Explore a heroic effort to restore violins that survived the Holocaust
In commemoration of Yom HaShoah, on Thursday, April 20 at 6:45 p.m., join celebrated photographer, author, and professor Daniel Levin for an online discussion about his new book, Violins and Hope: From the Holocaust to Symphony Hall, which explores master violinmaker Amnon Weinstein’s effort to restore violins that survived the Holocaust. Levin revisits the experience of photographing Amnon’s studio and how his own identity as a Jewish-American artist is represented in the photography of an Israeli violinist, in addition to his other works from around the world.
Learn about the 86 violins that have been restored by Amnon Weinstein’s Violins of Hope undertaking, which fulfills the goal of transforming tragedy into triumph by bringing violins of the Holocaust back to life. Purchase the book here and a portion of the proceeds will be donated back to The Bookstore in Lenox.
This free Jewish Federation of the Berkshires program will be presented via Zoom. Please visit our calendar of events at jewishberkshires.org for links to our programs. This program is part of “Jewish Literary Voices: A Federation Series in collaboration with The Jewish Book Council.”
Sonia Beker of Lenox is the daughter of Max Beker and Fania Durmashkin, accomplished musicians in pre-war Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania. Sonia told their harrowing story in her 2007 family history Symphony on Fire: A Story of Music and Spiritual Resistance During the Holocaust – her father’s instrument is one of those restored by Amnon Weinstein and has been played in concert since its refurbishment.
As she writes:
The violin my dad had loved had been his constant companion since he was a POW at Stalag VIIIA in Silesia, where it was acquired for him through the clandestine efforts of his Jewish bunkmates so that he could be a member of the Stalag's string, jazz, and gypsy orchestras. He had carried this violin on a German death march of the POWs, stealthily escaping the German guards, then encountering his American liberators in a farmer's field. He then went on to a DP camp in Bavaria to join a Jewish orchestra there, the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra, where he met other Vilna and Kovno musicians and my mother, and where Leonard Bernstein conducted them in 1948, and finally brought this violin with him to America in 1949. With the skilled expertise of Amnon and [his son] Avshi, this violin’s voice would speak to audiences again, and my father’s story would as well.
Beker has lectured widely about her parents’ lives and her own experience with Violins of Hope. The BJV asked her to share some impressions of Daniel Levin’s book and she graciously accepted our request.
Holy Work that Enriches Us All
By Sonia Pauline Beker / Special to the BJV
Daniel Levin’s Violins and Hope: From the Holocaust to Symphony Hall, is a rich, eloquent compendium of Amnon Weinstein’s history and his poignant mission. Amnon’s superb skill as a luthier is driven by his strong emotional connection to pull back Holocaust violins from obscurity and the dire injuries they suffered in ghettos and concentration camps.
As a doctor examines human patients, Amnon carefully studies Holocaust violins and the stories brought to him by the violinists’ family members or friends to honor a musician who may or may not have survived. Amnon’s examination is lengthy and caring. He feels the suffering of the musician from the moment he lays eyes on the violin and gently touches its surface. He performs the necessary surgery, removing the face of the instrument to examine its interior and probe its history and condition. Not until all elements of the violin have been minutely explored can Amnon make a well-informed diagnosis and begin the painstaking restoration process.
In the case of my father’s violin, the process took 2.5 years. The objective was to bring this violin back to the concert hall, and this has been joyfully accomplished by Amnon using the highest level of experience, love and craftsmanship.
Daniel Levin asked Amnon how the restoration of a Holocaust violin compares to the repair and fine-tuning of an old violin that did not live through the Holocaust. Amnon’s reply, as recorded in Violins and Hope:
“When you are holding a violin like this, I usually but not always know the story. It’s as if you’re holding a holy piece. You try to make no mistakes with what you’re doing, but there are mistakes in your work. It’s difficult, very difficult, and usually I’m thinking about the people who played on this violin and the people who heard the music, both of them. Nothing is normal when you’re doing this. It’s too much weight.”
Daniel Levin has created a memoir embracing a remarkable range of material — he brings together the incisive remarks of Eli Wiesel and Franz Welzer-Most, the music director of The Cleveland Orchestra, who wrote the book’s forward. Levin shares his own detailed account of arriving in Tel Aviv to Amnon’s studio, observing the violins and their restorations, and his conversation with Amnon’s lovely wife, Assi. As a photographer, he provides a visual narrative of Amnon receiving and unpacking a klezmer violin, which had a mother-of-pearl inlaid Star of David in its backboards. Levin the lensman also captures a special concert of the violins with the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as many of the objects Amnon has collected in his studio — art, letters, documents, photographs, violin parts, breathtaking photographs of the instruments, and objects from Amnon’s own life. The disparity of these subjects is brought into perfect harmony through the richness of the photos, visuals that sing almost as if they themselves were playing their stories from the pages of the book.
To read Violins and Hope is a life experience. One must go through it slowly, reading and viewing the contents with care, allowing the depth of Amnon’s and Daniel Levin’s work to do their magic. They bring us from sorrow and grief at the recognition of the loss of so much musical potential and creativity to the joy and transcendence of glimpsing the souls still residing in the violins in Amnon’s studio, restored to the world once again as their violins perform in their owners’ voices.
This is holy work, and we are privileged to be enriched by it
Daniel Levin, is a photographer, a curator, and a conceptual artist. He is a tenured Associate Professor of photography at Tri-C, where he has taught since 2002. Levin’s works include in part; Amnon Weinstein: the Luthier who Returned the Violins of the Holocaust to the Living, Perspectives Examined via the site-specific Camera Obscura, Organizational Successes and Failures of Post-Katrina Mississippi, Fatherhood, Walls as Metaphor for Divided Philosophies, and an art film exploring creative thought entitled The Root: From Dishes to Synapses. He has been commissioned to make portraits of many well-known figures around the globe, including in part; Joshua Bell, President George H. W. Bush, I.M. Pei, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Idan Raichel, First Lady Barbara Bush, Jann Wenner, Governor Mario Cuomo, Martin Sheen and Senator John Glenn.
The photo of Amnon Weinstein in his workshop is © Daniel Levin 2021
Sonia Beker’s last article for the Berkshire Jewish Voice was about Mark Ludwig’s Our Will to Live: Art and Music In Terezín and appeared in July 2022. Her book, Symphony on Fire, is available through Amazon. She lives in Brooklyn and Lenox.