Why do so many Jews play the violin? Because, according to one old explanation, when the time came to flee, you could always run with a violin.
Indeed, some Jewish fiddlers fleeing persecution in Europe and the Russian Empire managed to escape. But multitudes were caught, especially during the Holocaust.
That’s the tragic yet ultimately inspiring origin of Violins of Hope, a collection of stringed instruments that survived the Shoah, though their former owners did not.
These instruments took various routes to Israel, where a family of luthiers expertly restored them. Now the ever-growing collection has toured Israel, Europe and North America to be exhibited and discussed and — most importantly — played again.
The instruments will make their first appearance on the West Coast from Jan. 16 through March 15 in a multifaceted program titled “Violins of Hope San Francisco Bay Area.” There will be over 70 events, with venues ranging from JCCs, synagogues and libraries to the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and San Mateo’s Center for the Performing Arts. There will be concerts, lectures, exhibits, films, community forums, ecumenical services, interfaith dialogues and educational workshops.
A highlight of the eight-week program will be the first performances of “Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope,” a commissioned song cycle by the acclaimed team of composer Jake Heggie of San Francisco and librettist Gene Scheer. The world premiere is on Jan. 19 at Kohl Mansion in Burlingame, with other performances on Feb. 9 at Congregation Sinai in San Jose and Feb. 21 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
The composition is based on the book “Violins of Hope” by musicologist James A. Grymes, subtitled “Violins of the Holocaust — Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour.”
The 2014 book tells the story of Amnon Weinstein and his son, Avshi, the Israeli men who co-founded Violins of Hope. Grymes will join the father-and-son luthiers (those who build or repair string instruments with a neck) at presentations Jan. 18, 19 and 21.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day will fall within the program’s time frame, and will be observed at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. The Jan. 27 event, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, will feature remarks by the Weinsteins and excerpts from “Intonations” with an appearance by Heggie, the composer. And — unlike most of the events in large venues — it will be free, with advance registration.
As for seeing the actual violins, there will be three visual exhibitions featuring 26 of the 51 instruments making the trip to the West Coast. The exhibits will include background information about each instrument including how it was restored.
The complete collection consists of 86 violins, a viola and a cello that survived the Holocaust and were restored over the past 23 years in Tel Aviv by the Weinsteins, who now own the instruments.
Many had belonged to European Jews confined to ghettos and Nazi death camps. Amnon Weinstein, and survivors, have credited the instruments with saving lives, as musicians sometimes were able to avoid death (or at least have their extermination delayed) by submitting to demands that they entertain their captors. Survivors of the camps and ghettos have said the music they heard buoyed their spirits during the unspeakable horrors they endured.
Weinstein first encountered a Holocaust violin in the 1980s, when a customer at his Tel Aviv shop brought in a violin that he said his grandfather had played at a death camp. As Weinstein tells it, he opened the case and found ashes inside — likely the remains of death camp victims.
In this instance, he couldn’t bring himself to repair the violin. Weinstein says he lost some 400 family members in the Holocaust, and his parents (a violinist and pianist who had emigrated from Vilna) never talked about it when he was growing up in Tel Aviv.
But by 1996, Weinstein had decided to collect and restore Holocaust-era violins, dubbing them “Violins of Hope” for their impact during the Shoah and for what he saw as their continuing capacity to inspire succeeding generations.
“Our violins represent the victory of the human spirit over evil and hatred,” it says on the Weinsteins’ website, Violins-of-Hope.com. “As many as 6 million Jews were murdered in World War II, but their memory is not forgotten. It comes back to life with every concert and every act of love and celebration of the human spirit.”
Our violins represent the victory of the human spirit over evil and hatred.
In a phone interview with J., Avshi Weinstein noted that the restored violins, many of them fairly common instruments originally inlaid with Stars of David, sound better than ever. The original violin makers, he said, “did not put too much time and effort in doing fine refining work and sound adjustments and stuff. This is what we do. This makes a very big difference.”
The effort to bring Violins of Hope to the Bay Area began in 2014, according to Patricia Kristof Moy, the executive director and producer of the local program. That’s when she learned about the collection, in her capacity as executive director of Music at Kohl Mansion in Burlingame.
