By Mike Telin
CLEVELAND — The warm fall sun shone brightly on the University Circle district on Sept. 27 as 1,000 people gathered to celebrate the opening of Case Western Reserve University’s new Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center at The Temple-Tifereth Israel. The centerpiece of the afternoon was a concert by the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst featuring violinist Shlomo Mintz. At the same time, the event launched Violins of Hope Cleveland — a four-month, multifaceted celebration of the triumph of the human spirit through the voices of violins that survived the Holocaust.
Violins of Hope Cleveland is a ground-breaking collaboration among seven Cleveland non-profit organizations and a dozen affiliates that brings to Cleveland’s Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage some twenty violins connected to the Holocaust. Played by Jewish prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, the instruments have been collected and restored by Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein. Nineteen members of the Cleveland Orchestra and Violins of Hope co-founder Mintz played the violins in the Sept. 27 concert, and the instruments and their stories are the focus of an extensive series of concerts, lectures, and educational activities in Northeast Ohio. Other concerts will feature two of the Violins of Hope in J.S. Bach’s double violin concerto (Baldwin Wallace Conservatory Orchestra, Oct. 25), commemorate the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz (performed by the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra, Nov. 2 and Dec. 6), and trace the role of the violin in Klezmer music (Greenman/Rushefsky Duo, Nov. 15).
“This could only happen in Cleveland,” said Richard Bogomolny, chairman of the Cleveland Orchestra’s board of trustees, who initiated the project and lined up its principal sponsors in the remarkably short period of three weeks.
After securing the involvement of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, Bogomolny soon enlisted the support of Milton Maltz, who proposed a major exhibit at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage — and happened to mention plans for a new performing arts center at Case Western Reserve University. A dedicatory event was envisaged for the opening of the center, which brought the Cleveland Orchestra into the picture. The Cleveland Institute of Music and ideastream (WVIZ-PBS, WCPN NPR, and classical FM station WCLV) joined the project. The final piece of the puzzle was a lasting educational component, an age-appropriate curriculum developed by Facing History and Ourselves that has been adopted by Cleveland’s public, Catholic, and independent schools.
Weinstein, who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Palestine in 1938, learned after World War II that some four hundred of his family members had perished under the Nazis. Later, he heard a heartfelt account from a survivor who had brought an instrument in for restoration, of what the violin and its music had meant to Jews during those horrific days. In 1996, Weinstein — now numbered among the finest violin makers in the world — decided to put out a call for Holocaust-era violins. To date, he has restored nearly fifty such instruments to playing condition, a collection he dubbed Violins of Hope.
Those instruments have already been heard in concerts in London, Paris, Rome, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Berlin. In September, eighteen violins from Weinstein’s collection and one from Yad Vashem — the World Center for Documentation, Research, Education, and Commemoration of the Holocaust — were put on display at the Maltz Museum. The exhibit will continue there through Jan. 3, 2016, in a special, multisensory installation featuring circular pods and dramatic lighting. But since violins need to be played, the instruments will sing out on a regular basis in the hands of students from the Cleveland Institute of Music and Baldwin Wallace Conservatory.
“What excites me about Violins of Hope is that this is the kind of program that is going to make an impact and have a legacy,” said Jeffery Allen, education and public programs director at the Maltz Museum. “If you know someone’s story, it’s much more difficult to ostracize or hate them. When entire groups of people are targeted as undesirables, or seen as the root of your problem, these are the leaps that led to the Holocaust, and the mass slaughter of millions of people.
“When you hear a number like six million murdered, that’s a staggering and inconceivable [figure]. When you look at one of the violins, you realize that each instrument represents a life. It may be a life that was lost in the Holocaust, or it may be a life that was saved because of the person’s ability to play music. These are powerful stories that contextualize the unthinkable in a concrete way.”
In addition to an extensive series of concerts organized by the Cleveland Institute, the Maltz Museum is partnering with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and Groundworks DanceTheater in the creation of a work with an original score by Israeli composer Oded Zehavi.
“Although the themes of this project can be quite heavy,” Allen said, “not every story is one that will leave you in despair. Some will truly lift your spirit and say ‘humankind can do horrible things, but it can also do amazing things.’”
One example is the Holocaust Survivor Band. “They are survivors of the Holocaust…in their 80s and 90s who decided to start a band because music is what lifted their souls, and music is what’s going to lift our souls. This group is the proof of music’s ability to carry us through during troubling and difficult times. That’s a story that is not unique to the Holocaust. It is a story that is unique to every human life. The Holocaust Survivor Band is also a great example of the celebration of life.”
Allen believes the scope of the Violins of Hope project is broadly humanitarian. “We’re not just a museum of Jewish Heritage, we’re the museum of diversity and tolerance. In order to do that we have an obligation to bring multiple perspectives and stories to the table. We’re thrilled to be able to work with the Imani Temple Choir in developing an amazing program focusing on music from the era of slavery as well as finding music that forms touch points between cultures.”
Weinstein himself was on hand for conversations with Mintz, Rabbi Roger Klein, Eric Kisch, and James A. Grymes. Grymes, author of Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust — Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour, shared some of the poignant stories behind the violins.
Among the other planned educational programs are seven early December concerts for grades 6-12 by the Cleveland Orchestra (Brett Mitchell, conducting) in collaboration with Case Western and the Cleveland Play House MFA program.
The Cleveland Orchestra’s program on Sept. 27 included Mendelssohn’s concerto, Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre with narrator Thomas Hampson and members of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, and Beethoven’s overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, as well as his Leonore Overture No. 3. A bonus piece featured Mintz in Bloch’s Nigun.
During the performance, which was broadcast live over Cleveland’s PBS and classical radio stations, Weinstein’s violins were played by Mintz and orchestra members, including concertmaster William Preucil. The orchestra’s principal viola, Robert Vernon, and principal cello Mark Kosower also performed on instruments from Weinstein’s collection. The voices that were silenced by the Nazis were heard again during an event that also celebrated the re-purposing of a landmark Jewish temple (still to be used by its original congregation for great festivals and life events) as a performing arts center for a university that lacked that important amenity. Silver Hall, as the renovated auditorium is now known, looked handsome and sounded warm and engaging.
The concert was an affecting experience for many, including the musicians. Isabel Trautwein, a member of the Cleveland Orchestra’s first-violin section, shared her thoughts after playing one of Weinstein’s instruments during the performance. “I gazed at this violin and so wished it could tell me its story,” she said. “A beautiful Star of David, inlaid with mother of pearl, was on the backside of this otherwise very simple violin. I wondered how it was possible that this fragile little instrument could do what its owner could not: survive the times to become a messenger of peace and a heartbreaking reminder never to forget the crimes of our past. It was a powerful and touching experience.”
Mike Telin is executive editor of ClevelandClassical.com and team-teaches “Introduction to Music Criticism” at Oberlin College.