Plundered Violins

Goebbels-SuwaIn my last blog entry, I wrote about Nazi-looted violins that may never be returned. The most famous stolen violin may be the Stradivarius that Joseph Goebbels gave to 23-year-old Japanese prodigy Nejiko Suwa in 1943.

Suwa, who died in 2012, played the Stradivarius for many years. She repeatedly insisted that the violin had been legally purchased by the Reich Ministry of Propaganda, and was not among the thousands of instruments that the Nazis stole from Jews during the Holocaust. But is this true?

The answer is unclear, according to Carla Shapreau, a violinmaker and lawyer who specializes in intellectual property, cultural property, and art law litigation. Shapreau co-authored Violin Fraud: Deception, Forgery, Theft, and Lawsuits in England and America for Oxford University Press and wrote an article on this violin for the New York Times. In an article on “The Stolen Instruments of the Third Reich” that Shapreau published in The Strad , she lists several priceless violins that went missing during World War II, including the 1719 “Lauterbach” Stradivarius that was stolen from the Warsaw National Museum and a 1709 Stradivarius that belonged to a descendant of the Mendelssohn family.

Shapreau has been trying to establish the provenance of the violin Goebbels gave to Suwa for several years, but Suwa and now her family have refused to comment. This raises serious questions about the instrument. Is it even a Stradivarius? If so, when was it made and how was it acquired? Two days after Suwa received the violin, a Japanese newspaper reported that the instrument dates from 1722. Could this be the 1722 Stradivarius that has been missing ever since it was confiscated from Jewish art collector Oskar Bondy in 1939?

In Violins of Hope, I discuss a number of violins whose provenances can be established. But the majority of the violins in Amnon Weinstein’s collection survive without any information about the musicians who once played them. While their owners are unknown, the craftsmanship of their construction and the ornate Stars of David they bear indicate that they were once owned by Jewish musicians. Amnon has deduced that they were played in ghettos and concentration camps based on distinctive damage to the tops of the violins that comes only from being played outside in the wind, rain, and snow—something no musician would have ever done unless he was forced to do so under extraordinary conditions.

Amnon considers the unidentified violins to be the most precious instruments in his collection. They are not expensive instruments like the Ole Bull Guarneri that Ernst Glaser brought to Bergen or the Amati that Feivel Wininger played in Transnistria. They are simple, unsophisticated violins that represent the everyday Jewish lives and the everyday Jewish traditions that were destroyed during the Holocaust. They are artifacts of the Jewish culture that the Nazis tried unsuccessfully to wipe off the planet. To Amnon, the historical and sentimental value of these instruments far surpasses any monetary worth.

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