Violins of Hope coming to New Orleans for week of programs

Four “Violins of Hope” will be visiting New Orleans this month, bearing witness to a handful of the millions of individual tragedies of the Holocaust.

The Violins of Hope are violins that were played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust, often in concentration camps. Some of the violinists were murdered, some survived. Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshi, have been restoring the violins for 25 years and bringing them to communities around the world, with the idea that having the violins played gives voice to the individual stories behind the instruments.

The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and National World War II Museum have been coordinating a week of activities and presentations around the violins, from Jan. 24 to 28.

Maggie Hartley, director of public engagement for the National World War II Museum, said the “unique and exciting lineup” for the week “is going to be very impactful for the New Orleans area.”

Mimi Kruger, managing director for the orchestra, said there was a meeting with the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans CEO Arnie Fielkow and Ana Gershanik a few years ago, but the pandemic delayed plans to bring the violins to New Orleans.

Hartley was in Virginia a couple years ago, working on a series of events with the violins in Richmond, but Covid interfered, much to her disappointment. When she moved to New Orleans, she was happy to find out that plans were underway to host the violins.

Later this year, the museum will open its new Liberation Pavilion, focusing on the liberation of the concentration camps, and how the war affected the world in the immediate aftermath, and echoes to today.

Hartley said that makes the violin programs even more timely and meaningful for the museum, “to make sure we are highlighting the stories of the violins, the Holocaust and how it shaped the world today,” along with the current fight against antisemitism.

The planning committee for the week is co-chaired by Ana and Juan Gershanik.

Instruments of Memory

Half a century ago, a Holocaust survivor brought Amnon Weinstein a violin to restore, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The violin had been played in the concentration camps, and when he opened the case, ashes fell out.

Weinstein’s parents had moved to pre-state Israel from Lithuania in 1938, the only part of his family to leave Europe. His father, Moshe, was a master violin maker. After 1941, all communication from the rest of the family ceased. They later found out that all 400 family members were gone.

The night after hearing the news, Moshe had a heart attack. He survived, but never spoke about the family’s tragedy again. Despite all that, he would buy German violins, even though after the Holocaust, Israelis did not want to have anything to do with German goods and there was no resale market for the instruments. He just couldn’t bear to see musical instruments destroyed, his grandson, Avshi, explained.

Amnon Weinstein went to Italy to learn old-world violin craftsmanship, and took over the family business in Tel Aviv when his father died in 1986. But the Holocaust continued to haunt him, and he turned away violins from the Holocaust.

In the 1990s, they had an apprentice from Dresden who knew almost nothing about the Holocaust. When he saw the “rare” collection of German instruments, he begged Amnon to visit Dresden and give a lecture about the instruments.

In 1996, as he was training his son Avshi, “working in the workshop where his father trained him and he was training his own son,” he reflected on the Holocaust violins and was ready to confront the past.

Today, the collection numbers around 120 violins, and each has its own story. For many in the camps, the violin was a way to stay alive.

In some cases, a German official would take the violinist under his wing so he could perform at parties. Some were played by Jewish musicians who were forced to perform as fellow Jews got off the cattle cars, to make the camp seem more normal to the new arrivals, and hide that it was an extermination facility.

One violinist, who was 12 years old and whose parents were murdered, became a favorite musician of a group of Nazi soldiers. They gave him a German outfit, which he wore to his performances at an officer’s club. He would channel information that he overheard to his partisan group, which fed it to the Red Army. He soon smuggled explosives into the club in his violin case, then one night after his performance, set them to detonate after he left.

There is one violin in the collection that will not be restored, because the story is on the inside. A man in Washington had purchased that violin and planned to restore it, but when he opened it, he found a large swastika and “Heil Hitler,” and a label stating the violin had been restored in 1936.

He was going to destroy it, Weinstein said, but also couldn’t bear to demolish an instrument, so he Googled — and found Violins of Hope. He called, and Amnon immediately said he would take it. That violin is often brought to classroom presentations.

The violin that will be featured in New Orleans is referred to as the Violin of the Flowers. Click here for its history.

New Orleans Events

The New Orleans programs are in commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2023, sponsored by Taube Philanthropies as part of the Taube Family Holocaust Education Program.

At the World War II Museum, members and visitors will be able to view the violins in the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. The display will be available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 25 to 28.

There will be a virtual tour of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, on Jan. 23 at 9:30 a.m. Registration is available on the orchestra’s website.

On Jan. 24, there will be an opening reception and program at the pavilion, with the reception at 5 p.m. and the program at 6 p.m. There will be a livestreaming option for the program.

On Jan. 25, there will be a Lunchbox Lecture with Avshi Weinstein, who opened his own workshop in Istanbul in 2009. He has traveled the world with the Violins of Hope collection, visiting schools where students often are receiving their first presentation about the Holocaust.

The Lunchbox Lecture is free and open to the community, and will be at the Karen H. Bechtel and William M. Osborne III Media Auditorium in the Hall of Democracy. Doors open at 11:30 a.m., with the program at noon. The lecture will also be on the museum’s Vimeo, YouTube and Facebook platforms, and will be available afterward.

The orchestra will perform on Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the Orpheum Theatre. Classical violinist Philippe Quint, a multiple Grammy Award nominee from New York, will be featured.

The concert will feature works by Contreras, Korngold, Chaplin, and Shostakovich. A pre-concert talk will be at 6:30 p.m.  Tickets are available through the orchestra.

Quint, who has frequently performed with the LPO, said the concert will be “celebrating the strength of the human spirit through the history of precious violins.”

At 10 a.m. on Jan. 26 there will be an open rehearsal, tickets are $10. After the rehearsal, the conductor and guest artists will talk with the audience about preparing for concerts, and information about the pieces performed.

On Jan. 27, the museum and orchestra will host a student webinar, “Music and the Holocaust” at 1 p.m. Held on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the webinar will discuss the importance of music during the Holocaust, as well as Violins of Hope, and one of the violins will be played.

Also on Jan. 27, there will be a commemorative program at the Freedom Pavilion, with a 5 p.m. reception and the program at 6 p.m. It will also be livestreamed.

Touro Synagogue is planning “The Music of the Violins of Hope” as part of its 6 p.m. Shabbat service on Jan. 27, with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra Quartet.

There will also be a “Music at the Museum” presentation at the Freedom Pavilion on Jan. 28. There will be a reception at 6:30 p.m. and the program at 7:30 p.m. The free event, which is already full, will feature “forbidden music,” by Jewish composers who were banned by the Nazis as “degenerates” during World War II. The program includes works by Weill, Mendelssohn, Williams, Chaplin and Morricone.

The orchestra will also have ensemble visits to eight schools, and educational resources for teachers and students will be available.

The orchestra’s website has a downloadable teacher’s guide about the violins, as a supplement to music or history classes. The guide gives an overview of the Holocaust, discusses the role of the violins in preserving Jewish heritage, and the role of music in cultural identity.

Hartley said the week of events “is not something that will end on Jan. 28. It will have long lasting impact on classrooms in New Orleans.”

In conjunction with the Violins of Hope programs, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience will exhibit a violin it recently acquired from a member of the Kindertransport, an effort to save Jewish children from Nazi-occupied areas. Gunther Karger, who donated the violin, was on the last such train to Sweden in 1939.