My violin was made four years before the inauguration of President…George Washington. In 1785. The maker was Joseph Gagliano, a famous Neapolitan luthier. That’s about all I know for sure about my violin. I don’t even know who owned before me, let alone who its other owners were.
Can you imagine what stories my violin could tell if it could talk? I don’t just mean about the major events in history it witnessed over the past 232 years. I mean whose kitchen table it sat on, whose house it was in the first time it experienced an electric light, whose trunk it sat in while it made its way, whether by ship or by plane, across the Atlantic. My violin might have been onstage for the premier of Beethoven’s Fifth or in the pit for Show Boat. Or it could have sat in a violin shop for a hundred years, though I doubt that.
There are a few intriguing clues about my violin’s professional life.
You see that red stuff on the back of my scroll? No, it’s not 18th century chewing gum. It’s a wax stamp that says “Republique Francaise.” That most likely indicates (according to the experts) that it was in a museum exhibit in France. But it could also be a customs stamp, or even indicating that it was confiscated by the French Republic during the revolution. In any event it appears to have been highly regarded for one reason or another for a long time.
What’s more interesting to me, though, is this:
Do you notice all that wear and tear along the top of the right side of the scroll? I really like that. Because what it means to me is that someone owned this violin for a very long time. And even more, used it for a very long time. So it was likely in professional hands, or at least someone who loved to play this violin. I think the reason for the wear is the result of the case it was in. If you’ve ever seen 19th century violin cases, they basically look like little black coffins, and many of them were handmade with no padding in the interior. So if the case was a bit asymmetrical, every time the owner put the violin away it would rub against the scroll, giving it a good chance the violin would have worn like that. That means the violinist not only had a long career, (s)he never made a helluva lot of money because (s)he could never afford a decent case. So not much has changed.
There is a unique collection of violins whose history we know, however. They’re not necessarily all good violins, but they have a powerful story to tell. These violins were owned by Jews, many of whom perished, who were concentration camp prisoners during World War II. Over the decades after the War, one by one they were brought to a violin maker in Israel named Moshe Weinstein, who repaired the instruments at no cost because he felt these violins had a story that must be told: the story of hope. To many in the camps, the only thing that enabled them to retain the will to live was the sound of the violin. For that reason, this collection is referred to as Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust.
The Violins of Hope have traveled around the world as an inspiring educational tool. A few years ago the Cleveland Orchestra played a concert on these instruments at a major synagogue/arts center in Cleveland, which is a story in itself. The result of all this is the extraordinary documentary, Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust.
Why is this important?
I was born just seven years after the end of World War II. Seven years! That’s nothing. We remember what we ate at restaurants seven years ago. Yet when I was a kid it was as if World War II was ancient history. Even though I was from a Jewish family. Even though my father fought in France at the end of the war.
You may say, well, I was only a kid. But I do have an older brother and sister, and though we sat around the dinner table everyday we never talked about the horrors of war. Yes, once in a while we could prod my father to tell a war story, but it was always just a little vignette: picking sour apples in an orchard, bumping into someone he knew from New York City in the muddy trench next to him. We watched World War II movies on the television together. But is was basically for entertainment value: the Good Guys against the Bad Guys. Cowboys and Indians. Cops and Robbers.
Now we might think, what a mistake it was not to talk about the lessons of the war. But how does one wrap ones head around the 6,000,000 Jews who were murdered. And the Catholics, and the homosexuals, and the Romani, and the communists. The 20,000,000 Russians who died. Twenty-million! The millions of Japanese, Chinese, and Europeans who died. And of course, all the Americans. How do you deal with that? Block out the past and to look only toward the rosy future. After all, we had won. Nazism had lost, and antisemitism would never again rear its ugly head. At that time, that way of thinking wasn’t only understandable. It was almost necessary.
But history does not stop. History plods on, with or without us, and as Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously stated, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change the more they stay the same. Look around us. Rarely has the story of the Violins of Hope been more important than now.
Violins of Hope enables us to comprehend the horror of the Holocaust because by hearing the story of each of these violins we see humanity as a collection of thinking and feeling individuals, not merely numbers with too many zeroes after them. Urbanites, country folk, scholars, peasants, bankers, garbage men, scientists, carpenters. They composed, played, and listened to music from symphonies in the concert hall to Klezmer in the shtetl. Please watch this one-hour documentary: Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust. It is a story you’ll never forget.
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