Story of violin repair artists gives new life to Holocaust musicians

By Bridgette M. Redman

“Violins of Hope” will include performances by Niv Ashkenazi
Courtesy of The Braid

Violins are said to mimic the human voice and sometimes the stories they tell echo through generations.

Such is the case with more than 80 violins, violas and cellos that have been refurbished after surviving the Holocaust. Each has its own story to tell of musicians who did and didn’t make it out alive.

The Braid, formerly known as the Jewish Women’s Theatre, will be telling these stories on Jan. 31 during a Zoom session. The premiere of “Stories from the Violins of Hope” tells the true stories of instruments rescued from such places as concentration camps, forest hideouts and Jewish ghettos that made their way to Israel to be restored by Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, father and son luthiers who live in Tel Aviv.

The Violins of Hope is a project of the Weinsteins, who collect the violins and their stories and lovingly repair the instruments. These violins, in nonpandemic times, travel the world and are played by symphonies, keeping the voices of Holocaust victims alive.

The violins came to Los Angeles in early 2020, and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony partnered with The Braid and Temple Isaiah to create a theatrical telling of the stories, but the scheduled performances were canceled because of COVID-19.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to collaborate,” said Noreen Green, founder and maestra of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony. “Ronda Spinak, artistic director of The Braid, had this idea about creating an original script that would tell the stories of the Violins of Hope.”

The violins offer hope among horror because they literally and metaphorically offer restoration, and they have a unique way of giving life to their previous owners.

“The violin is the closest thing to the human voice,” Green said. “You hold it under your chin and it is right next to your heart. The violin’s wood vibrates with your body when you pull the string. The instrument becomes part of your body. So here are these instruments that were a part of someone else’s body. Playing them and making them come alive, it brings the Holocaust story alive again.”

The job of writing the script was given to Lisa Rosenbaum, a playwright and novelist who is part of The Braid. Rosenbaum said she originally knew nothing about the violins so she began to research, looking at the violins, reading collections of stories and then, finally, talking to Amnon Weinstein.

“It wasn’t until I spoke to Amnon that I began to realize that he is the story — it’s a story of a family, actually, three generations of luthiers,” Rosenbaum said.

In the 1930s, Amnon’s father, Moshe, came to what was then Palestine from Lithuania, where he had been a violinist and luthier. At the time, there were Jewish musicians from all over Europe who were fleeing the Nazis. They didn’t want to play the German instruments anymore, so they gave them to Weinstein, telling him to take them or they’d burn them. He hid them away. Years later, his son, Amnon, would end up with these instruments.

“When you think of the enormity of the talent that was lost in the Holocaust — these violins were their violins, they were in the camps, forests and ghettos, played in concerts or under duress,” Rosenbaum said. “But now they are able to be played again — what an extraordinary hopeful idea.”

Rosenbaum focused the story on the three generations of Weinsteins, along with selected stories of the violins themselves.

“I read through a number of them and they all move you,” she said. “Everyone has a story, but there were several that I could just see how they would lend themselves to drama. There is a story of a railroad worker who picks up a violin that is thrown from a train by a Jew on his way to the camps. He says, ‘I can’t use this anymore, take my violin.’ This railroad worker keeps it and how it ends up with Amnon is a story.”

One violinist angrily confronted a group of Nazis and kept them from killing him by playing his violin. Another belonged to a 12-year-old boy who was a partisan in the forest.

“It literally took him into a town where Nazis had commandeered a restaurant and used it as their base,” Rosenbaum said. “He did some pretty brave things and what happened to him and his violin, which survived the war and made it to Amnon, is an extraordinary story. It brings tears to your eyes that this violin will eventually be played by a 22-year-old man in a concert.”

Portraying Amnon Weinstein is Robert Trebor, an actor with more than 47 years’ experience playing a wide range of characters both real and fiction.

