Violins of hope
Listening to music has no practical purpose. It simply puts us in touch with the joy and beauty of life, or sometimes the sadness and uncertainty of life. Next to silence, I sometimes think, music may come closest to expressing those inexpressible mysteries that rattle around inside our souls.
Anyone who has walked the grounds of Dachau, Treblinka, or Bergen Belsen knows the impact of silence. Guests who come to imagine what happened on that sin-soaked soil stop speaking almost immediately. Everything turns quiet. Only the wind blows.
It wasn’t always this way. When the concentration camps were operating at capacity, with packed rail cars full of innocent Jews arriving daily, Nazi SS personnel were quick to identify musicians who could provide an air of normalcy by playing their instruments. As commandants herded prisoners into Auschwitz gas chambers, an open-air men’s orchestra played Mozart nearby. Imagine the wicked irony of that scene!
Fast-forward to 2018 and the efforts of violin-maker Amnon Weinstein. Weinstein has spent the last 22 years retrieving and restoring violins used in various concentration camps. This painstaking work of recovery and restoration has become his personal antidote to the poisonous reign of Nazi terror that killed hundreds of his own relatives and millions of other Jews. Weinstein has assembled the instruments into a project called Violins of Hope, now making its way through various orchestras around the world that feature these instruments in concert. If you haven’t caught a PBS video clip of the project, it’s worth your time (see below).
Each of the violins, many decorated with a Star of David inlay, carry the touch and sound of their one-time owners. “They’re like tombstones for the thousands of Jewish instruments and musicians destroyed in the war,” says Weinstein – a claim that prompts me to wonder, “Who says a tombstone can’t speak?” Each of these tombstones, complete with four strings, fingerboard, and scroll, cuts into the silent horror of an unspeakable time in history. Listening to the music such instruments offer has no practical purpose. But it can stir up profound hope within us as we remember to prize the joy and beauty of every human life.