Avshalom Weinstein, left, and his father Amnon Weinstein are the founders of “Violins of Hope.” (Courtesy photo)

Holocaust-era instruments tell untold stories

‘Violins of Hope’ recalls lives, music of those who suffered at hands of Nazis

When millions of voices tragically were silenced during the Holocaust, millions of stories were left untold. Yet many voices and stories will come to light in the next eight weeks in the Bay Area in “Violins of Hope,” the West Coast debut of 50 Holocaust-era string instruments in dozens of performances, exhibitions, discussions, film screenings and ecumenical services across the region. Partnering with more than 40 Northern California arts and cultural organizations, Music at Kohl Mansion, a chamber music presenter in Burlingame for 37 years, hosts the programming, which begins Thursday and runs through March 16.

The 50 instruments (mostly violins) in the program once were played by prisoner-musicians at concentration camps and in the ghettos of Europe during World War II. They are among 86 that father- and-son luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein recovered and carefully restored at their workshop in Israel. The Weinsteins speak about their work at “Violins of Hope” forums, including the opening free event Thursday in Foster City.

Many of the violins arrived at the Weinsteins’ workshop with cracks and worn-off varnish, largely due to being exposed to the elements while their owners were ordered to play them outdoors. But each also brought a unique background to the atelier.

“The violins we get in our workshop were brought usually by the relatives or the (Holocaust) survivors themselves, and they are the people who tell us the stories,” says Avshalom Weinstein, who, with his father, is a co-founder of Violins of Hope. “Sometimes we are lucky to get extra material such as photos, but usually it’s just the instruments.”

Amnon Weinstein works on a Violins of Hope instrument. (Courtesy Amnon Weinstein)
Amnon Weinstein works on a Violins of Hope instrument. (Courtesy Amnon Weinstein)

The provenance and experiences of some of the violins and their owners are movingly recounted in James A. Grymes’ award-winning book “Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust—Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour.” Grymes, a University of North Carolina musicologist, is among the program’s public speakers.

His book’s stories of despair, heroism and hope — and the need to retell those stories — also served as an inspiration for composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer’s commissioned chamber work “Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope,” which premieres at Kohl Mansion in Burlingame on Jan. 19 and San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral on Feb. 21.

“Cultural memory is very short, historical memory is short, and if we don’t tell stories these things disappear,” Heggie says. “Music is an enhanced way of storytelling; it’s essentially an emotional way of telling stories where the emotion is heightened in the telling, and the stories touch us very deeply.”

Touching, too, are the instruments themselves, including the remarkable violin that New Century Chamber Orchestra music director and violinist Daniel Hope will play in the premiere of Heggie’s composition. The violin, known as “No. 23,” was owned by an Auschwitz survivor who played it in the death camp’s men’s orchestra that entertained the sick whims of its Nazi overlords, but also soothed many of the inmates.

“The violin has a warm, mellow sound, but I have to say I found it very emotional to play an instrument, knowing something of its dark past,” Hope says. “It’s as if one is sharing its grief through music.”

Hope will join mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who recently portrayed Hansel in San Francisco Opera’s production of “Hansel and Gretel,” and a string quartet drawn from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra for the premiere of Heggie’s work, which Hope describes as a “beautiful, soulful work, with an interplay between violin and voice that is both haunting and inspiring.”

Heggie, who notes the healing power of music and how it gives people hope, purpose and reason to survive, is particularly moved by stories of survival.

“Stories of survival are fascinating to me and that’s why these violins appeal to me because they seem like the ultimate survivors,” Heggie says. “They can still speak and sing, even though the people who played them are long gone.”

IF YOU GO

Violins of Hope San Francisco Bay Area

When: Jan. 16 through March 15

Where: San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Alameda, Marin, Contra Costa, Napa and Monterey counties

Tickets: $6 to $250 (free admission to some events)

Contact: (650) 762-1130, violinsofhopesfba.org

From left, composer Jake Heggie, violinist Hannah Tarley, vocalist Sasha Cooke and librettist Gene Scheer collaborate on “Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope.” (Courtesy Rick Gydesen)

SELECT HIGHLIGHTS

Jan. 16: Opening Conversation with Founders of Violins of Hope, Peninsula Jewish Community Center, Foster City, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 19: Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope premiere, Kohl Mansion, Burlingame, 7 p.m.

Jan. 19: Author James Grymes and luthiers Amnon, Avshalom Weinstein; violinist Hannah Tarley, Contemporary Jewish Museum, S.F., 1:30 p.m.

Jan. 27: International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 75th anniversary of liberation of Auschwitz, New Century Chamber Orchestra, Congregation Emanu-el, S.F., 7 p.m.

Feb. 6: Along the Trade Route concert of Klezmer, Middle Eastern, Celtic and American music, Koret Auditorium, S.F. Main Library, 6 p.m.

Feb. 7: Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust documentary, narrated by Adrien Brody, Koret Auditorium, S.F. Public Library, 3 p.m.

Feb. 21: Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope premiere, Grace Cathedral, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 23: S.F. Symphony Chamber Music Series concert of music by Malcolm Arnold, Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa, Johannes Brahms, Davies Symphony Hall, S.F., 2 p.m.

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