“I set before you life and death”… Deuteronomy 30:15

Ash Wednesday’s themes of atonement and new life emerging from ashes came together this year when I attended the Violins of Hope concert. The history of these instruments is unique and touching: they were played by Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust. Even in ghettos and camps, music rang out—and continues today.

The project was begun by Amnon Weinstein, a violin maker in Tel Aviv, where a  customer brought a violin for restoration. It had been played by an Auschwitz prisoner, as others were marched to their deaths. (The Nazis also arranged birthday, Sunday and holiday concerts for themselves, so being an orchestra member could preserve a person’s life.)

At first, Weinstein saw ashes within the violin, which reminded him of his 400 family members who had perished. But by 1996, he was ready: word got out, and people brought him 100 instruments. While most of the original owners and musicians were silenced, their voices live on through the restored instruments, or as Avshi Weinstein, Amnon’s grandson said, “now the violins can pray again.”

The poignancy of the event became immediate when Ben, sitting beside us, rolled up his sleeve and displayed a tattooed number on his wrist. That Nazi mark of inhumanity had become a badge of honor. Ben had survived eight death camps, including Auschwitz, and was singled out for recognition and applause.

At this event, violinists played 24 of the original instruments; other violins were touring around the world. Especially meaningful: many free educational assemblies at middle and high schools would reach tens of thousands of students.

The first music played was based on a prayer that stretches back more than 2000 years, expressing the deep human yearning for God. The program continued through the klezmer folk music tradition, Sephardic music from Spain, selections from “Shindler’s List, “and concluded with songs from “Fiddler on the Roof,” which had the audience clapping along. The vibrant conductor coaxed forth a stream of themes: tragedy, resilience, cruelty, resistance, and enduring life. By the time we reached “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “L’Chaim” many in the audience had grown misty-eyed. Life wasted, life silenced, life passing, life renewed and celebrated: what appropriate themes to start Lent.  

2 responses to ““I set before you life and death”… Deuteronomy 30:15

  1. Just Beauty in such Sadness!

  2. Rose Marie Dombrowski

    Thank you for this reflection on Violins of Hope. I tried to forward this blog to my children but it couldn’t be completed.
    I have two sons-in-laws who are Jews and thought it would be of interest to them.
    However I have googled and found the website of Violins of Hope and sent it to my family. Today’s blog was very touching.

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