“Violins of Hope” founder Amnon Weinstein dies

Amnon Weinstein, an Israeli luthier who established the Violins of Hope as a musical remembrance of the Holocaust’s victims, died on March 5. He was 84.

The Violins of Hope, many of which were played in the death camps by Jews who survived and many who were murdered, have been brought to cities around the world for concerts and educational programs.

In the 1980s, a Holocaust survivor brought 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 father, a violin maker from Lithuania, had moved to Israel and opened a violin shop. But over 400 other family members were murdered by the Nazis.

For many in the camps, the violin was a way to stay alive. As death transports arrived, musicians played orchestral music to give the arrivals a sense of security — before they were killed. Being in the orchestra was a ticket to survival, at least for a while.

In 1996, after several similar requests over the years, Weinstein decided he was ready to restore violins that had been in the death camps, and it became his mission, along with preserving the stories behind each violin and their owners. In 2008, 16 violins were used in the first Violins of Hope concerts, in Istanbul and Jerusalem.

Weinstein’s philosophy was that the violins are meant to be played, giving voice to those who were lost. His son, Avshi, is also involved in the effort.

The first United States appearance of the violins was a two-week visit in Charlotte in 2012. In 2015, the violins were brought to Cleveland for a series of programs.

In March 2018, the violins were in Nashville for what was then still a rare public appearance. As part of the Nashville visit, the violins also came to Birmingham for a series of concerts, after Birminghamian Sallie Downs visited Weinstein in Israel to convince him that Birmingham would be a good venue.

The centerpiece concert, “Dreams of Hope,” at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls were murdered in a Klan bombing in 1963, became a documentary that aired on PBS stations nationally.

The violins were in Louisville, Ky., in October 2019, and after a year of dormancy due to Covid, performances were in Richmond in August 2021. They were in several communities around South Carolina in April 2022, followed by a week of events in New Orleans in January 2023.

The Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Dania Beach, Fla., is currently hosting an exhibit of the violins.

In a statement, the Alabama Holocaust Education Center announced Weinstein’s death “with heavy hearts.” Through his restorations, “these violins became testaments to history, uniting the next generation with the proud history of Jewish resilience, resistance, and artistry — even in the darkest of times.”

The AHEC is the only Holocaust education center in America to house one of the restored violins, on long-term loan from the Weinstein family.