Violins of Hope
The Nashville Symphony joins the mission of one Israeli family intent on remembering the Holocaust in hopes of changing the future
At first, he thinks his ears must be deceiving him, because only a few hours ago, he was roused from bed by armed soldiers, demanding he leave at once. He’s heard the stories about the horrors of the internment camps near the border, but there’s music. Surely the terrifying rumors in the ghetto cannot be true, because as he steps off the train, the young man hears music. There’s music here. Nearby, he finds a small quartet, two violins, a viola, a cello, playing Schubert. The young man loves music — in fact, he himself is a violin player. He considers lingering for a moment, but when he sees the SS guard nearby, he thinks better of it and moves on with his fellow travelers. Auschwitz can’t be what they claim, he tries to convince himself, because they have an orchestra.
"Musicians in the concentration camps were forced to play, once they were discovered as musicians,” says Nashville Symphony’s Steve Brosvik. “Orchestras were used to march people in and out of the camps at night. Some were forced to play during executions, when the trains were arriving, during dinner for the guards. Some people were quoted as saying, ‘It can’t be too bad. There’s an orchestra.’ There were all sorts of ways in which music was deceptively used.”
For two Israeli luthiers, father Amnon Weinstein and his son, Avshalom, preserving the memories and histories of these musicians — the Jews who were forced to play their instruments for the demented pleasure of their captors during the Holocaust — has become their life’s work. Their work began almost 30 years ago, when Amnon agreed to restore the first of many violins. Since then, dozens more have followed, and Avshalom has joined his father’s sacred task of preserving the dozens of Holocaust violins that have found their way to their shop. For Avshalom, the violins represent individual stories, the history of what happened to his people, on an intense, personal, and haunting level.
Telling these stories is his mission, and the violins are the medium through which he tells it.
“When you go to school, when I learned in Israel about the Holocaust, they give you a lot of numbers,” recalls Weinstein. “They talk about this date and that date, how long the war was, the numbers of people here and there. It’s not something we can understand because, have you ever seen six million people? No. No one has seen six million people in one place ever. It’s not a number we can understand.”
The challenge for the Weinsteins became finding a vehicle through which the vast scale could be made comprehensible. They’ve collected the instruments, restored them, and sent them back out into the world to tell the story of the six million through the eyes of the one who held the instrument — the one who played at the train station or outside the gas chamber. That’s where the power of the story comes from, and Weinstein believes it’s a story that’s important for people to hear.
“When we break this story down to one person, who was sent here, then sent over there, it makes it more personal,” he says. “It makes it much more intimate, more personal. You can hear the same music he heard, or she heard, the music they heard around them when they played.”
Since undertaking the process of restoring and preserving these instruments and their legacies, the Weinstein family has amassed a collection totaling some 60 violins, and each one tells a story. 32 of those stories are in Nashville, 26 of which will be on exhibit at the Nashville Public Library main branch.
When Brosvik first heard of the violins, he knew he wanted to bring them to Nashville. But he didn’t want just another violin exhibition and a concert or two. Instead, he had a much bolder vision for how the violins could become instruments of transformation in Music City.
“We heard about the project back in 2015, and we started working on it back then,” Brosvik says. “It will have taken us a two-year process of getting it off the ground, bringing it to fruition.”
That process has resulted in more than a dozen activities scattered across 2018, beginning with Nashville Ballet’s production of “Light.” A series of concerts are also on tap, along with public lectures on topics ranging from archaeology to comparative religion, and an appearance by Nashville Symphony fan favorite Joshua Bell.
“We knew what we could bring to the table as the symphony — commissioning a new symphony, staging concerts and performances,” Brosvik says. “But we didn’t want to drive the entire conversation. Instead, we wanted to use it as a way to bring organizations together in a way that’s never been done on this scale. Certainly, we’ve never done anything on this scale as the Symphony, and I don’t know of any other time when this number of groups have come together at one time, all to talk about the same thing.”
25 organizations are involved in the community-wide effort to create a dialog, and that’s one of the key reasons the Weinsteins’ collection is coming to Nashville in 2018 — it’s the 70th Anniversary of the founding of Israel. Avshalom Weinstein believes the violins have the power to get people to engage with one another, to bridge the gaps between cultures, political divisions, and race.
“There is no more conversation,” Weinstein says. “People don’t talk.” It’s a problem he’s seen all over the world, from Israel to America, to Europe, and across Asia. And it’s a problem that troubles him.
“People don’t try to persuade,” he says. “They simply hurl things at one another. The conversation doesn’t exist. We are losing the touch of being able to try and solve problems by talking to each other.”
Changing all that is the hope Weinstein sees in the violins, and he believes peoplestill have the potential to step back, learn from their mistakes, and make sure we don’t repeat history.
“No matter what happens, there is always hope that things can be solved in a civilized way, by people sitting down and talking to one another like they would like someone else to talk to them,” he says. “People are all more alike than different.”
That’s true in his own family, he points out. His wife is a practicing Muslim while he is an observant Jew. There’s work to be done everywhere, he says, even in his home country of Israel, where he could not legally marry his wife. Though Israel recognizes the marriage, they had to go abroad to become wed, he points out.
“My own country, the country I grew up in, served in the army for, and am paying taxes to, would not let me get married in Israel because of religious discrimination,” he says. “They can call it whatever they want, but it’s religious discrimination. It’s time these things are going to pass away from the world.”
Brosnik agrees, which is why the Nashville Symphony has taken up its broader mission to unite diverse groups and organizations in the common goal of engaging in dialog and fostering a deeper understanding of the things that unite, rather than divide us. Pulling often- competing groups together was less of a challenge than many thought. The array of participating organizations underscores the power of the violins.
“They’re from all over the city and different genres,” Brosnik says. “We started with the Jewish Federation, and then we expanded from there to Nashville Ballet, Nashville Children’s Theatre, and Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It’s really all over the city.”
The Weinsteins will be on hand during some of the events to discuss the work, the history of the violins, and their importance in the contemporary world. Also, Nashville Symphony string players will be offered the opportunity to play the instruments in some of the performances throughout the year.
One of the earliest highlights will come March 22-24, when the orchestra premieres a new symphony composed by Jonathan Leshnoff. Giancarlo Guerrero will conduct Leshnoff ’s Symphony No. 4, “Heichalos,” which will be recorded during the concert, marking the first time the Violins of Hope will be used in a recording slated for commercial release. That concert will also feature additional works, including music from the motion picture Schindler’s List.
Perhaps most importantly, the Violins of Hope will be on exhibit for the public to see from March 26 through May 27, at the Nashville Public Library main branch. This exhibition will give people of all ages the chance to see the violins, read their stories, and learn more about the events surrounding the instruments and the people who played them.
Weinstein’s ultimate desire is that these violins will inspire a new era of cooperation and openness in the young people who encounter them, especially children. After all, he points out, reaching children with this message is society’s best hope for change.
“There is a way we have to talk, and the only way for us and for the next generations to be able to live on this earth peaceful is if we’re going to talk to kids in schools today and teach them these values,” Weinstein says. “If they don’t learn these values now, then when are they supposed to learn it? When they are 50 years old? None of us are going to change when we are 50. That’s too late.”