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Violins of Hope

“These instruments were essentially rescued from the Holocaust. They were owned by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. Some of the musicians survived. Some perished. Some, we don’t know,” says Jeffrey Jamner, Senior Director of ArtsRise at Kentucky Performing Arts, describing the 60 violins that came to Louisville’s Frazier Museum in the fall of 2019.

“But the instruments were worked on and restored and given new life, so they sing again,” says Jamner “Their coming here was like bringing living artifacts from that history.”

Miriam Ostroff spearheaded the effort to bring the Violins of Hope exhibit to Louisville. She wants people to remember this horrific chapter of history so that it will never happen again.

“There were six million people killed,” says Ostroff. “To fathom six million people is almost unbelievable. People throughout Kentucky, and really throughout the nation, need to be aware of what happened and why it happened, and that it should never happen again. It doesn’t make any difference where you live. It’s just that you don’t let history repeat itself.”

Avshalom Weinstein is an Israeli violinmaker, and with his father, Amnon Weinstein, he founded Violins of Hope and has restored many of the instruments recovered from the Holocaust.

“Many of these instruments of Violins of Hope were played in the orchestras in the camps, and it’s different wear and tear,” Weinstein says. “You see that the varnish was washed off because of the rain and snow they had to play in.”

Weinstein says the longest restoration project took nearly two years. Some of the violins they obtained for the project started out as nothing more than a bag of parts vaguely resembling a violin. For the Violins of Hope exhibit, most of the instruments have been restored to original quality, but some have been left unrestored to show the level of disrepair that they reached.

“When you teach the Holocaust, they’re talking about numbers that none of us understand,” says Weinstein. “I don’t know anyone who has ever in his life seen six million people standing together. How many football fields do you need for six million people? The numbers don’t stick. But when you tell a story of an individual, going from one place to another, it has a different effect. It’s something people can relate to.”

For Jamner, those stories don’t feel far away. He took part in a musical presentation for middle and high school students at the Kentucky Center for the Arts called Juliek’s Violin, which featured violinist Sara Callaway playing one of the violins from the collection.

“There is a passage in Elie Wiesel’s Night, which I read aloud to the students,” says Jamner, referring to the book written by a Holocaust survivor about his time in concentration camps. “It describes a boy – the same age as these students – playing a Beethoven violin concerto while on the brink of dying, and he was actually found dead the next morning. I [made] this a duet between Elie Wiesel’s words and Beethoven’s violin concerto.”

Jamner reached into his own family’s history to shine a light on the past for the students of today.

“I never imagined myself sharing my family’s stories in public,” he says. “The goal of which is: I’m just one generation removed [from the Holocaust], and I’m standing right here in front of you. That’s what makes it something more than black-and-white pictures in a history book. It’s real history.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life #2518, which originally aired on July 11, 2020. Watch the full episode.