
Many of the Holocaust instruments came to his shop in horrible repair, but Weinstein painstakingly restored each one to concert quality. Some of the instruments bore the Star of David, a symbol of the onetime owner’s Jewish faith.
Prior to coming to Charlotte, the 18 Violins of Hope have been exhibited and played only in Israel in 2008 and Switzerland in 2011.
Weinstein said the most important message people should take from the Violins of Hope and what they teach us about the Holocaust is “Never again. Never anywhere.” They also show, he said, “That music is a language for all of us.”
The violin played in Salisbury Saturday night was made in Czechoslovakia or Hungary and possibly dates back to about 1850, Weinstein reported, and it is dedicated to all the Allied soldiers who died in World War II. The Auschwitz musician who owned the violin sold it soon after the war to have money for food. The family which ended up owning it donated it to Weinstein’s project and paid for its restoration.
Russell said he and Weinstein were deeply moved by the hundreds of people who came to hear the music Saturday night, and he encouraged members of the audience to attend all the upcoming concerts and view the violins as they are played and exhibited in Charlotte, with their accompanying stories.
It’s possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Russell said.
After Russell’s performance, Weinstein fielded several questions from the audience.
He said the musicians were forced to play happy music — German waltzes and marches — in efforts to allay fears of the Jewish prisoners. At Auschwitz, many of the songs were by Strauss.
The music was different in every camp, he stressed.
Asked how long musicians were allowed to live before being sent to the gas chamber, Weinstein said many of the musicians survived because the Nazis needed them. The musicians always kept their instruments with them, “because this was their life,” he said.
After the war, many of the Jewish musicians who owned German-made violins destroyed them.
Salisbury Symphony Guild President Tom Wolpert said Saturday’s concert was “a monumental event in so many ways.” Salisbury architect Karen Alexander, a UNCC graduate and member of the UNC-Charlotte Foundation board of trustees, played a key role in arranging for the one Violin of Hope to make its Salisbury appearance.
Since March 1 and leading up to Saturday’s concert, many different events connected to Holocaust education have been held through the guild, the Center for Faith & the Arts and Catawba College’s Department of Religion and Philosophy.
A couple of things are still left.
On Tuesday, a free 7 p.m. concert will be held at Catawba College, featuring choral tangents to the Holocaust by the First Presbyterian Church Chamber Choir, with readings by Rabbi Andrew Vogel Ettin. Louis Goldstein will be on the piano.
Next Sunday, the Symphony Guild is sponsoring a bus trip to Charlotte for the opening performance of the 18 Violins of Hope at Knight Theatre in the Levine Center.
Cost is $65, which includes a ticket and the round trip from the Holiday Inn in Salisbury.
About 25 seats are still available on the bus, Wolpert said. Reservations can be made by calling him at 704-637-2389, or the symphony office at 704-637-4314.
“We have all come together as a community of one to hear about a time in history,” Wolpert said, but he also asked, “Aren’t we a time in history, too?
Wolpert followed with his own message: “To forget is to repeat.”
Coming Monday: More scenes from the concert.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.