By Harriet P. Gross
Here’s my follow-up to Dallas’ observance of Yom HaShoah on April 19, with a tribute to similar memorial efforts elsewhere.
I emphasize “similar” because of a new, potent link between some other observances and ours: special music. String music, played on instruments related to, even rescued from, the Holocaust.
The event I attended, presented at Temple Shalom under auspices of our local Holocaust Museum, featured Tamara Freeman of New Jersey, whose viola rang out with a selection including familiar Yiddish melodies like “Ofyn Pripitchik,” Partisan anthems like “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never say you are walking the last road … ”) and the Hebrew “Ani Maamin,” sung by many victims as they did indeed walk that “last road” to the gas chambers. It was their final testimony of belief.
Like so much information these days, my first news of Amnon Weinstein and his remarkable work came via the Internet, from religionnews.com.
The man sits in his Tel Aviv shop, patiently restoring “violins that outlived the owners who played them in the ghettos and the death camps,” the recent release said. So far, Weinstein has tracked down 18 such violins and repaired them for memorial concerts, the first in Charlotte, N.C. Now they’ll head to other communities in the Americas and perhaps, he hopes, around the world.
Freeman, who has a Ph.D. in musical arts from Rutgers University, found her viola in a shop selling used instruments. This one, she learned, had been saved by the Righteous Gentile next door when the Nazis took its music-teacher owner from her apartment. The rescuer hid it before they could come back to take everything else, then sent the instrument to the woman’s sister in New Jersey for safekeeping. When its owner did not return, the wise sister — knowing that a string instrument must be played to keep it “alive” — offered it for sale.
What a lucky coincidence that put this viola into the hands of another Jewish woman who could make it sing! Besides her stirring lecture-recital appearances like the one we marveled at here, Freeman has created America’s first, and only, Holocaust music curriculum for students from kindergarten through high school.
Weinstein, 72, lost 380 relatives in the Holocaust. For him, surviving violins are symbols of music’s power to outlive even such a massive evil.
“Nothing is like it was in 1945,” he says. “The only thing that didn’t age is the violin. Its sound is the same. It speaks by itself.”
Religion News paraphrases his commentary: these violins “represent the dead and speak for the aging survivors whose own voices are being silenced by time.”
This last is all too true. Survivors, carrying their lighted candles in procession, are saluted by a standing audience as they enter for these Shoah memorials. But the line grows shorter every year, and among those still with us, an increasing number are in wheelchairs or require canes, walkers and human support. A recent listing shows about 150 now living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but only a tiny fraction of that number are still available to speak directly to groups — especially groups of young students — delivering their first-hand testimonies in ways beyond what any words in our language can ever be adequate for.
Weinstein also uses the Internet to find survivors, their relatives and violins. He’s located a few klezmer ones, each easily identified by a Star of David on its back. He received one that was played in a men’s orchestra at Auschwitz, whose donor family said it “continues to play for all those who did not live to make more music.” He has another from Auschwitz that was encrusted with ashes when it was first placed in his hands
A non-Jewish music director at a California church voices his deep understanding of, and respect for, these special instruments: “Their survival prevents the Nazis from having victory after the fact. And it’s a way for the dead to communicate with us.”
Is it a lucky coincidence that at the time of this year’s Yom HaShoah events around the world, Weinstein’s cache of rescued violins numbered 18? Life, indeed!
One of the songs Freeman played was “Es Brent,” about the burning of a shtetl, especially appropriate since the word Holocaust itself comes from the Greek for “sacrifice by fire.” Also appropriate is this puzzling conundrum from a New York survivor who each year spends Yom HaShoah in a quiet park with his survivor friends:
“Everyone else remembers,” he says. “But we can’t forget.”