Moved and intrigued, she sent an email to Amon Weinstein, and the very next morning he called from Florida (where a Violins of Hope program was being planned) and said he wanted to bring it to California, too.
Kristof Moy contacted Heggie, a well-known Bay Area-based composer of opera, vocal, orchestral and chamber music. He was a 2019 Grammy nominee for his opera “Great Scott” and also composed operas such as “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby Dick.” He immediately signed on.
Leveraging the weight of Heggie’s reputation and the power of the Violins of Hope story, Kristof Moy was able to secure a major arts grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
“After that,” she added, “we have had simply an extraordinary series of happy coincidences and synchronicities and extraordinary people [and organizations] who have [also] said yes.”
In all, 42 Bay Area arts, educational, community and religious institutions came forward to collaborate with Music at Kohl Mansion to present the local program — the largest number of participating organizations of any Violins of Hope residency, collectively presenting over 70 events.
“We want to showcase these instruments in every possible way — in all the ways they were originally played: classical, folk, klezmer,” Kristof Moy said. “We want to look at the violin in a larger context — that it’s ubiquitous around the world. In so many cultures, violin is central in folk music.”
To that end, concerts will feature styles such as klezmer, Turkish, Celtic and Americana, and some of the musicians will be using Violins of Hope instruments. The lineup of classical musicians includes a string quartet from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra (performing “Intonations”) and the New Century Chamber Orchestra playing music by Holocaust-era composers, and acclaimed violin soloist Hannah Tarley performing on a variety of the restored instruments.
As for “Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope,” Heggie and Scheer’s composition is a song cycle in seven movements for string quartet, solo violin and voice. It tells the stories of six of the restored violins. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke will sing each violin’s story in the “first person,” and violin soloist Daniel Hope (conductor of the S.F.-based New Century Chamber Orchestra) will portray a young violinist.
The cycle offers a “pretty vast musical palette,” Heggie told J., “everything from outrage to great joy, from enormous loss and grief to incredible love and passion. And musical styles, too. Everything from a traditional wedding dance kind of texture, that keeps going faster and faster, to a real ‘lament,’ to a quote from Mendelsohn’s violin concerto.”
The title refers to the intonations in the beginning of the piece, when, Heggie explained, the “violins are all playing an open D string and looking for the center of that vibration. It’s intoning a pitch, intoning a history.”
The piece concludes with a song, “Liberation,” that speaks in the voice of a Violin of Hope: “When the wheel of history comes round; when hatred is chanted and screamed — again; when innocents are blamed — again; when the gun is loaded; when the match is lit; let someone — someone — pick me up; and let me sing again … to remember. Remember.” Scheer, the librettist who wrote the text of the piece, pointed out that the lyrics have a “connection to our times.”
He expounded: “The idea is that these violins remind us when fascism is on the rise again. Right now there’s a lot of gravitational pull in that direction historically.”
The five participating orchestras were urged “to make some program selections that are relevant to them,” Kristof Moy said. “They chose works that are significant because of composers who survived or died in the Holocaust, or had written on the theme of the Holocaust, or the persecution of Jews more generally.”
For instance, the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony, which supports and promotes LGBTQ musicians and composers, will perform a piece by lesbian composer Ethel Smyth on Feb. 29 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
As in each area that has hosted Violins of Hope since 2010 — including, just in the last two years, Cincinnati, Nashville, Phoenix, Dresden, Dachau and Auschwitz — the Bay Area will relate the residency to local themes.
In an exhibit from Jan. 17 through March 13 at the Veterans Gallery in the San Francisco War Memorial building, there will be “references to Bay Area history, including Japanese internment during World War II and the fate of Chinese workers brought here to build the railroads,” Kristof Moy said.
And at a Holocaust day of learning in San Francisco, an annual event for hundreds of high-school students from all over the region coordinated by the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Holocaust Center, some of the workshops and talks by survivors this year will tie in to Violins of Hope. The March 8 event will provide a further means to dissuade future generations from the path of hate.
With so many paths into its music and messages, Violins of Hope undoubtedly will leave an enduring imprint on Bay Area residents.
As Amnon Weinstein declared: “Even if the Jewish violinists [of the Holocaust era] have disappeared, I try to promise to them that their legacy will be born again as the notes are played.”