All were silent in the gymnasium at San Francisco’s all-girls Mercy High School while renowned violinist Hannah Tarley tuned her instrument. For the next 4½ minutes, she performed Bach’s Sonata No. 2, a sweet but melancholy piece.
Tarley wasn’t playing on just any violin: This was a meticulously restored instrument originally owned by Feivel Wininger of Romania, who played at weddings and on holidays in exchange for food to help his family members survive the Holocaust.
Now, it was being heard again 75 years later in San Francisco.
“It’s amazing to play on instruments like this,” Tarley told the audience of about 150. “Instruments that, for a while, didn’t have a voice.”
At age 12, Tarley was the youngest concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. She started playing the violin when she was just 2 years old. Her act on Jan. 21 was part of the Violins of Hope tour, an eight-week Bay Area program that is honoring Holocaust-era violins restored by Israeli luthiers Amnon and Avshi Weinstein.
While most Violins of Hope events are adult-led affairs, this one had Mercy students introducing speakers and even performing themselves.
Ten girls from the school did a staged reading of Odette Meyers’ “Madame Marie,” a memoir of a young Jewish girl’s experiences in Nazi-occupied France. The students recited emotional lines from the book, creating an intimate rendition.
“German soldiers guarded everyone,” one student read from the novel. “Dead or alive.”
The focus on students can be credited to the Helen and Joe Farkas Center, a nonprofit that partners with Mercy to help educate about the Holocaust. It was named after two Bay Area survivors; Helen Farkas was a frequent speaker at Mercy before she died in 2018.
“This is really all about tolerance,” Farkas Center board president Andrew Scott said in an interview. “We really try to get young people to understand. Maybe they’ve heard stereotypes about Jews, particularly in the Catholic community. [We’re] trying to open people’s minds, one at a time.” Scott said the center has four student representatives who help shape the curriculum.
The Violins of Hope program was invited to Mercy to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27. Teachers are also implementing curriculum from the Farkas Center this month.
“I know my students were really excited,” said Elaina Legault, a theology teacher and Farkas board member. Her class “couldn’t believe” they were going to be able to see Violins of Hope instruments on display.
Contributing to the emotional tone of the day was the knowledge that Mercy will be shutting down in June because of financial problems. The announcement was made on Jan. 10. Founded in 1952, Mercy is one of the city’s last all-girls Catholic high schools.
Despite the news, teachers stepped up to show how their students had been learning about the Holocaust and reflecting on what hope meant to them.
Legault and her colleague, art teacher Jane Mauchly, presented a student-made banner that read, “In an ugly time, the best protest is beauty,” a line from James Grymes’ 2014 book that chronicles the Violins of Hope story. Grymes was also in attendance.
A closer look at the banner revealed small symbols, including paintbrushes, a dove, an ice cream cone and a butterfly.
“We asked each student to think of their own gifts, talents… things that give them hope,” Legault said. “What is it that helps them out of the darkness?”