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In 'Violins Of Hope,' Now In Louisville, Instruments Tell Their Own Holocaust Story

vio Violins of Hope 2
A.J. Cornell, Frazier History Museum

Gabe Lefkowitz, the concertmaster of the Louisville Orchestra, had an opportunity last week to play 14 violins from the “Violins of Hope” touring exhibition that is based for two weeks in Louisville at the Frazier History Museum, with many special programs taking place around the city through Oct. 26.

It was Lefkowitz’s plan to try out all the “playable” instruments in the collection of more than 40 violins, plus a viola and a cello. His goal was to determine which instruments Louisville Orchestra musicians could play in concerts that conclude the exhibition’s run in Louisville next Friday and Saturday.

Violins of Hope is a collection of violins that have been restored after being found and saved in the years since the Holocaust of World War II. It was during those dark years when these — and many other violins now lost to history — were played by oppressed and imprisoned Jews, many of whom died or were murdered in concentration camps. It is the idea of the Violins of Hope exhibition that the music those Jewish musicians made on their fiddles offered some light of hope to so many tortured souls in the darkest of times. And perhaps offer hope in our own troubled times.

Lefkowitz says he found the violins to be very good quality and in excellently restored shape, capable of nicely singing their notes. But one  —  called the “Auschwitz Violin” — vividly brought the Violins of Hope idea home to him.

Playing a selection from the movie “Schindler’s List” for a small group of listeners, the violinist found himself profoundly touched.

“To play that music from maybe the most important Holocaust film on an actual violin that was in the Auschwitz concentration camp and played by a prisoner was chilling and very moving,” says Lefkowitz. “That moment is going to be one of the most meaningful artistic experiences of my life.”

Which is exactly the effect Louisvillian Miriam Ostroff was hoping for when she heard about the Violins of Hope two years ago and set herself on a single-minded mission to bring the exhibit to Louisville.

“I heard about the Violins of Hope from a friend in Sarasota, Florida, who had worked on it, then just happened to see there was a program scheduled on PBS about the violins, turned it on, and just fell completely into it all,” says Ostroff. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to bring it to Louisville and I wasn’t sure how it could be funded. But I just thought it was so important that people be aware of the violins. Not just of their existence, but what they represent.”

Ostroff worked her connections, then made calls to people she’d never met  —  generally persisting until she not only wound up with the funding to bring the show to Louisville, but with an armful of Louisville partners lined up to create special programs around the story of the Violins of Hope.

One of those programs is a partnership of the Jefferson County Public Schools and the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, which has created a series of educational programs for students showcasing the violins and explaining the Holocaust.

But a myriad of other events jam the calendar and are open to the public over the weekend and through next week. The “home” for the Violins is an exhibit at the Frazier Museum of History, with many of the violins getting out and about around town for events leading to a finale with Lefkowitz and the Louisville Orchestra in concerts conducted by Teddy Abrams next Friday and Saturday in Whitney Hall. (Find a list with dates and times below.)

“I just think people have to be aware of the lessons we learn from the Violins of Hope,” says Ostroff. “And once they are aware they have to follow their knowledge. They can’t just stick their heads in on the thing, and say, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ They have to be willing to do something about it in their own way.

“The violence and hate we see on the rise today,” Ostroff continues, “that can’t keep happening. We have to learn some lessons from the past.”

And the violins, she says, offer such tangible tales. “Here’s a violin. We know exactly who played it. We know exactly where that person perished in the Holocaust. This violin is the only thing left of him … and now we will hear music from it.”

Lefkowitz, 32, notes that he is far removed by age from the Holocaust of more than 70 years.

“I do have extended relatives who were in concentration camps, including Auschwitz, as do most Jewish people,” says Lefkowitz. The violinist notes that his father, who plays in the Boston Symphony, has performed for 25 years with a group called the Terezin Music Foundation.

“Terezin was a camp the Nazis stocked with musicians and artists and would bring groups like the Red Cross there for inspections, saying ‘You can see all the culture we have here. The bad stories you’ve heard about the camps aren’t true.’”

Of course it was all for show, while millions were murdered. But the musicians clung to their instruments and their music. A kind of odd but wonderful consequence of the deception.

Lefkowitz says he was pleasantly surprised by the quality and condition of the Violins of Hope. Many of the instruments had been held together by wire and nails  —  whatever could be scrounged by penniless people to keep them playing.

One owner in Holland buried his violin in his yard before being arrested. After the war, the violin was dug up and found badly damaged. But the Israeli violin-making family of Moshe Weinstein and particularly his son Amnon and grandson Avshi Weinstein have carefully brought it back to life, and it will be among those played here. It is the work of the Weinsteins, over decades — finding, documenting, and meticulously restoring the violins — that has created the Violins of Hope collection.

