Violins, violas and cellos are tools for creating musical narration. Yet apart from sharing stories, the instruments articulate their own histories.
To broaden students’ understanding of the Holocaust, educators and musicians at Duquesne University's Mary Pappert School of Music explored the role of stringed instruments used by Jewish musicians in the ghettos and concentration camps.
Speakers at the Oct. 19 discussion titled “Music from the Holocaust and the Violins of Hope: Survival, Resistance, and Advocacy,” included musicologist James A. Grymes, Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh director Lauren Bairnsfather and violinist Niv Ashkenazi.
Grymes, a musicologist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, recounted several vignettes from his book, “Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust – Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind's Darkest Hour” and described the recent efforts of Amnon Weinstein. For the past 20 years, Weinstein, an Israeli violinmaker, has restored numerous instruments from the Holocaust.
Weinstein’s work, Grymes explained, can help decipher an almost unfathomable concept. Six million Jews were murdered during the Shoah, but one way to look at that number is by thinking about it as “6 million different stories.”
Among those interned and murdered by the Nazis were Jewish musicians. The instruments left behind are keys to understanding each player’s life, Grymes noted.
For some Jewish musicians, playing was a “path to survival” — however, survival wasn’t guaranteed, Bairnsfather said. Similar to art, music had a complicated history during those years.
At times, music was a “spiritual and cultural resistance against the Nazis,” but it was also another means of propaganda, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In learning about the Holocaust, it’s important to understand that the Nazis didn’t direct their “hatred” solely on Jews, Bairnsfather said. The Nazis “persecuted many other groups,” including people with disabilities; Sinti and Roma; Europeans of African descent; Poles; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and homosexual men.
“When I think about the Nazis, I would say they had so much hate to go around,” Bairnsfather said.
Bairnsfather, like Grymes, told students there’s another way to think about the substantial number of Jews murdered during the Holocaust: As opposed to saying 6 million were killed, it’s helpful to consider that 6 million represented two-thirds of European Jewry.
“When I'm with my students, I say I have two sisters, so there are three of us,” she continued. “Two of us will be gone. That was the magnitude of this war.” When it comes to the slaughter of Jews and other persecuted groups, the totality of these crimes cannot be dismissed, Bairnsfather added. “It’s an important part of understanding humanity and how we show up for each other.”
Violinist Niv Ashkenazi showed a violin from the period, described its makeup and played the instrument before encouraging students to pursue further inquiries: Though a story can be told or a piece can be played, what happens after the reaction is generated? Ashkenazi asked.
Sandy Rosen, chair of the upcoming “Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh” exhibit told students that organizers are intending to answer that question.
From Oct. 7 to Nov. 21, 2023, a series of programs and displays throughout the community will build on ideas shared by Grymes, Bairnsfather and Ashkenazi, Rosen said.
Benjamin Binder, chair of musicianship and associate music professor at Duquesne, said those events will provide students with learning opportunities similar to the Oct. 19 program.
“We developed this presentation with guest speakers and a performance to make Duquesne University students, faculty and staff aware of this phenomenon and of music’s role during the Holocaust and how it helped marginalized communities survive and even protest,” Binder said in a statement. “It also could be an inspiration for social justice projects among our students.”
Several participants said they were moved by the Oct. 19 program.
Duquesne student Rosemarie Spollen credited the speakers and fellow student Lucus Braga with providing an informative and poignant experience.
“I was almost brought to tears by the piece that was played. It was beautiful,” she said.
Braga, a violinist in the School of Music Artist Diploma program, performed Robert Dauber's “Serenade for Violin and Piano.”
The piece was written while the 23-year-old composer was a prisoner in the Terezin ghetto. Dauber died three years later of typhoid in the Dachau concentration camp.
Duquesne student Miah Sirianni told presenters that in the process of learning about music in the Holocaust she was reminded of her family’s history.
Sirianni’s grandmother was forced to play the violin as a prisoner during the Holocaust. After the war, the survivor wrote a series of letters to herself about the experience, Sirianni said.
Whereas some people viewed playing as a means of defiance, Sirianni’s grandmother was different — after the war, music was a trigger, Sirianni said.
It’s critical that people understand the associated trauma, Sirianni said: “I've done a lot of reading and I just noticed that we don't talk about what they went through afterwards and the things that they had to endure.”
Duquesne student Giulia Galante told the Chronicle that Sirianni’s comments offered new insight.
“I could only imagine what was going on in someone's head, especially a musician’s, to go from loving music to probably hating it because they were forced to do it,” Galante said.
Sirianni’s remarks, Braga’s performance and the entire discussion sparked a certain self-awareness, Duquesne student Nathan Sekala said.
“After the presentation, I almost felt a sense of privilege in the sense that I can come here to the school and practice music every day,” he said. “There are people who weren't able to do that or were forced to do it when they didn’t want to…, and it makes me thankful for all the experiences that I've had in my life.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.