The Fiddle: When inanimate objects tell a family's history

Book Review: The Fiddle, by Natalie Cumming

        The Downhill Strugglers’ Jackson Lynch plays a fiddle backstage at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. The book traces the impact of a family fiddle passed down through multiple generations.  (photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER / REUTERS)
The Downhill Strugglers’ Jackson Lynch plays a fiddle backstage at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. The book traces the impact of a family fiddle passed down through multiple generations.
(photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER / REUTERS)
When you think about a family’s history, you think about the people in the family, what their lives were like, their relationships and experiences and the historical period they lived in. Yet there are times when an inanimate object can be just as central to the story of a family as the people themselves.
For some people, an inanimate object can carry great meaning. If it is an object that was passed on from generation to generation, it carries the family history with it. This is the case with the fiddle in Natalie Cumming’s family story.
The Fiddle is the story of a precious violin that originally belonged to the author’s grandfather, who lived in St. Petersburg before the Russian Revolution. Abraham David Levinsky was a talented violinist who worked for the tsar as a music teacher, teaching violin to the tsar’s five children. He also taught two of his own children, Israel and Rosa, to play the violin. He was lucky that because of his position, his family was comfortable and treated well, unlike many of their fellow Jews during that period.
Israel was the author’s father. He was just a little boy in 1917 when he and his family began the strenuous trek through the freezing winter weather from St. Petersburg to Odessa to escape the terrible violence brought on by the Bolsheviks. Leaving St. Petersburg on foot, Cumming’s grandfather Abraham took his family and began the walk towards freedom, a journey that took many long months in the most terrible and hazardous conditions. When they finally reached Odessa, the family sailed to England where the author lives today.
The family walked a few miles a day, pulling a cart loaded with their belongings, facing hunger, illness and most of all the icy cold and snow that was characteristic of Russian winters. The decision to quickly leave the city was made after Abraham witnessed a terrible massacre which took the lives of many Jews. The Bolsheviks were searching for Jews and royalist sympathizers, murdering both with random violence that made it impossible to stay in the city. That same night, the tsar and his family were arrested and Abraham knew that as an employee of the tsar, he had to run for his life.
Their original plan was to go to Minsk, but as they got close to the city they discovered that it was just as dangerous as St. Petersburg. Bolsheviks were everywhere. The next city, Lvov, was the same. Finally, someone told them that if they could reach Odessa, they would be able to get on a ship to another country. Throughout the long and backbreaking journey, Abraham kept his beloved violin close to him. Some evenings after a long day, he would take it out and play as the family sat huddled together around a fire to keep warm in a makeshift shelter. The beautiful music he created with the violin gave him and the others comfort and joy during the hardest times. As the family passed through small hamlets and villages on their journey, they occasionally met people who were kind to them and offered them food or lodging for the night. More than once, Abraham played the violin as payment for the kindness of these villagers.
When they finally settled in England, the author’s father and her Aunt Rosa continued their music lessons with their father. Rosa became a professional violinist in her 20s and performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. When she was offered a position as second violinist for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, she was thrilled to have this opportunity to advance her professional career.
HITLER WAS already in power and Rosa was warned that as a Jew she could be subject to the increasing discrimination against her people. Yet she believed that as a British citizen and a musician in the Philharmonic she would be safe. In Berlin, she wore an arm band with the Star of David on her sleeve and she was a proud Jew. One evening after a concert, she left the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, the sound of the audience’s applause still in her ears. Within seconds, she was pushed into the gutter and beaten up. When she was able to stand up, she saw her fiddle case lying on the pavement and immediately grabbed it and went toward her apartment. When she arrived there, she had a shock.
“The Gestapo were out in force, already removing all the Jewish occupants from her block of flats. Too late - she had been spotted, and anyway could not have run, for apart from the injuries she had just received she was rooted to the spot in terror. An officer approached. ‘Are you Rosa Levinsky, from the Berlin Philharmonic?’ She nodded dumbly. ‘You are under arrest, get over to that truck and get inside.’ She pulled herself together and cried out, ‘You cannot arrest me. I am British. I am doing a concert tour here with the orchestra. You cannot take me, I have done nothing.’”
Her cries ignored, she was thrown roughly into the waiting truck. The hysterical Rosa clung to her violin and did not let go.
The author’s Aunt Rosa survived years of cruel imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps where she sheltered her beloved violin as if it were a child. Ultimately, it saved her life. After her aunt’s death in 1947, the violin was passed on to the author’s father, Israel, a talented musician himself. He began to play the family violin and performed in England for many years until his death in 1984. Israel Levinsky, also known as “Sonny,” had a number of different bands during the “Big Band” era and was also a talented clarinetist and saxophonist. He performed on radio shows and in nightclubs, cabarets, hotels and more. Always aware of the violin’s history and what it had meant to his family, Sonny Levinsky continued to create beautiful music.
When her father died, Natalie Cumming became the owner of the family violin. Over 100 years since her grandfather taught the tsar’s children to play the violin, Cumming, who plays the piano herself, has had the violin restored and donated it to the Yehudi Menuhin music school in England. Today the historical violin is being played by a number of promising music students.
Natalie Cumming has made an important addition to the body of Holocaust literature that continues to grow more than seven decades after World War II ended. The author often gives talks about her book accompanied by a student from the Yehudi Menuhin School, who then performs with the fiddle of the book’s title.
This book kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next. Better editing could have smoothed out some of the writing, but that is a minor issue compared to the profound impact of the story. Rosa underwent the worst of the atrocities that took place at Auschwitz, and these experiences are described in painful detail. Some readers may need to even take a break. But after taking your break, go back to the book and keep reading.  
The Fiddle is an important story that deserves to be more widely shared.
By Natalie Cumming
Michael Terence Publishing
274 pages; $12.49