Old instrument goes from North Hills closet to Violins of Hope collection
Violins of HopeGiving voice to the past

Old instrument goes from North Hills closet to Violins of Hope collection

Ole Steffen Dahl's antique stringed instrument receives 'afterlife' following family's donation

Violinist Joshua Bell and Avshi Weinstein discuss Ole Steffan Dahl's violin on Nov. 25. (Photo by David Bachman)
Violinist Joshua Bell and Avshi Weinstein discuss Ole Steffan Dahl's violin on Nov. 25. (Photo by David Bachman)

A violin whose provenance points to Danish resistance during World War II has joined the Violins of Hope, a traveling collection of Holocaust-era stringed instruments.

The violin, which was donated weeks ago by Ross Township resident Christian Dahl and his brother Peter Dahl, belonged to their father Ole Steffen Dahl, a Danish-born luthier who died in 2004.

Thanks to this collection, the violin has “an afterlife,” Christian Dahl, 72, told the Chronicle.

Since Ole Dahl’s death almost 20 years ago, the instrument remained in a North Hills closet.

“I thought somebody needs to have it and play,” Christian Dahl said. “It’s a decent instrument.”

Days before the donation, the violin was brought to Brighton Music Center along with a note describing its provenance.

The violin, “an early Hopf from the late 18th or early 19th century,” belonged to Ole Steffen Dahl. Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1919, Dahl apprenticed as a violin maker in the late 1930s at Emil Hjorth and Sons, a “venerable firm” in Copenhagen, according to Christian Dahl.

After Germany invaded Denmark on April 9, 1940, Dahl joined the Danish navy. Although he and other Danish military personnel were interned by the Germans, Dahl secretly joined the Danish resistance, his son said: “The comforting smells of rosin and freshly carved wood were replaced by odors of gun oil and explosives.”

As the war continued, Dahl’s commitment to resistance grew. His childhood home in Esbønderup, just north of Copenhagen, was used to hide Danish Jews, and according to family history, Dahl “secretly helped transport Jews” from Lyngby, Denmark to Sweden.

The mystery of resistance

Dahl was a member of Korps Ågesin, a group of resistance fighters who participated in bombing train tracks and impeding German supply lines, his son said.

Korps Ågesin was “military,” according to the National Museum in Copenhagen’s resistance database.

Despite the museum’s possession of a blurry image of Dahl and members of the resistance group, little is known about Dahl’s wartime activities.

“The Danish resistance is still a very secretive organization, and my father never talked about it until the end of his life,” Christian Dahl said. After developing “some Alzheimer’s symptoms,” Ole Dahl would occasionally “blurt some things out,” but details of his involvement remain a mystery.

Ole Steffan Dahl (top left) and members of Korps Ågesin, Danish resistance fighters, in 1945. (Photo courtesy of Christian Dahl)

What’s known, said the son, is that Ole Dahl’s violin was a welcome distraction from war.

Between 1938 and 1945, the Nazis invaded and occupied more than 20 countries. The only one that “actively resisted” the deportation of its Jewish citizens was Denmark, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Despite the danger, Danish residents ensured that Denmark’s nearly 8,000 Jews “found hiding places in homes, hospitals and churches.” And a group of fishermen helped ferry approximately “7,200 Danish Jews and 680 non-Jewish family members to safety across the narrow body of water separating Denmark from Sweden.”

“My father’s youngest brother said that my father was gone for an appropriate amount of time to have taken Jewish people to Sweden and back. I can’t say that he did that because he never said it, but if his brother knew about it, then that’s something that I would be very proud of that my father did,” Christian Dahl said.

After the war’s conclusion, Ole Dahl joined the British Army, met Diana Parry, a member of the women’s branch of the British army, married, and moved to the U.S., where he worked as a violin maker with Lyon & Healy in Chicago before joining Kenneth Warren & Sons.

In 1967, Ole Dahl opened his own shop in Bloomington, Indiana.

Diana worked beside him as an “accountant, salesperson and self-taught varnish expert,” in a store that was a “local landmark for professors and students from the Indiana University School of Music,” according to Ole Dahl’s obituary in the Chesterton Tribune. “Together, they rented and sold instruments, worked with aspiring students, repaired thousands of bows, glued hundreds of cracks, and otherwise served the general needs of the musical community.”

Telling the story

Weeks ago, Avshi Weinstein, son of Violins of Hope founder Amnon Weinstein, was contacted by Brad Wittmer, owner of Brighton Music Center.

“We have a very unique violin,” Wittmer wrote to the Israeli.

Given its provenance and Ole Dahl’s story, Wittmer wondered if there was interest in the instrument.

Days later, Weinstein attended a Violins of Hope event with Grammy-award-winning violinist Joshua Bell and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

The Nov. 25 concert, according to the PSO, was designed to “give voice to lessons and stories from the Holocaust, while pointing toward our future using music to build bridges of understanding and inspire deeper connections across our community.”

Avshi Weinstein holds Ole Steffan Dahl’s violin, the newest addition to the Violins of Hope collection. (Photo courtesy of Tina Richardson)

Following the performance, the audience was invited to listen to Weinstein, Bell and PSO music director Manfred Honeck in conversation.

Seated on Heinz Hall’s stage, Weinstein described the origins of the Violins of Hope project and said each performance furthers interest in a collection that now includes nearly 100 instruments.

The newest addition, he said, belonged to Ole Dahl, a member of the Danish resistance.

Bell, a child prodigy who first played Carnegie Hall in 1985 at age 17 was surprised by Weinstein’s announcement.

“I did not know this story,” Bell said. “Ole Dahl was my local violin maker when I was 4 years old in Bloomington. I got my first violin from [him].”

Christian Dahl told the Chronicle that his father would be proud of the donation and the violin’s continued journey.

“It helps tell the story of the Danish resistance,” he said. “I think the world needs that. It needs people to recognize that we are all the same underneath, and we all want decent lives, and no hate.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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