Watch me introduce a performance of the song “Vu ahin zoll ikh geyn” (Where shall I go?). During the Holocaust, the song became popular among Jews who had been forced from their jobs and their homes. Like the musicians of the Palestine Orchestra before Huberman’s intervention, they had nowhere to go.
Watch me read excerpts from the first chapter of Violins of Hope. Chapter 1 discusses the Jewish musicians who were dismissed from their positions in leading European orchestras, but rescued by Bronisław Huberman, who provided them with the legal and financial means to move safely to Palestine before it was too late.
On April 26, 2014, I will be participating in a Holocaust Memorial presentation for the Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi. I will be serving as the featured speaker for their 2014 Yom HaShoah program.
The presentation will combine a discussion of the Violins of Hope with performances by Marta Szlubowska, who is the concertmaster of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra. At her suggestion, Maestra Szlubowska will be performing Henri Wieniawski’s Legende, op. 17; Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás; and John Williams’s always emotional Theme from Schindler’s List.
I’ve also asked Maestra Szlubowska to perform a few Yiddish songs that were popular in Jewish communities during the Holocaust. One is Vu Ahin Zol Ikh Geyn? (Where Shall I Go?), which was written before the war by Latvian-Jewish composer Oskar Strock and lyricist Igor S. Korntayer, who died in Auschwitz. Although it pre-dates the Holocaust, Vu Ahin Zol Ikh Geyn? became popular among eastern European Jews who had been forced from their homes with nowhere to go. A translation of the song’s chorus asks,
Where shall I go?
Who can answer me?
Where shall I go,
When every door is locked?
The world is large enough,
But for me it’s small and crowded.
Everything I see is not for me.
Every road is closed.
Where shall I go?
The question “Where shall I go?” was certainly on the minds of the Jewish virtuosos who were dismissed from their positions in leading European orchestras. One was trombonist Heinrich Schiefer, who briefly found refuge in a Jewish orchestra before increasing discrimination convinced him to leave Europe for good. He had offers to join a jazz band in Argentina and a symphony orchestra in Baku (the capital of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic), but ultimately accepted an invitation to join the new Palestine Symphony Orchestra. “Enough with the jazz and communists,” his father convinced him. “Stick with the Jews.” The story of the 75 Jewish musicians who founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra is detailed in the first chapter of Violins of Hope.
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.