“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” quipped the renowned German-Jewish philosopher and critic, Theodor Adorno. Far from being a final verdict to silence art it was a call for the arts to respond from within and in the face of the inescapable traumatic condition.
To create from within this chasm of suffering is to respond to the “crack in everything”—that clichéd lyric from local pop saint, Leonard Cohen’s “Ring the Bells” that appeared on the Montreal Holocaust Museum’s video-projection twice during the evening called, Violins of Hope. To repair violins played by Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust that survived pogroms, and concentration camps, defines Violins of Hope—a collection of 70 string instruments restored by Israeli master luthier, Amnon Weinstein and his son, Avshalom Weinstein.
A musical tribute to the Shoah victims, Violins of Hope also served as a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands by the Canadian Armed Forces, who liberated the port of Antwerp and savedthe lives of thousands of Dutch citizens. How fitting then that Dutch conductor, Vincent De Kort gathered the tears of all these weeping violins together through the Orchestre Métropolitain in the comfort of the Salles des Musique at Places des Arts. True, we live on despite this Nazi barbarism, still we must wonder: what could such barbarism bequeath us amidst its brokenness?
Arts and culture risk becoming irrelevant if they do not prevent Auschwitz from happening again, so Violins of Hope aimed to “restore an unbarbaric condition” by working through a program full of German music, much of which once inspired and enabled the Nazi catastrophe: from Bach’s baroque Orchestral Suite No. 3, Air in D Major to Mendelssohn’s modern Concerto for violin in E Minor, op. 64, 1st movement played with passion by Tel Aviv Conservatory of Music violinist Kinneret Sieradzki, to Mahler’s languid Adagietto from Symphony no. 5.
Surreal sounds emerged from labyrinthine paths featuring Canadian composers, Jocelyn Morlock’s Gregorian choral chanting of Exaudi as well as a premiere of Jaap Nico Hamburger’s Chamber Symphony no. 2: Children’s War Diaries, the latter accompanied by a flawed rearrangement of archival war footage by Afghani-Canadian filmmaker, Tarique Qayumi. However, the real absence of the evening was hearing the stories of the eight violins present that needed to be witnessed in their fullness, including:
- Shlomo Mintz’s violin played Bloch’s Baal Shem at the gate of Auschwitz;
- Wunderkind Klezmorim, Wolf and Bunia Rabinowitz played their last waltz as inhabitants of the Vilna Ghetto;
- Hecht family violin hidden by the Visser family of Holland for 74 years while the Hechts were deported, Ernst dying in Sobibor July 9, 1943; Fanny and Alex killed in Auschwitz on September 17, 1943; and Fritz dying in Monowitz labor camp on January 18, 1945;
- Wagner violin from members of the 1936 Palestine Orchestra that became the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra;
- 1850 Violin played in the Auschwitz concentration camp men’s orchestra recovered by Abraham Davidowitz while working for the AJC who paid $50 for it to give to his son Freddy;
- 120 year old Mother of Pearl Star of David klezmer violin;
- Warsaw luthier, Yaakov Zimmerman’s violin commissioned by Shimon Krongold, saved by his nieces and nephews in Jerusalem;
- Dutch Jewish luthier, Jacob Hakkert’s violin, deported and killed and Auschwitz on May 22, 1944.
While the (im)possibility of atonement through Avinu Malkeinu sung by soprano, Sharon Azrieli’s rendition of Barbra Streisand’s composition remains a question, the weeping violins framing the entire evening received its due in the hovering presence of tenor, Cantor Gideon Zelermeyer’s adaptation of a celestial Mourner’s Kaddish composed by Meir Finkelstein of (unfortunately misattributed in the program as El Male), accompanied by the Grand Organ floating high above the orchestra pit. Zelermeyer extended Finkelstein’s cantata for terror victims, conjuring a hovering sensation through Kaddish that served as a sublime inclusio to the languid rendition of Mahler’s 5th that closed the program. Whether intentional or not, Violins of Hope took listeners through labyrinthine paths that often felt fragmented, still these songs of the violins of hope sing on…