“He’s an extraordinary man,” Trebor said. “Of all the characters I’ve played, he is the healthiest. He is a genuinely healthy, decent man who is an incredible luthier, making and repairing string instruments. He grew up in Israel, which was then Palestine, and there was a news blackout of what was happening in Germany as he was growing up. He had no idea about the concentration camps or Nazi slaughter. When the world war ended, word trickled out as to what happened.”

Weinstein lost nearly 400 members of his family to the Holocaust. The story tells how, at first, he did not want to have anything to do with the Holocaust, but these violins continued to call to him.

“Every performance is a monument to a boy, a girl, a man or a woman who cannot speak anymore, but the violins and their beautiful music can speak for them,” Trebor said. “That’s a pretty noble idea.”

The cast, which consists of Trebor and six other actors, was rehearsing in early January when the mob wearing anti-Semitic slogans stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

“The Violins of Hope is a big middle finger to that kind of violence, that kind of mob,” Trebor said. “This piece is a palliative and a balm for that kind of behavior. I hope people will be moved by the idea because there is beauty in the world and because this beauty has been resuscitated from the ashes of the world’s most criminal, murderous and destructive act. We can have hope that there is still beauty that can be restored from the ashes.”

Green points out that the performance will take place during the week of International Holocaust Remembrance Day and what people saw in the Capitol is a symptom of what is going on in the whole world.

“The whole idea of ‘never forget’ is important,” Green said. “The last few years we’ve seen a rise in anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, this is the way our world is. This is why we must always commemorate.”

Pandemic forces evolution
of script

While all premieres tend to go through rewrites, “The Stories of the Violins of Hope” kept changing format throughout 2020. The original incarnation was set to be performed live in March at Temple Isaiah with musicians from the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony.

When that was canceled, director Susan Morgenstern worked with Spinak on different ways to stage it. They considered filming it in a socially distant manner with actors far apart in a large space. But that did not draw them in the way they wanted to. They turned to the salon shows that the Braid had been doing throughout 2020 where actors speak to the camera.

“We decided to retool it for that kind of a show and that took another script revision to make it work, to make sure you could tell the story that way,” Morgenstern said. “We decided to up our game and bring in a production company to broadcast it in a way we can’t do from our own Zoom technology.”

Green met with Rosenbaum and discussed where in the script music should go. Green has an extensive background in Jewish and classical music and used that knowledge to select the music that would go in the piece.

“Everything is precomposed,” Green said. “Because this is a historical piece, it didn’t make sense to have original music, so I used music of the time that the violins would have played.”

They had several meetings where Green played her ideas on the piano and, together, they narrowed it down to the compositions she thought would work with a string quartet. There is only one piece that was newly arranged, the rest are classical pieces or Jewish folk music.

While the actors will perform live on Zoom, the music is prerecorded so that it can be professionally synced. Green brought members of the LAJS Chamber Players into her house and had a socially distanced recording session with five cameras. Those recorded performances will be interspersed into the live performance with video of the musicians.

“We wanted to mix it up visually so it’s not always just one actor on a screen,” Morgenstern said. “We even see musicians from their recordings so visually it will be beautiful to look at.”

One of the musicians, Niv Ashkenazi, performs on one of the Violins of Hope. He is the only person in the United States who has a violin on loan as the rest were sent back to Israel at the beginning of the pandemic. He and the violin will be present at a postshow special talk back. While only one show is scheduled, there could be more in the future.

“This is a grand experiment, if it works, hopefully we’ll do more,” Rosenbaum said. “I’m looking forward to the Weinsteins seeing it in Israel, which is the wonderful thing about Zoom. They don’t have to be here. Amnon is over 80 years old now, I don’t know that he would have been able to come to a live performance.”

From playwright to director to composer, all expressed the importance of this show being streamed now.

“I think the most powerful message about the Violins of Hope is that even when thing seem to be irreparably broken, they can be filled with life as these violins are,” Rosenbaum said. “The possibility of restoration and bringing something beautiful back to the world—the voices from another time—is something extraordinary. That’s what the Violins of Hope mean to me.”

What: The Stories of Violins of Hope

Who: The Braid, The Los Angeles Jewish Symphony

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31

Tickets: Start at $36