Violinist Cookie Segelstein of the klezmer band Veretski Pass will play several of the Holocaust violins that have come to the Bay Area for the Violins of Hope series.
Violinist Cookie Segelstein of the klezmer band Veretski Pass will play several of the Holocaust violins that have come to the Bay Area for the Violins of Hope series.

For local daughter of survivor, playing Holocaust violins is personal

Fiddler Cookie Segelstein can’t remember a time when the Holocaust was not a topic of conversation with her European-born survivor parents. “I grew up with this stuff,” the Kansas City native told J. “It was dinner-table talk since I was little.”

Founder of the Berkeley-based trio Veretski Pass, Segelstein named the now-famous ensemble after the Carpathian Mountain region where her father was born.

“I think of him every time I pick up my violin,” she said. “Every single time I stand in front of an audience.”

The fiddler and bandleader was a natural recruit when planning began for the Bay Area concerts and events in the Violins of Hope series. A collection of violins that survived the Holocaust and were expertly restored in Israel, Violins of Hope is an initiative that pairs with local communities around the world to disseminate awareness of the Holocaust and its implications through the vehicle of music.

Segelstein organized 11 of the four dozen Violins of Hope events for the Bay Area. That was the easy part.

She also was one of several participating musicians invited to select their instruments from among dozens of the Violins of Hope brought to the Bay Area. Segelstein focused on sound quality, not provenance.

“I was going through the instruments, just as perfunctory thing, to find a violin I like. Only when I would say, ‘I like this one’ would I look and see that this one is from Warsaw, or [belonged to] a Gypsy.”

Some of the violins that have come to the Bay Area as part of "Violins of Hope." (Laura Paull)
Some of the violins that have come to the Bay Area as part of “Violins of Hope.” (Laura Paull)

Then she noticed a violin that was identified as having been at Auschwitz. “My mother was in Auschwitz. I didn’t want to play that violin. I walked right by it,” Segelstein recalled. “Maybe it was too close? It kind of felt like maybe my mom had heard this violin. But then I did go back to it.”

Musicality trounced sentimentality, as she selected four other fiddles. “This was not one of the better violins there anyway,” she explained.

Segelstein chose four dark-toned, folk-style violins for her Violins of Hope programs.

On Feb. 29, she’ll play two of the restored fiddles in a Veretski Pass concert with trio mates Josh Horowitz and Stu Brotman at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. “Our music comes from the regions where the violins come from,” she said. “We’ll match our repertoire with what we know of the history of the violins.”

Her lecture/demonstrations on Jan. 23, March 8 and 12 will explore “what the music was like in the regions where these violins came from before [World War II]. I feel that to understand what was lost, you have to know … the cultural riches that were there,” she explained.

Segelstein will perform solo klezmer in a series of seven multicultural concerts called “Along the Trade Route” from Jan. 26 through March 1 around the Bay Area. She’ll be joined by a rotating cast of folk violinists she recruited: Emmanuel During (Middle Eastern), Darcy Noonan (Celtic), Hemmige V. Srivatsan (South Indian) and Suzy Thompson (Americana).

With four Violins of Hope in use at each concert, the Holocaust’s enduring tragedy will hang thick in the air, but Segelstein thinks the musicians will delve deeper — for themselves and for the audiences.

For the musicians, she said, “holding something in their hand that can produce music, something that has seen death and genocide, it’s like when you are visiting a monument to a fallen people … Even if you’re not part of it, you do have a feeling of reverence.”

Each violin is “a historical artifact that can play beautiful and different melodies in the hands of these people. The instruments are violins of hope, but they’re also violins of loss and suffering.

“You’re bringing beauty out of them, beauty through the smoke, transforming the instrument so it’s not just as museum piece representing suffering and loss.”

J. The Jewish News of Northern California is a media sponsor of Violins of Hope SFBA.

Andrew Muchin

Andrew Muchin is a freelance writer, host of the “Sounds Jewish” radio show on mpbonline.org and radio-j.com and director of the upcoming Victoria International Jewish Film Festival in Canada.