By Jack Vaughan
Avshalom Weinstein, curator of the historic collection of violins known as “Violins of Hope,” made a visit to Hardin Valley on Tuesday, telling the story of the instruments that accompanied imprisoned Jews and survived the Jewish Holocaust during World War II. Weinstein is a third-generation violin maker based out of Tel Aviv, Israel whose father began the collection aimed at preserving the memories of Jewish musicians through the violins that were left behind. Weinstein and his father have 65 Holocaust-era violins in the “Violins of Hope” collection, and their mission is to honor the memories of Holocaust victims through education and music.
A violin with the Star of David inlaid on the back is one of three Holocaust-era violins Weinstein brought to HVA. “This violin was made in an area called Schönbach near the German-Czech border,” Weinstein said of the treasured violin. “Almost every Jewish house in Eastern Europe had a violin or a similar musical instrument. But by the end of the war, this extremely widespread tradition was basically extinct.”
Weinstein told the stories of the three violins he brought to HVA and some more notable instruments in the collection. Most of the violins in the collection were played by Jewish prisoners in Nazi concentration camps as part of makeshift orchestras within the confines of the prison camps. Workers in many concentration camps across Nazi Germany forced Jewish musicians to form orchestras and perform for the Nazi guards as entertainment. “They played every single day, no matter if it was raining or snowing, every day,” Weinstein said. He told the story of a woman named Elza who lead one of eight orchestras at the Auschwitz concentration camp. She helped protect the musician inmates by making sure her orchestra was organized and approved of by the camp workers.
Weinstein was accompanied by two performers from the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, including Concertmaster William Shaub. The two violinists played three pieces for the audience, showing off the centry-old violins. “These instruments are witnesses, survivors and were tools of resistance for the players in the camps,” Shaub said. “Some survived and others did not, and that is absolutely tragic. But at the same time, there is a message of hope in these instruments. That is what we are doing when we play them, sharing that unique message of hope.”
The University of Tennessee Downtown Gallery will be hosting the 37 violins visiting from Israel until January 27. The gallery features each of the violin’s stories and gives people the chance to see the restored instruments up close. The Tennessee Theatre will offer two concerts with the violins being performed by members of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra on January 23 and 24.