Lefkowitz says the orchestra musicians who will be playing the Violins of Hope will come in early next week to pair up with the instruments they will play in the concerts Friday and Saturday.

Interestingly, Lefkowitz, who had his choice, did not pick the Auschwitz violin for the concert, even though it is considered possibly the finest sounding in the collection. Instead, the concertmaster will probably perform with the “Zimmerman-Krongold Violin.” Lefkowitz says it also has a fine voice, and, importantly, is similar in dimensions to his own Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin. (Think about the distances flying fingers reach up and down the fingerboard.)

That Zimmerman-Krongold violin also has a history. It was made in 1926 by the important Jewish maker Yaakov Zimmerman for his friend and amateur violinist Shimon Krongold, a well-to-do industrialist in Warsaw, Poland. According to a story researched by University of North Carolina musicologist Dr. James Grymes for his book “Violins of Hope,” Krongold often loaned the violin to promising young violinists.

Learning the Nazis would soon arrest him, Krongold fled Poland with his precious violin, traveling eastward through the Russian front. He got as far as Tashkent, Uzbekistan — more than 2,300 miles from home — where he died of typhus. There is a story that on his deathbed Krongold entrusted his only possession, the violin made for him by his friend Zimmerman, to a friend in Uzbekistan. After the war, the Uzbekistani took the violin to Krongold’s brother Nadir, in Jerusalem — another 2,000 miles, westward this time. Nadir Krongold showed it to violinmaker Moshe Weinstein, who discovered Zimmerman’s label inside that noted the violin was a gift to Krongold.

Grymes, who will give a Violins of Hope lecture Oct. 23 at Bellarmine University, tells some of the story in this video.

Lefkowitz plans to play the famous solo from “Schindler’s List,” the Steven Spielberg movie scored by John Williams, on the Zimmerman-Krongold violin.

Lefkowitz believes it is all a story coming together in present time.

“What we all have in common, and what is wonderful about humanity, is to have a project like this come to town that involves so many people and so many different arts organizations and historical ones,” says Lefkowitz. “I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling for the city.”

And personal.

“It’s playing these instruments and knowing they belonged to individuals who perished,” says Lefkowitz. “There’re six million individual stories of Jews during this time that were cut short.

“What strikes me about this project, especially being a millennial, sometimes we have a distance from very important global historical events, and to experience this in such a personal way makes it more relatable, more prescient to the future.”

Violins Of Hope Events

Friday, Oct. 18 – Violins of Hope Lunch and Learn, Louisville Free Public Library, 301 York Street., Noon

Friday, Oct. 18 – Violins of Hope; The Temple – Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom, 5101 U.S. 42; 7-8 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 19 – Dare to Dream Academy and the Violins of Hope; Canaan Christian Church, 2840 Hikes Ln.; 1-3 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 19 – Violins of Hope Concert with NouLou Chamber Players and Louisville Youth Orchestra; Ogle Center, Indiana University Southeast, 4201 Grant Line Rd., New Albany, Indiana; 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 20 – Violins of Hope Moved by Music; The Frazier History Museum, 829 W. Main St.; 2-4 p.m.

Monday, Oct. 21 – Violins of Hope Presentation, Floyd County Library. 180 Spring St., New Albany, Ind.; 4-5 p.m.

Monday, Oct. 21 – Simchat Torah at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, 2401 Woodbourne Ave.; 5:45 -8:45 p.m.

Tuesday, Oct. 22 -- Festival of Faiths concert “Repairing the World Through Music and Story,” with violinist Johnny Gandelsmann. Cathedral of the Assumption, 433 S. Fifth St.; 7-8:15 p.m.

Wednesday, Oct. 23 – Bellarmine University Guarneschelli Lecture Series, Dr. James Grymes, author of the book “Violins of Hope”; Bellarmine University, Frazier Hall, 2001 Newburg Rd.; 7 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 24 – University of Louisville School of Music Performance, Violins of Hope, 150 W. Brandeis, 3-5 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 24 – Jewish Federation Donor Appreciation, Violins of Hope; 401 River Rd.; 7-9 p.m.

Oct. 25 – Violins of Hope, Louisville Orchestra; Whitney Hall, Ky Center for the Performing Arts, 501 W. Main St.; 11 a.m.

Oct. 25 – Violins of Hope, Strings of the Holocaust, Filson Historical Society, 1310 S. Third St.; 2 p.m.

Oct. 26 -- Violins of Hope, Louisville Orchestra; Whitney Hall, Ky Center for the Performing Arts, 501 W. Main St.; 8 p.m.

For more information about any of the events, click here.

This post has been corrected with the appropriate image of the Zimmerman-Krongold violin.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.