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Holocaust Violins Make U.S. Debut In Charlotte

A holocaust camp orchestra. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

A holocaust camp orchestra. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Rarely does Charlotte break ground on the national arts and music scene, but this week a remarkable exhibit of violins played by Jews during the holocaust opens here. It's the first time these instruments have been displayed in the U.S. What's more, the violins will be played in the coming weeks by a number of internationally-known musicians. The exhibit is called "Violins of Hope." Amnon Weinstein first encountered a violin from the holocaust 50 years ago. He was a young violinmaker in Israel. A customer brought him an old instrument in terrible condition and wanted it restored. Violin maker Amnon Weinstein installing the "Violins of Hope" exhibit at UNC Charlotte's uptown campus. Photo: Nancy Pierce. "He played on the violin on the way to the gas chamber," says Weinstein. The customer survived because the Germans needed him for their death camp orchestra. "He said I will never play on this violin again, but I want my grandson will play," says Weinstein. "So I opened the violin, and inside there was ashes. Black." Weinstein was horrified. Were these incinerated remnants of concentration camp victims? The Nazis plucked Jewish musicians from arriving cattle cars and forced them to play as other prisoners went to their death. Hundreds of Weinstein's own relatives - grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins - had died in the holocaust. To handle one of those instruments was too much for him. "I could not - I could not," says Weinstein, emphatically. But many decades later - in 1996 - Weinstein would be ready. He put out a call for violins from the holocaust. People came forward with worn instruments from their attics, family heirlooms with dark pasts. "This one came from a survivor who played in the Auschwitz Men's Orchestra," says David Russell, tuning the violin gently. David Russell. Photo: Julie Rose Russell is Anne R. Belk Distinguished Professor of Music at UNC Charlotte and an old friend of Amnon Weinstein. Their friendship is how Charlotte came to host the North American debut of Weinstein's collection. Eighteen violins are here. Russell says each carries the story of its previous owner. "The wood responds to the vibrations of where you place your fingers and how you draw the bow," says Russell. The technique and habits of a musician become ingrained in the violin like "neurons in our brain" explains Russell. "They create a neural pathway over and over and over - and if you find those places, it's going to resonate the same way it did (for the previous owner)." Amnon Weinstein has restored more than 30 violins from the holocaust. "This was maybe the most important instrument for the Jewish people," he says. Many are inlaid with an intricate Star of David in mother-of-pearl. Orthodox Judaism forbade displaying portraits or sculpture, so Weinstein says violins often hung as art on the walls of Jewish homes. "Never you could see a Jewish house without an instrument on the wall," says Weinstein. "It was a kind of tradition." It was partly to honor that tradition that Weinstein eventually began collecting the violins. But more than anything, it was a means of tackling painful personal history. The holocaust was never spoken of in Weinstein's childhood home. Once he asked about his grandfather and he says his mother silently showed him a photo of bodies piled up in a concentration camp. Then Weinstein married Assaela "Assi" Bielksi and realized there might be another way to deal with his past. Assi's father was one of the famous Jewish resistance fighters portrayed in the recent film "Defiance." Weinstein was amazed to see the Bielski family always happily talking about the war. "We are completely different in this way," says Weinstein. "Her family killed Germans - by quantities, not by one. My family was all killed by the Germans." Assi Bielski Weinstein says her family was happier: "They were not humiliated. This is the big thing. It's the number tattooed on your arm that is a constant reminder of the humiliation. For us there was none of it." "Maybe what I'm doing with the violin is I'm doing it to make my life a little bit easier from all this heritage," says Amnon Weinstein. These violins are his resistance - each a small tombstone to the thousands of instruments and musicians destroyed in the war. The Nazis even banned works by Jewish composers. David Russell chooses one such tune "Leibesleid" by Fritz Kreisler. "Can you imagine outlawing such beautiful music?" he murmurs. But now the "Violins of Hope" are free to play it. "Violins of Hope" opens to school groups this week and the public on April 16 and UNC Charlotte's Center City building. For a list of concerts visit www.violinsofhopecharlotte.com. The Auschwitz Men's Orchestra. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.