Amnon Weinstein remembers when an old man walked into his Tel Aviv, Israel, violin repair shop in the '80s carrying a battered violin. The man told Weinstein how he played the instrument in Auschwitz as a member of the concentration camp's orchestra. The Nazis had musicians play as a calming mechanism for when prisoners were taken to the gas chambers. The violin in front of Weinstein saved the man from death, but after the war, the man had stopped playing music. Now, he wanted the violin fixed, to give to his grandson.
Weinstein got to work repairing the instrument, but when he opened the violin, he discovered ashes — possibly the incinerated remains of Auschwitz victims. Weinstein tried to block the incident from memory.
"For years, I was haunted by it," he says.
It was also a painful reminder of his history: Weinstein had lost nearly 400 family members in the Holocaust. The experience helped him to realize these instruments were important artifacts. He put out a call for Holocaust-era violins and received more than 58.
Eighteen of these restored "Violins of Hope" will come to Cleveland for an Oct. 3 to Jan. 1 exhibit at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage along with programming at other institutions, including the Cleveland Orchestra and Case Western Reserve University.
"In the violin, you can hear the human voice. It can cry. It can smile," Weinstein says. "They are living tombstones."
One of the violins belonged to Feivel Wininger, who saved 16 family members and friends, by playing the violin in the Transnistria ghetto in exchange for extra food, water and firewood. Another one belonged to a teenage resistance member who used his violin case to sneak in explosives at a Nazi social club.
The best way to remember and honor these musicians, Weinstein realized, was to fix these instruments, tour with them publicly and have them played again.
The Violins of Hope were last played publicly in January by the Berlin Philharmonic at the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
The unknown owner of the Lyon violin was on a train headed to Auschwitz when he tossed the instrument to a French worker. "He shouted out, 'Please keep it. At least the violin will survive,' " Weinstein says. The instrument made its way to a French violinmaker's apprentice, Jean-Marie Olaya, who repaired it. A Jewish customer told Olaya about Weinstein, and he gave it to Weinstein.
MORE INFO: violinsofhopecle.org