When Pittsburgher Sandy Rosen heard there was a need for docents for an exhibit in Phoenix called “Violins of Hope,” which featured violins lost in the Holocaust, she didn’t hesitate to volunteer.
Rosen, who was spending the winter in Arizona in 2019, is a docent for the Heinz History Center and for the Western Spirit museum in Scottsdale. As she worked with the Violins of Hope exhibit, she saw the impact the instrument’s stories made on people of all ages and religions.
That’s why she decided to bring the exhibit, and a host of other related programming, to Pittsburgh.
Violins of Hope, a multi-dimensional educational project centered on a collection of restored World War II-era violins played by Jewish musicians, opens here on Oct. 7. Rosen, the chair of Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh, along with her co-chair, Pat Siger, have partnered with more than 50 local organizations to bring music, dance and theater performances, exhibits, lectures and other events to various local venues.
The centerpiece of the project, the Violins of Hope exhibit, will be displayed at the Posner Center at Carnegie Mellon University, through Nov. 21.
Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshi have spent the last 24 years locating and restoring the violins of the Holocaust. Many of the instruments belonged to Jews before and during the war. Some were donated by or bought from survivors, while others came from family members. Some simply are decorated with Stars of David.
There are more than 100 violins in the collection, Avshi Weinstein told the Chronicle, and about 70 of them will be coming to Pittsburgh. Each one has its own story, which the Weinsteins recorded based on the testimonies of the families who owned them.
For Weinstein, keeping these stories alive is a deeply personal mission.
“On my mother’s side, they were all survivors,” he said. His maternal grandfather, Asael Bielski, was one of the Jewish resistance fighters portrayed in the film “Defiance,” as were his great-uncles. His grandmother spoke about her Holocaust experiences frequently in schools.
Weinstein noted that the generation who can share their Holocaust testimonies firsthand is dwindling, so preserving the stories of the violins and of the people who played them is “very powerful,” he said.
Violins have been popular instruments among Jews for centuries, and some of the most accomplished violinists in the world are Jewish: Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman and Isaac Stern, for example.
Weinstein recalled that when Stern was asked why so many Jews chose the violin, he said it was because “it’s the easiest instrument to put in a case and run away.”
Weinstein will come to Pittsburgh for the opening of the exhibit and will participate in some of the events. He encourages the community to attend various programs associated with the exhibit “because each event is going to be different. There will be a really good lectures and really good speakers. And I hope people will come and join and learn.”
The timing of the Pittsburgh project is appropriate, Rosen said, as it coincides with the fifth commemoration of the massacre at the Tree of Life building.
“It’s all about combating hate,” she explained. “Our tagline is ‘Tuning Out Prejudice: Building Bridges That Last.’”
To that end, Violins of Hope Pittsburgh will bring middle and high school students to view the exhibit and “to talk to them, not only about the stories behind the violins, but to help them understand that hate can be taught,” Rosen said. “Hitler was a master at propaganda. And he built an entire rationale for annihilating a group of people, and we have to learn to come together to bridge those differences through dialogue so that we can understand one another.”
Siger, who also first saw the exhibit in Phoenix in 2019, was eager to co-chair the project. She said she sees it as a positive response to the antisemitic attack at the Tree of Life building — a way to “change the conversation around antisemitism and kindness and inclusion and understanding.”
“We all saw this outpouring of community, strength and unity after Tree of Life,” Siger recalled. “I was confident that if we did something as big as bringing the Violins of Hope to Pittsburgh, the community would rally around us. And that is exactly what happened.”
The more than 60 community partners for the project include the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, premiering a commissioned work, “Light in the Dark”; the American Jewish Museum, exhibiting 43 photographs by Daniel Levin chronicling the work of the Weinsteins in restoring the violins; and Quantum Theatre, which will stage “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” a Klezmer musical based on the love story of artist Marc Chagall and his poet wife, Bella, at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
The programming is vast. Musicians will be playing the Violins of Hope in concert halls and classrooms. Special performances will be showcased at the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival, Tuesday Musical Society, Manchester Craftsman Guild, Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, Edgewood Symphony, Carnegie Mellon University Philharmonic, Penn State Chamber Orchestra and Concert Choir, Pittsburgh Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Many of the cultural, arts and educational events will be free, including several weeks of programming at various Carnegie Library locations and the main exhibit at CMU, “with each violin telling its own story of resilience and remembrance,” Peter Kerwin, CMU’s director of media relations, said.
The exhibit also will feature photographs, videos “and projected imagery documenting, among other things, the formation of the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, the Theresienstadt camp ghetto and the postwar histories of Jewish musicians who survived the Holocaust,” Kerwin added. There will be a set of traveling instruments featured at various events across the region and played by local musicians.
The project will close with a concert featuring violinist Joshua Bell joining Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony. Works will include Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun” from Baal Shem, and Israeli composer Boris Pigovat’s Yizkor, a PSO commission.
“Having so many groups come together to develop unique and heartfelt programming around this really speaks to the level of community engagement that’s happening here in Pittsburgh,” Kerwin said. “It’s a wonderful thing to see and testament to the work of Sandy Rosen, Pat Siger, Lynn Zelenski [Violins of Hope project manager] and all of the people who have helped bring this together.”
The project’s presenting sponsor is The Arthur J. and Betty F. Diskin Fund of the Jewish Federation Foundation.
“We’re lucky to have had thoughtful community members in the Diskins, who wanted to enrich our Jewish community’s cultural life into the future,” said Jeff Finkelstein, the Federation’s president and CEO. “That’s why they created an endowment in the Federation’s Jewish Community Foundation to make it happen. The Arthur J. and Betty F. Diskin Cultural Endowment Fund enabled the Federation to be the cornerstone sponsor, bringing Violins of Hope to Pittsburgh during what I know is going to be an emotional time — the five-year commemoration of the 2018 attack on Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life congregations.”
The community partners participating “have gone to great lengths to incorporate into their programming something that is really relevant and meaningful to the entire story,” Rosen said. “I never would have dreamed that it would have built to this kind of collaborative community effort.
There are lots of partners who are talking to one another, working together, creating events together. And I think that’s just part of the whole end goal — that we should be a community that works together. It is just so profound to me to watch what has happened around this.”
Siger sees the exhibit and the events associated with it as a healthy antidote to the anxiety Jews in Pittsburgh and elsewhere have experienced in recent years.
“Even in the midst of worry and concern about the [Pittsburgh synagogue shooting] trial and everything,” Siger said, “we have been able to change the conversation a little bit around from what Jews across the world are worried about, and trying to build on the notion of resilience and hope and kindness and goodness.”
For a full list of events, go to violinsofhopepittsburgh.com. Advance ticket reservations for the Violins of Hope main exhibit will be available on the website beginning Sept. 5. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.