Restored Holocaust instruments teach lessons in the modern day through Violins of Hope

Khushi Kanchibotla & Emyr Ortiz

Staff Writers

     The Holocaust and the Jewish struggle before, during, and after World War Two can sometimes seem distant and hard to relate to. Students often learn of this horrific time in history though history textbooks with size eight font or from worksheets that go over mere numbers and facts. However, this lesson from history was given new life for the students of American on January 30th. On that Thursday, American High got the chance to experience a different way of understanding the Jewish struggle: history carried on a musical note. 

     On January 30th, Violins of Hope visited American High School. As a collection of restored string instruments that have survived the Holocaust, Violins of Hope has quite a history itself.  

     “The violin maker started [the] collection, I believe, in the mid [90]s and has refurbished them in order to give [a] voice back to the voiceless,” informs Mrs. Smith, who spearheaded the effort to get Violins of Hope on campus. The violin maker she is referring to is Amnon Weinstein, whose collection of over eighty string instruments is now world-famous and has toured around the globe. Fifty-one of these instruments are currently touring in the Bay Area, and a few of these violins were at American on the 30th for a presentation covering these historic instruments infused with the voices of the past.

     Of course, booking pieces of history is no simple task. In fact, just getting them to the Bay Area was an extensive process.

     “Our executive director, [Patricia Moy], found out about it. Someone contacted her,” says Andrea Polites, a member of the educational committee for Music at Khol Mansion, a program based in Burlingame that mostly organizes classical music events. “I’m not sure who contacted who first, but I’ll tell you, it has been a couple of years in the making. We knew about it several years ago and have been preparing, and it was a big deal for our local community and our organization.”  

     The effort to share these historic instruments at this scale took the cooperation and collaboration of a multitude of hands and organizations.

     “There’s the [Jewish Family and Children’s Services] Holocaust Center–Music at Khol Mansion is the one that brought the whole thing to the Bay Area–and there [are] probably others if they’re doing concerts all over the Bay Area,” estimates Pam Matthews, another member of the Music at Khol Mansion educational committee. 

     It was through one of these other organizations that American High School’s Ms. Smith first took note of Violins of Hope.

     “Through [the organization] Facing History, I attended a workshop on race and racism. In October, when I went to that workshop, they had a flyer for Violins of Hope, and having taught the Holocaust as part of 10th grade literature…I have always been interested,” explains Mrs. Smith. “And so when I looked into what they were I was excited about going to the workshop…and so by attending the workshop we were then eligible to apply to have the Violins of Hope performance come to American High School.”

     While schools can apply to have the Violins of Hope perform at their campus, it is a two-thousand dollar charge for the performance. Fortunately, the Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center was willing to sponsor a few applicants so that they only had to pay a two hundred dollar charge. Out of all the schools that applied, only ten were selected, and, due to the work of Mrs. Smith and Ms. Wilkinson, American was one of the few who was able to host these vessels of the past. The lessons these violins carried would be able to be taught to the students of American.

     The violins themselves are not the draw for students as much as the stories and lessons they carry. The instruments are powerful because of the history they represent.

These violins on display are a few in a collection of eighty plus instruments. Having travelled almost around the world, these violins have shared their stories to a multitude of people. “In the concentration camps, music was, believe it or not, a big part of daily life. Now, most of the music was on command, meaning that people were forced to play certain things.” 
PC: Patrick Shao

    “My feeling is [that] to understand what was actually lost by the Holocaust and any genocide, any war, any mass destruction, is to know what was in place before the war happened and before the genocide happened. So for the Jewish people who [were] sometimes being forced to leave, they had a very rich musical culture. Music was used in bringing cultures together, bringing families together,” says Cookie Segelstein, who performed on the violins and was accompanied on the accordion by her husband Joshua Horowitz.  

     During the performance, which was open to students who signed up in advance, Segelstein told and played the stories of the Jewish people. More than this, she was able to express these stories and messages through the unique lens that music provides.

