Music of hope

The concert in Kfar Blum is sure to be a moving experience for players and audience alike.

Second-generation violion builder Amnon Weinstein inspects an instrument (photo credit: ZIV SHENHAV)
Second-generation violion builder Amnon Weinstein inspects an instrument
(photo credit: ZIV SHENHAV)
Classical music evokes all kinds of emotions from different people. But for Amnon Weinstein, it is about more than the sounds the player elicits from the instrument, however skilled or gifted he or she may be. It is very much about the instrument itself – and the instrument’s dark history.
The youthful-looking 76-year-old Weinstein is a master instrument builder. His Tel Aviv workshop accommodates scores of violins, with some cellos, clarinets and even the odd double bass dotted around the place, too. Having studied violin in France and Italy several decades ago, he is deeply immersed in the mysteries and joys of music making. However, for many years now his main avenue of endeavor has been the resuscitation of damaged instruments – most importantly, the restoration of violins that were played during the Holocaust.
That has led to a globe-trotting project called Violins of Hope, which has provided a platform for incorporating Weinstein’s lovingly revived instruments in concerts in such places as Cleveland, Ohio, Berlin, Mexico and Jerusalem. The next airing of some of his restored violins will take place at next week’s Voice of Music Festival at Kfar Blum (July 12-16). The Violins of Hope concert will take place at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, and will feature the Israeli premiere of Ohad Ben-Ari’s eponymous composition, which was specially commissioned for the 2015 Berlin concert. Festival patrons can get a better handle on the whole emotive exercise several hours before the concert at a 3 p.m. screening of Lance Schultz’s Violins of Hope documentary.
Weinstein is a second-generation violin builder who worked alongside his late father, Moshe, and is continuing his professional and emotional legacy. Today, Weinstein works side-by-side with his own son, Avshi. Together, they lovingly and deftly restore violins to their former glory.
The Holocaust connection began with Moshe, who was born in Vilna and came to Palestine in 1938 with his mother. His father subscribed to the idea that Jews were not to live in the Holy Land before the coming of the Messiah. He and close to 400 members of Weinstein’s extended family perished in the Holocaust.
For me, that rang a bell – if not a violin. My own maternal grandfather, whom I never met, was a Zionist and made a couple of attempts at making aliya in the 1920s. Sadly, on both occasions he contracted serious ailments and was forced to return to Vienna. Like Moshe Weinstein’s father, my great-grandfather was vehemently opposed to the idea of a pre-Messiah Zionist entity and, when his son came back to Vienna, he summarily disowned him. There are several interfaces between my and Weinstein’s Holocaust-related family backdrop. Most of my mother’s close and extended family, including her parents and two siblings, were murdered in the Holocaust.
After World War II, Moshe Weinstein served as a sort of an initial point of contact for immigrants from Vilna who survived the Holocaust. That was the beginning of what was to eventually become the Violins of Hope.
“Survivors who had been violinists would come to my father and tell him that if he didn’t buy their violin they would destroy it,” Weinstein recalls. “My father could not bear the thought of violins being destroyed, so he bought them.
Some of these musicians had been forced to take part in orchestras that “serenaded” Jews who went out of concentration camps on daily work details, and greeted them on their return at the end of the day – those that had survived the day’s labors, that is. They also played while Jews were herded off to the gas chambers. Weinstein’s father received violins in all kinds of conditions, and Weinstein did, too.
“One violin, when I opened it up, I saw it had dark ashes inside it,” he says. “That must be from the crematoria at a concentration camp.”
The survivors from Vilna who passed through the Weinsteins’ Tel Aviv home also brought with them some of the tribulations they had experienced and the horrors they had witnessed. This left an indelible mark on young Weinstein’s consciousness.
“The children’s room was right next to the guest room,” he recalls. “I could hear the survivors crying at night. In the morning my mother would go into the room, to make up the beds, and I would sometimes go with her. She’d find bits of bread under the pillows – the survivors couldn’t break the habit of trying to ensure their survival.”
All told, today, Weinstein says he has close to 70 violins that were played in concentration camps or whose owners went through terrible ordeals. One belonged to a non-Jewish German who, as a communist, did not fare much better than the Jews. Standing in the seemingly endless row of violins on the shelf behind Weinstein’s desk was a violin with a Star of David. This, says Weinstein, was not a Nazi ruse to mark out instruments played by Jews.
“There was a German non-Jewish violin maker and repairer who put Stars of David on violins belonging to Jews and he put crosses on the violins of Christians. He was not an anti-Semite. The Jews were his best customers.”
There is one violin that Weinstein steadfastly refuses to repair and restore to its former glory. The story goes that it was given by a Jewish musician to a non-Jewish German violin maker for repair work. The latter was clearly a keen support of Hitler and, when he returned the repaired violin to the Jewish customer, unbeknown to the owner, he had nefariously “enhanced” the instrument with some gratuitous Nazi baggage. When Weinstein opened the violin, to initiate the restoration process, he found “Heil Hitler, 1936” gorged into the underside of the playing surface, with the addition of a swastika. “I refuse to repair that violin,” Weinstein declares. “I hope it never gets played, for a thousand years.” Even so, he can’t bring himself to discard it.
Weinstein began repairing violins that had survived the Holocaust in the early 1990s, around six years after his father died. His father bought the violins knowing he would never be able to sell them.
“There was an embargo on all German-made products until around 1980,” he explains. Of course, the whole subject was laden with heavy emotion for his father, who discovered the fate of his approximately 380 relatives from a survivor a couple or so years after the end of the war.
“That was when my father had his first heart attack."
Weinstein and his son Avshi put their heart and soul into their work, investing up to $10,000 and 18 months in each violin, never expecting to make a penny on them. The identity of the original owners of some of the violins is known, and there are photographs of them playing their instrument – in happier times – and biographical details.
One such is Feivil Wininger’s violin, which is featured in James A. Grymes’s moving award-winning tome Violins of Hope. The tale of the Wininger family, who came from Romania, is harrowing in the extreme but, ultimately, Feivil was able to save his family and other inmates of the Shargorod ghetto in Ukraine, thanks to his superb musicianship. The last violin he played during the war, and which he brought with him to Palestine, was given to Weinstein for repair by Wininger’s daughter Helen. At first Helen did not tell the violin maker about the instrument’s history, and he told her that the violin was in such bad shape that she should consider buying her father a new one. However, when Helen revealed the violin’s past to Weinstein, he agreed to repair it and didn’t charge her a shekel.
“These violins should not be put in a glass cabinet in a museum,” says Weinstein. “They should be played, to keep the music alive and to give the original owners new life.”
The concert in Kfar Blum is sure to be a moving experience for players and audience alike.
For tickets and more information about the Voice of Music Festival: and