Played with the right hands, musical instruments can tell stories.
And sometimes, they are the stories.
Such is the case with Violins of Hope, a collection of string instruments – mostly violins – that survived the Holocaust, meticulously restored by Israeli luthier (violin maker) Amnon Weinstein, and his son Avshi. For 25 years, father and son have been working on these instruments, many of which sat silent for decades before finding their way to the Weinsteins’ Tel Aviv workshop.
During that time, the Weinsteins have sent the collection around the world to be played by orchestras in London, Paris, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Cleveland, Birmingham, Sarasota, Phoenix, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Nashville….
And come October, Louisville.
The instruments, including one viola and one cello, are coming to the Derby City for a 10-day visit, from Oct. 17 to 26. They will make 34 stops during their stay, culminating with a special performance by Louisville Orchestra on Saturday, Oct. 26. Members of the LO’s violin section will perform with instruments from the collection, which they will have personally selected to play.
In the days leading up to the concert, the instruments will visit schools, synagogues and churches and will be exhibited at the Frazier History Museum.
Avshi Weinstein will travel to Louisville with the instruments. He said there are 79 in the collection, approximately 50 of which travel. His father, Amnon, who just turned 80, is still working on them.
The oldest violin in the collection was made in 1774, and is still playable, Avshi said. Another has a more chilling history: It has a swastika and the words, “Heil Hitler 1936” scrawled on the inside top of the instrument. Amnon Weinstein will never restore that one, keeping it as a reminder of all the instruments’ dark pasts.
The violin has a special place in Jewish history. Why, is sometimes difficult to put into words.
“Isaac Stern said once this was the easiest thing to take In your hands and run away with,” Avshi said, “so maybe it’s because of that.”
Many of the great concert violinists of the early 20th century were Jews. Some managed to flee Germany for America or Palestine prior to the war, finding work on symphony orchestras, including the new Palestine Orchestra that was being formed at the time. The New York Times, in a 1936 story, dubbed it the “Orchestra of Exiles.”
But many more musicians were trapped in Europe. Many perished in the Shoah; other survived by playing their violins in the ghettos and in the macabre orchestras of Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
After the war, as the truth of Holocaust became known, people brought their violins, many of which were German-made, to Avshi’s grandfather, Moshe, who started the business, saying if he didn’t take them, they would destroy them. Moshe would buy the violins, knowing he could never resale them.
When Amnon Weinstein finally began to restore those violins, people asked if he could restore their family instruments as well.
“They heard for the project and the realize this is a way to tell the story of their family,” Avshi said.
The instruments show up at the studio in various states of disrepair – nicks, cracks, grooves and other parts that are simply worn down.
The key to restoring them, Avshi said, is bringing them back to playing condition while not to covering up the features that make each violin unique.
“Instruments do take something from their owner,” Avshi said. “I don’t know what to tell you, but there is something from the owner…. Instruments are like human beings; they take things from their environment.”
The Violins of Hope would not be coming to Louisville at all were it not for a dinner date Miriam, a longtime civic leader and community volunteer, Ostroff had with a friend in Sarasota, Florida, in 2017.
The friend told her about an extraordinary collection of violins that had come to Sarasota for a performance. Interesting, Ostroff thought, but she didn’t think much about it after that night.
Weeks later, though, she saw the PBS documentary about the violins. She was hooked.
“That was the crux, I guess; that was the defining moment,” Ostroff said. “I finished watching it and I just said to myself, ‘you have to bring this to Louisville.’”
She began making calls, knocking on doors, visiting foundations, selling the idea of a Violins of Hope project right here.
She traveled to Nashville, where the violins where being exhibited and played by the symphony there. Stacy Gordon-Funk, vice-president of philanthropy at the Jewish Federation of Louisville, went with her.
“I was so moved by the violins; I could hear them cry,” Gordon-Funk said. “I can understand her (Ostroff’s) passion and efforts to bring them to Louisville, and I admire her for getting it done.”
She also called Amnon Weinstein in Israel. After some back and forth, they agreed on a date to bring to the instruments here.
Ostroff estimated the cost to bring the violins here, including shipping in environmentally controlled containers, flight tickets, hotels, proper storage, venues at $400,000.
Certain organizations – the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence, the Kentucky Center for the Arts, and especially the LO – had to be on board to bring the violins to Louisville. One by one, though, they all agreed.
The project also came to fruition with support from many individual donors who Ostroff reached out to personally.
It took two years to make the project a reality.
An 11-member steering committee, made up of representatives from the major partners in the project, assisted her. Matt Goldberg, director of community relations at the Federation, was an original member.
“The importance of bringing these instruments to Louisville cannot be overstated,” Goldberg said. “To honor the victims of the Holocaust, their story must be told over and over again. Telling that story through music will allow us to reach an entirely new audience.”
Getting them into schools was especially important to Ostroff, concerned that a generation of young people were growing up knowing little to nothing about the Holocaust.
She noted a 2018 study, conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which found that two-thirds of American millennials surveyed could not identify what Auschwitz is.
Something real and physical, with a story behind it, must be shown to young people to make them understand and believe what happened, Ostroff said.
“When you go to a school and you show them a violin, and you say it belonged to this person, and he played it at Auschwitz as the people marched into the death chambers, and you can touch it, and you can feel it. Now tell me the Holocaust doesn’t exist?”
Teddy Abrams knows the significance of music to the Holocaust.
The LO music director said he first heard of music being used in the concentration camps many years ago. He particularly recalls hearing about Verdi’s Requim being played at Terezin.
Composers were imprisoned in the camps like everyone else. Some continued to write music there.
The memory of many talented composers was “wiped from the face of history,” Abrams lamented. Yet they continue to inspire conductors such as James Conlon, who, according to Abrams, has made it his mission to rediscover these forgotten composers.
“He’s brought back many composers who otherwise would have been completely forgotten.”
The LO, itself, has a history of supporting composers that were fleeing the Nazis,” according to Abrams.
“If you look at the orchestra’s list of commissions, a number of them are from composers in that situation,” he said.
That’s why it’s fitting that the Violins of Hope are coming here, and will be exhibited as well as performed here.
“We did not want the violins just sitting there being played beautifully,” Abrams said. “That would be great, but it would have missed the opportunity to connect the story of the program to the story of the violins.”