Violinist Revives The Voice Of A Violin Silenced In The Holocaust

Jun 22, 2020

Among of the millions of voices silenced during World War II were those of countless musicians. While imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, they lifted spirits by playing music on beautifully decorated violins.

Many of those instruments were also silenced during the Holocaust. But violinist Niv Ashkenazi has now given a priceless violin its voice back, playing the restored instrument in a new recording featuring works by Jewish composers.

“It has a very deep and resonant voice. It is very emotional and warm,” said Ashkenazi of the historic violin he plays on Violins of Hope (Albany Records). The recording features works by composers affected by the Holocaust, performed on a violin that survived the Holocaust.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful instrument.”

Violinist Niv Ashkenazi
Credit publicity photo / Courtesy of Niv Ashkenazy

Thanks to a long-term instrument loan, Ashkenazi is the only violinist in the world who regularly plays  one of the instruments from the Violins of Hope Collection. Comprising more than 60 historic instruments, the Violins of Hope were collected by the Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein, who today works with his son, violin maker Avshalom Weinstein.

In 1996, Amnon Weinstein began seeking out violins that had survived the Holocaust. People unearthed instruments long silent and gave them to Weinstein, who restored them to playing condition. Those violins also came with stories.

“The idea is to give them new life and new voice,” Ashkenazi said. “These were voices that were silenced, and now we’ll be able to hear them again.”

The stories of some of those instruments – and of Weinstein’s project – are told in James A. Grymes’ book Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust – Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour. Grymes’ book won the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.

Not much is known about the history of the violin Ashkenazi plays. It was probably made in the early 1900s in the former Yugoslavia, Ashkenazi says. The instrument eventually made its way to America, though no one knows when or how because it was already in the U.S. when it was donated to the Violins of Hope project.

“It’s a very, very fine instrument, one of the fine instruments of that time, so it would have gone to a wealthy family or to a professional violinist,” Ashkenazi said.

The back of the violin is decorated with a Star of David inlaid in abalone shell.  According to Ashkenazi, this was a fairly typical ornamentation on violins that belonged to Jewish musicians in the early 20th century.

Another interesting clue – the wood is lighter on the violin’s back than on its front.

“In Orthodox Jewish tradition, you’re not allowed to have representative artwork on the wall. So instead they would hang the violins up as decoration, with the Star of David facing out on the back. And so the light would come through the windows and hit the back of the violin, and it would slowly bleach it,” Ashkenazi said.

On Violins of Hope Ashkenazi and pianist Matthew Graybil give voice to musical works by Jewish composers, many of whom were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. Some died there.

The recording's first track is the lyrical and spritely Serenade by Robert Dauber, an Austrian composer imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp near Prague. 

The Serenade is Dauber’s only surviving work. He was killed at age 23 in the Nazi camp at Dachau.

The recording also features the charming Trois Pièces de Concert by Szymon Laks, the Polish violinist and composer who was concertmaster of the men’s orchestra at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Laks was transferred to Dachau concentration camp and was eventually freed when the camp was liberated in April 1945.

John Williams’ theme from the film Schindler’s List and Ernest Bloch’s Nigun are also on the recording. Ashkenazi says these are iconic works that help define “the Jewish sound.”

“Bloch was one of the key people who helped create what we think of now as the modern Jewish sound,” said Ashkenazi.

And on commission for the recording, Israeli American composer Sharon Farber created an arrangement for violin, piano four hands and narrator of the final movement from her concerto for cello, orchestra and narrator. Farber joins Graybil at the keyboard in this performance, which also features actor Tony Campisi.

The starting point for Farber’s work are the dramatic and inspiring words of Holocaust survivor Curt Lowens who, in the Dutch resistance, saved the lives of more than 100 Jewish children. Lowens was also commended by U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower for aiding two downed Army Airmen.

Farber’s score cloaks the text in a musical setting both melodically resplendent and brimming with hope, like the violin it was transcribed for.

Niv Ashkenazy’s recording Violins of Hope was released in March 2020.  The violins were also the subject of a 2016 documentary film by Lance Shulz, Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust featuring Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody as narrator.