Violins of Hope in Nashville: Remembering the Holocaust through the Arts

Mike Lawson • Features • February 3, 2018

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The curtain went up and revealed a darkened stage set of a small country Russian village.

As the lights slowly came up, simulating sunrise, the plaintive melody of a lone violin penetrated the audience. This was the opening scene of the live Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof in 1964. This original production earned ten Tony awards, including a special Tony for becoming the longest-running Broadway musical up to that time. The impression of the production on this writer eclipsed these awards by obviously making a lifelong impact.

While the setting and time frame of Fiddler was different, this memory rushed to my mind as this article about Nashville, Tennessee’s Violins of Hope began to take form. The theme of both Fiddler and Violins of Hope are the persecution of the Jewish population that has spanned the centuries and the globe.

The Nashville events epitomize the sense of inclusion and acceptance that only comes about through selfless cooperation.

The primary organizers of Nashville’s event are the Nashville Symphony and the Jewish Federation & Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. In fact, this cooperative effort arose from a conflict between these two organizations over the debut production of an opera by Roger Waters. The various offerings in Nashville cross the breadth of the human experience leading up to the high note of eternal hope.

Nashville, known as Music City, with live music of all genres and over 5,000 working musicians utilizing 180 recording studios, is particularly well-suited to presenting the enduring impact and value of music to us all. This community event, which features authentic violins once played by musicians interned in the Holocaust concentration camps, crosses every cultural, art form, and communication boundary.

What are the Violins of Hope? A group of violins, the majority of which were played by Jewish musicians interned in the Nazi death camps, will arrive in Nashville from Israel in mid-March. These were collected, restored and refurbished by Israeli violin-makers (luthiers) Amnon Weinstein and his son, Avshi Weinstein.

Almost 50 years ago, young Israeli violinmaker Amnon Weinstein had a customer bring in an instrument in terrible condition. The owner told Weinstein that he had last played the instrument while a prisoner in a Nazi death camp. He was playing his beloved violin as he was being taken to the gas chamber. The guards pulled him out of the line and forced him to join and play in the prison orchestra. He had not played the instrument since being liberated!

Weinstein opened the violin to assess the damage and, “Inside I found ashes!” Weinstein would later report. Knowing that in his own family hundreds of relatives had died in these death camps, and not exactly sure what these ashes were, he was just unable to take on the project. “I just could not!” he has remembered.

Years later in 1996, Amnon was ready and advertised to locate and preserve any surviving violins. Today, this collection has grown to over 60 violins. Many are accompanied with their stories, their provenance. One early acquisition was The Auschwitz Violin. The Auschwitz Violin was owned by an unnamed inmate who performed in the prison men’s orchestra and survived. This violin was purchased for $50 by a man who was assisting rescued death camp survivors right after their liberation. He bought it for his son to play. Many years later, that son heard about the Violins of Hope collection and donated the instrument. The free exhibit of these instruments will open on March 26th at the Nashville Main Public Library.

Rather than simply present these instruments in an exhibit, Nashville decided to expand the opportunity into a broad, months-long dialogue involving music, art, social justice, faith, spoken word and education.

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts began the series of community events with the November opening of Nick Cave: Feat. This title plays on the word “feat” that refers to the hard work that can lead to success or even to survival. Cave’s human-shaped sculptures are called soundsuits, derived from the sounds they make when they move. This exhibit runs through June 24.

The Frist following exhibits were already planned, an example of synchronicity, and focus on the social injustice of the African American experience. The first, Slavery, the Prison Industrial Complex (February 23 – May 28) is a thirty-year photographic documentary of life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana.

On March 30th a photographic history of civil rights actions in Nashville titled We Shall Overcome: Civil Rights and the Nashville Press, 1957-1968 will join the Center’s Violins presentations. This exhibit presents Nashville’s history of the Civil Rights activities through the eyes of the local newspaper’s cameras.

The Nashville Ballet will present Light: The Holocaust and Humanity Project on February 9 through 11. This dance production follows a Holocaust survivor’s life, which moves from devastating loss, resiliency, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit through Hope. Light offers the audience that opportunity that only art forms can…to help us feel, perhaps understand, and reflect on horrific events that are impossible to totally accept.

