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.
My answer? A resounding yes!