Several days ago a dear friend of mine sent me a link to a magazine article in the Jewish Magazine November issue.
It was the story of the “Violins of Hope,” a collection of violins recovered from the Holocaust and painstakingly restored by the master Israeli violin maker, Amnon Weinstein. And it led me on a voyage to find out more. At this website:
you can learn about the man and his mission to rescue violins that were found almost totally destroyed, in the silence of hell, in liberated camps and empty Ghettos, at the end of the Second World War. He restores them to their former glory. They were played at a concert in Jerusalem on September 24th 2008 to celebrate 60 years of the state of Israel. And next year they are going to play at various concerts in the USA. At this website you can read about some of those concerts:
This resonates with me because my novel, “The Secret Keeper”, is about a violin and the journey from pre-war Berlin to Soviet Russia and to the present day, about the struggle to regain it for the family that lost it in 1939 to the Nazis. It has been owned by a Russian family for over 60 years and they have suffered their own tragedy and are deeply connected to it. I invented this story as my ‘take’ on where the missing 1742 del Gesu violin is and after much research I learned that some master violins had their date stamps changed in an effort to protect them from looting. I also have a 14 year-old violin prodigy, Daniel, in my story and we see his Grandfather, Simon, at the same age, playing the del Gesu for the first time. Simon ends up in Dachau and is forced to play the violin for the guards in order to survive. Any more than that will give away the ending for anyone who is interesting in reading it (links to it are on My Books page).
But, yesterday, on this Violins of Hope website I found the story of Motele. A true story of courage and music:
“The Motele’s Violin Story
Imagine a sleeping child hugging a violin, somewhere at the foot of a big oak tree, at the edge of a forest. The picture is so serene that you almost forget the year is 1944 and that the forest is on the Ukrainian – Byelorussian border.
The Jewish partisans who come across the sleeping child learn that he is the sole survivor of a German massacre. His name is Motele. Grasping his violin, he had hidden, then fled to the forest. Luck had it that this unit of partisans, known as “Uncle Misha’s Jewish group”, was hiding in this very forest. Now, under the command of Moshe Gildenman, it boasts a new member: the young Motele.
One day, Gildenman decides to send Motele to the town below, on the other bank of the Vroutz River. His mission? To mix with the crowd on New Year’s Day and to note the comings and goings of the German soldiers. In fact, this is the only day people can move around freely, without having their papers checked. And Gildenman’s absolutely crazy dream is to recapture the town from the Germans and return it to the Red Army, whose cannons can already be heard resonating…
And that is how the boy, dressed in rags, comes to be standing on the time-worn rock of the Church courtyard. There, among the mendicants come to beg for alms on this festival day, he plays his violin. He seems to be dreaming open-eyed. He’s dreaming that he’s in the most beautiful palace ever, that he’s on the most beautiful stage ever, wrapped in those stately red drapes that fascinate children everywhere attending the theatre for the first time in their lives.
Suddenly, he notices a German officer amongst the crowd listening to him. The officer signals to him with his baton. Motele gets up and follows him wordlessly. They reach a big building. Motele immediately realizes that this is where the German officers assemble before departing to, and upon returning from, the rapidly approaching front line. “You’ll play here every evening, and there’s the pianist who’ll accompany you,” the officer tells him.
Every evening after his performance, Motele goes down to get a mess-tin of soup in the kitchen in the cellar. In the labyrinth of passages leading to it, Motele notices a kind of storage space, empty and in a bad condition, with cracks in the walls practically begging to be opened…”I just have to get out of here and tell my friends in the forest about it,” Motele tells himself, and, hidden under foul ropes piled on a cart, reaches the river. He crosses it and rejoins his unit to discuss the cracks in the walls of the cellar.
You can most certainly imagine the sequel. But…not so quickly… From that day on, Motele enters and leaves the officers’ club with his violin case under his arm. Only there’s no violin inside it. Motele has hidden the violin in the old abandoned storehouse. As for the violin case, it is filled with the explosives necessary for the definitive widening of the cracks running, as luck would have it, from the bottom to the top of the walls.
This evening, the officers drink more than usual. Motele takes advantage of this to let a German violinist, who is also a little intoxicated, replace him, without anyone noticing the change of players. He then descends in all haste to the kitchen as if to get his mess-tin of soup. The kitchen is closed. That’s only natural, as it’s getting late. His heart beats so fast it could be beating the rhythm of the mazurka he’s just played. The way is clear. Motele arranges the explosives the way the partisans instructed him, lights the wick and grabs his violin, which he’d nearly forgotten.
As soon as the explosion is heard, Motele runs towards the meeting-place, at the bottom of the main road. In the confusion no one notices a running boy. The noise of the explosions mixes with the screeching of the sirens and with the blind gunshots of the German soldiers. Motele has already reached the river, which he crosses in the company of his partisan friends. He hugs his violin tightly and, before going to sleep that night, carefully wipes off the dust and the cinders from the wood, so that it will be as shiny as usual.
Several weeks later, the Germans beat their retreat, and the Russians pursue them right into the forest where the partisans are hiding. That evening, before going to sleep, Motele does not have time to dust and polish his violin. He goes to sleep forever in a clearing which he crosses at the wrong moment in order to warn a Russian officer about the German soldiers lying in ambush.
The commander of the partisans, Gildenman, picks up Motele’s violin. He does not dust it or polish it any more. After the war, he arrives in Israel with it. Later on, he gives it to his son who, in his turn, gives it to his own son.
For decades, this wooden violin, worn away by the cold and the rain, is kept, wrapped between clothes and blankets, in the old wardrobe that all our grandmothers seem to have bought in the same place. However, a few years ago, by an accident which may not have been exactly an accident, our master luthier, Amnon Weinstein, meets Gildenman’s grandson and discovers, with an emotion mixed with sadness and wonder, the violin hidden in the wardrobe.
It takes several years to remodel Motele’s violin, to find the same wood, to find the cords that go with the wood. Today, at the very moment you are reading these few lines, Motele’s violin is coming alive again and is about to be played once more.
In fact, Motele’s violin is the reflection of a whole people who, even though it seemed so fragile, is vibrating with life again, which has been reborn…
On September 24th, a few days before Rosh Hashana, for the first time after more that 60 years of silence, Motele’s violin is going to play again. It is going to play the Hatikva at the foot of the ancient walls of Jerusalem, illuminated by thousands of flames and lights, held by the delicate hands of a 12-year-old Israeli violinist, the same age Motele was when he last played it, the age he’ll remain forever…
If we could still talk to Motele, we might tell him something like this: “You liked to play with your eyes shut. You were dreaming then that you were on a big stage, somewhere in a big European or American capital… Well, we’d like you to know that your violin is soon going to play on the most beautiful of stages. Together with other violins which, too, have survived the inferno. It is going to play a great symphony, like the one you dreamt of interpreting some day, in the hands of one of the world’s greatest violinists, Shlomo Mintz. He will be accompanied by a huge philharmonic orchestra, at the foot of the ancient walls of Jerusalem. It will be the crowning event of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the State of Israel…
Yes, Israel has existed for 60 years now and thanks, in some part, to you…”