This ballet was originally developed by Ballet Austin (Texas). The ballet unfolds as Naomi Warren, a real-life Holocaust survivor, reflects on her life. Ballet Austin’s artistic director Stephen Mills worked closely with Warren to create this ballet. Warren believed it’s everyone’s responsibility to use whatever platform they possess to speak out when confronted with acts of bigotry and hate. She suggested to Mills that as an artist with access, this was his duty.

Rather than just presenting the ballet in its complete fashion, the Nashville Ballet is supplementing the production with a series of ancillary programs. These include Living On: Portraits of Survivors and (US Army) Liberators in Tennessee, a documentary containing photographs and stories of those that actually experienced the Holocaust and its liberation. Living On runs through February 28 at the Nashville Ballet Studios.

Also prior to the ballet’s premiere, a four-part lecture series will be led by Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music’s Mitchell Korn, delving into the creation of the ballet performance. Conversations will be had with the creative staff, including choreographers, dancers, costumers, and set designers, as well as the artistic director Paul Vasterling. Commenting at a press conference announcing the Violins project, Vasterling stated, “I’m proud to be part of an arts community that not only values collaboration with one another, but values using our art forms as an inspiration and catalyst for action!”

Other similar pre-performance events by the ballet include an open rehearsal and the viewing of the Emmy-award-winning documentary Light/the Holocaust and Humanity Project at Nashville’s historic (1925) Belcourt Theater. Fisk University partners with the Nashville Ballet in conducting a community panel discussion, The Art of Tolerance.

Intersection brings a different presentation of music by focusing on contemporary classical compositions (20 and 21 century works) performed by small and medium-sized ensembles to families, and especially to young audiences. Conversations with contemporary composers are one of this group’s public presentation formats. Kelly Corcoran, the founder, artistic director, and conductor of Intersection brings nine years of Nashville Symphony relationship to her position. She previously was the associate conductor of the symphony, and later the director of the Symphony Chorus.

“We wanted to be part of this project and saw our From the Ancient Valley concert of Kurdish and Persian music as the vehicle, being the musical expression of this ethnic group, which is continually assailed by both Iraq and Iran,” Corcoran explained. This program will include Richard Danielpour’s Elegy for the Innocent, which honors the many children who lost their lives in the ongoing conflict across Iraq and Iran. (Note: This concert is currently being impacted by the recently implemented travel ban.)

Intersection will also present two string quartets in May at the Nashville Public Library where the Violins of Hope exhibit will serve as the backdrop. This concert presents works that explore the lives of two heroic women, Anne Frank and Fannie Lou Hamer. Other chamber music presentations will include performances of works by composers of the Holocaust. The Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University will host these concerts. As part of its ongoing Lunch and Learn series, the Tennessee State Museum will offer a session about a local Nashville Tennessee businessman, Mortimer May. May is regarded as a Holocaust hero by traveling to Europe in the 1930s and helping Jewish families escape. Numerous other events are scheduled with more being added.

These include vocal presentations with the Vox Grata Women’s Choir and Fisk University Jubilee Singers , children’s programs (Nashville Children’s Theatre), and faith-based sessions at Congregation Micah and Christ Church Cathedral, with educational offerings including Akiva School. The performance focal point of this nearly year-long event is the Nashville Symphony’s concerts on March 22 through 24. Led by Giancarlo Guerrero, the symphony will perform, utilizing some of the actual historic Violins of Hope. These concerts will perform John Williams’ “Three Pieces from Schindler’s List,” Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Commissioned by the Nashville Symphony for this event is Jonathon Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 4 “Heichalot” which was influenced by Jewish spirituality. In today’s political climate of identifying and negating specific ethnic and religious groups, the value of a community-wide collaborative effort to uplift all humanity from despair and death to hope and life is priceless. Violins of Hope in Nashville does exactly that!

Each and every one of the Violins of Hope events would be worth a visit to Nashville. For more information and a full current schedule of events, visit the website

For general Nashville, Tennessee visitor’s information contact the Nashville Visitor and Tourism site or call (615) 259-4730. For those who cannot attend any of these events, the book Violins of Hope, Violins of the Holocaust – Instruments of Hope and Inspiration in Mankind’s Darkest Hour by Jaymes A. Grymes is available in retail stores and online.

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