     “Music is easier to talk about than specific events that happen. My feeling–my goal–is to not seclude experience but to globalize it for all genocides, all suffering, all acts of bullying [and] acts of callousness with other people suffering. I feel that it’s not the story just of the Jewish people, but it’s the story of the way people treat each other. My feeling is that the way to sensitize somebody to suffering is to give a personal story, but that personal story is not the only story. There [are] genocides happening all over the world, all the time, and the idea is [to] speak out against injustice… That’s my goal in my presenting these instruments.”

     Through the violins, Segelstein played traditional Jewish songs and spoke of the culture that was in place before the Holocaust. The fact that these instruments are so deeply intertwined with the culture that they were cared for and kept alive through one of the most horrific times in history makes for a deeply personal connection. Segelstein, as a child of Holocaust survivors, felt this connection when choosing an intrument.

     “I came upon the Auschwitz violin, and, because my mother was there, I walked by it. I didn’t want to play it. And then I came back and I tried it again…I thought it would be a little more difficult for me [to play it], but it’s not. Just the fact that we play this historical music initially was difficult. So now it’s really cool for me to have these instruments and have that history to play on.”

     Mrs. Smith, having worked with teenagers for eighteen years, provides her insight on these connections. 

     “This is an opportunity to be in the presence of artifacts that survived the Holocaust…This is an opportunity to connect in a very real way with the history that has powerful connections to modern society,” says Ms. Smith.  “It’s a focus on music versus–for my class–the literature, the books, [and] the words that we tend to focus on. It’s a way in which especially teenagers can connect.”

     Each and every violin on display has its own specific story related to the Holocaust. Seventy to eighty years ago, these violins were being played to save the lives of the players’ as well as their audience. Now, these violins are on tour to share those stories and the horrors of the Holocaust. 

     “The one that prompted that the violin maker to begin collecting violins was one that had been brought to him in a horrible state of disrepair,” narrates Smith. “And that the man who brought it to him explained that he had survived Auschwitz because they learned that he could play the violin. So, instead of being sent to the gas chambers, he was forced to play the violin as people were marched to the gas chambers.” 

        Caught up in school work and tests, students don’t find much time to pause and learn about the different, unique stories taking place all around them. So, when presented with the opportunity to hear such stories, students were quick to grab it. 

     Theatre 70 was filled with bright faces eagerly looking forward to the performance which was about to commence. Students received an email the day before informing them about the upcoming performance, and a few students also received a second email. This second email was for those who mentioned that they could play the violin. These students were allowed to stay after the performance for a few minutes, getting a chance to hold and play these timeless instruments. 

     Among these students was junior Maria Aguirre who speaks about her experience playing the violin, saying, “[Violins of Hope taught me] that the Jewish people went through a lot, but they still had one thing that they turned to, which was music. It kept the hope alive.” Archisha Datta (12), another student who was invited to play one of the violins, says, “I think it’s important because it offers a perspective on how music is more than just writing notes for celebration; it’s also an expression of human hope and survival, and it shows how there’s an intersection between these two things that we wouldn’t normally think to connect.” 

     The students at the performance not only got the listen to the painfully woven stories of the Holocaust but also had the amazing opportunity to listen to these stories on instuments that lived through the tradgedy.      

     History is a complex field, growing and expanding each and every second. The stories of the past are packed with emotion and intricacies, often making them difficult to express. However, when history is expressed through a different medium, in this case music, it becomes a little easier to comprehend and the notes ring a little louder. As Ms. Smith remembers, “According to Hans Christian Andersen, ‘When words fail, music speaks.’”

The performance consisted of slideshows filled with stories, playful musical numbers as well as somber tragic ones. Cookie Segelstein and her husband Joshua Horowitz have been playing together for 18 years. One of the pieces played at the performance was wedding music called Klezmer music. “Klezmer comes from two Hebrew words, clay, meaning vessel, and Zimmer meaning song. Well, what’s a vessel of song? An instrument. Klezmer was actually used to talk about the musician.” Segelstein explains.
PC: Patrick Shao

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