Watch me introduce a performance of “My Yiddishe Momme.” This was one of several Jewish melodies that violinist Feivel Wininger played in the ghettoized Romanian territory of Transnistria during the Holocaust to bring comfort to himself as well as to his friends and family members.
Watch me read excerpts from the fifth chapter of Violins of Hope. Chapter 5 discusses Feivel Wininger, who was able to spare sixteen family members and friends from starvation by playing the violin during the Holocaust.
In 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.
After initiating their comprehensive campaign to eradicate the Jews in Europe, the Nazis launched a corresponding initiative to destroy all Jewish cultural and economic activities. This started with the confiscation of millions of valuables such as art, jewelry, books, and religious treasures. Over the course of World War II, a special team of Nazi musicologists seized hundreds of thousands of music books, as well as tens of thousands of music instruments, manuscripts, and music scores from Jewish musicians and music businesses. Other possessions—like the priceless Amati violin that Feivel Wininger played in Transnistria—were stolen by neighbors and local authorities.
Only a small fraction of these stolen items have ever been returned to their rightful owners. Many of them were destroyed during the war. The majority of the objects that did survive remained in German hands. Some looted artifacts were given to German soldiers as rewards for their service. Other war booty was reallocated to German families as compensation for belongings that were destroyed during bombings. The items that were ultimately uncovered by the Red Army were deported to the east. They would never be seen again.
Despite the heroic efforts that were recounted in The Monuments Men, the Western Allies largely failed in their attempts to return the cultural artifacts to their legal owners. It was difficult to track down survivors and witnesses. Records of the stolen instruments were often inaccessible, incomplete, or missing altogether. Those who had just survived the Holocaust were not likely to still have bills of sale, certificates of authenticity, or any other documents that could identify and prove ownership of a rare instrument. Even when there are photographs of owners holding distinctive violins, such records are useless if the instruments themselves remain missing. It is impossible to know whether those violins no longer exist, or whether they remain concealed in secret collections.
In Violins of Hope, I write about Dov Brayer, who in 2008 brought Amnon Weinstein a picture of his brother Shevah. The faded black-and-white photograph was taken at the Brayer home in Lvov, Poland, before Shevah was taken to the Janowska concentration camp, where he played at the camp entrance before being killed. In the picture, Shevah holds a violin that Dov hopes to reclaim someday. It is a distinctive instrument with a decorative dog’s head carved into its scroll. “The chances of finding it are one in ten million,” Amnon warned Dov. “But thanks to this unique scroll, at least it’s not impossible.”
“And if I do find this violin,” Amnon continued, “it will be played in a huge concert.”
While teaching the course about music during the Holocaust, I developed a new approach to the subject that uses memoirs and biographies to study the daily lives of Jewish musicians during the that horrific period.
As I explained during a presentation about teaching the Holocaust at the national meeting of the American String Teachers Association on March 6, 2014, I taught the course at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in Spring 2012. The goal of the class was to prepare my students to serve as docents when we brought eighteen of the Violins of Hope to Charlotte for an exhibition and a series of performances.
In discussing the Holocaust with my students, I found that they were struggling to wrap their minds around the overwhelming enormity of the estimated eleven million deaths. I noticed that they responded much more emotionally to stories about individual musicians. This, of course, is why readers have gravitated toward the memoirs of individuals such as Anne Frank, Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel, whose personal accounts can help humanize the otherwise unfathomable tragedy of the Holocaust. I discovered that focusing on various musicians who were impacted by the catastrophe was equally helpful in encouraging my students transcend dispassionate facts and figures and instead concentrate on individual lives. My presentation at ASTA surveyed a number of English-language memoirs and biographies that I found to be particularly helpful in examining the daily lives of Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. You can find a list of those sources here.
I took a similar approach while writing Violins of Hope. The chapter on the Wagner Violin tells the story of the founding of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, but within the larger context the hardships faced by all German Jews during the early days of the Third Reich. The chapter on Erich Weininger is really about the tribulations faced by all Jews who tried to emigrate. And the chapter on the Auschwitz Violin gives an insight into the sufferings of those who were left behind. Similarly, the chapters on Ernst Glaser, Feivel Wininger, and Motele Schlein shed light on the fates of Jews in Norway, Romania, and Ukraine.
My presentation was very well received, and I was pleased that the audience members had some really good questions about my research, as well as some great feedback regarding musicians from the Holocaust who had touched their own lives. One college student approached me at the end and expressed an interest in learning more about Holocaust music. She asked if there was still room in the literature for new research.