“This violin saw all the atrocities,” says Amnon Weinstein, pointing to a fiddle in his Tel Aviv workshop. The Star of David is imprinted on its wooden back.
The story of that violin includes time in a Nazi death camp – one that allowed some Jews to hold onto their musical instruments. The Nazis forced these prisoners to play marches while slave labourers left for each day’s work, and then again when they returned. The musicians also gave concerts to entertain individual SS staff who wanted to hear a bit of music after sending thousands of people to their deaths. These prisoners survived because they could perform music. Many of the musicians perished, but not all of them. A short and moving documentary, Violins of Hope, by film maker Katrin Sandmann, tells the story of their instruments’ journey.
Filmed in Berlin, Tel Aviv and London, it opens with Guy Braunstein, the youthful former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, paying a visit to the Tel Aviv instrument shop of Weinstein, who had been collecting and restoring violins that belonged to Holocaust victims who made their way to Palestine (later Israel.) Weinstein, like his violin-maker father, Moshe, from Vilnius, himself emigrated to what was then Palestine. All his relatives who had remained in eastern Europe perished during the Nazi onslaught.
One of the musicians who survived the camps was cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who settled in London in 1946. In the film (much of which is in German) she relates her experiences in Auschwitz, where she played death camp marches under the musical direction of fellow-prisoner Alma Rosé – a niece of Gustav Mahler. Later the cellist was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, which was eventually liberated by British troops.
For survivors of those camps who played music, their German-made violins were fraught with horrible associations. Example: in the 1980s, a man with a violin entered Weinstein’s workshop and told him about playing his violin in Auschwitz. He hadn’t touched the instrument since then, but wanted to bequeath it to his grandson in good condition, so he gave it to Weinstein to restore.
Decades later, Guy Braunstein heard about Weinstein’s care for those violins and paid a visit to him in Tel Aviv. The story riveted him, and he conceived the idea of gathering the restored instruments together for a concert in Berlin. He chose for himself a violin whose previous owner had been interned in Auschwitz.
Last January, Braunstein returned to the Berlin Philharmonic. His fellow string players selected instruments from Weinstein’s collection, and together with conductor Simon Rattle gave a special concert in Berlin’s Philharmonie. Excerpts of the concert, which marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, are included in the film.
The musical program included the haunting Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony by Mahler – a composer banned from performance by the Nazis because of his Jewish background. The music melds the inexpressible grief of loss with the aspiration to transcend.
Having lost so many family members in the Holocaust, it wasn’t easy for Weinstein to return to Berlin as guest of honour for the concert. After all, this is the city where the extermination of the Jewish people was decided and planned. But the memorial concert, performed on instruments he had restored, obviously gave him a sense of a mission fulfilled as the “violins of hope” came back to Germany after a long absence.
The film – not all of it in English – can be viewed on the Berlin Philharmonic’s website, www.digitalconcerthall.com It is available through various subscription packages, from seven days (9.90 euros) to 12 months (149 euros). A subscription includes access to both live-streamed and archived Berlin Philharmonic concerts, and an array of other documentary films.