Plucking the strings of The Holocaust
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An extraordinary collaborative effort among many Fort Wayne businesses and organizations, Violins of Hope finally arrives in town in the weeks ahead, providing an elaborate combination of workshops, lectures, films, and arts events and performances.
Restoring hidden instruments
Cutting across many cultural and social entities, Violins of Hope is a project which began with Amnon Weinstein, who two decades ago began collecting and restoring violins hidden away during the Holocaust.
Many Jewish musicians, not knowing if they could survive the devastating period, tried to protect their instruments. Once found, Weinstein began painstakingly returning them to their former glory — and in some instances beyond. And now, sharing the instruments allows the story to be told of a time in our world history that, more than 70 years later, is hard for many to fathom. Through the beauty of the instruments, the very human story is vividly real.
Jaki Schreier, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Wayne, learned about Violins of Hope from David Lindquist, a professor at Purdue Fort Wayne. She knew immediately that she wanted to explore it but wasn’t sure how to proceed.
As Schreier contemplated the impact that Violins of Hope could make on the community, Ben Eisbart, current president of the Jewish Federation and a member of the local Jewish community, suggested she contact Jim Palermo. It was then that the pair got the ball rolling.
Schreier and Palermo, the latter a native of Cleveland and now managing director of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, began looking at the various exhibits around the county, including in Cleveland and Cincinnati
Jumping at an opportunity
“We started asking about it, and the exhibit travels all over the country,” Palermo said. “There was an opening for two weeks in November, and if we couldn’t do that, we were looking at two to three years from now. That’s how far out they’re booked.”
“When we went to see it in Cincinnati, it was January 2018,” Schreier said. “As we looked over our calendars, and trying to avoid any Jewish holidays, we saw this opening in November 2019, and at the time that seemed so far away. And they told us it was going to be in California for all of 2020 so we jumped at that opening.”
Although each city which has hosted includes a large slate of events, for better or worse, Palermo said there is no template for Violins of Hope. While that does mean each city essentially starts from scratch in planning the large undertaking, it also means that the personality of each city can be highlighted during the schedule of events.
“We had contacted Birmingham and talked to them when they hosted the exhibit,” Palermo said. “They tied the civil rights movement and the challenges faced by African Americans with the Holocaust and what happened to the Jews. When we started looking at events we could host, we had to think, ‘What are some of the things that are unique to Fort Wayne?’ And we realized genealogy is something that is important to our community, and the collection at the Allen County Public Library is well-known.
“So we brought workshops into the schedule so that people can learn how to trace their ancestors that may have been victims or survivors of the Holocaust. We have the only professional ballet company in Indiana with the Fort Wayne Ballet, so we wanted to bring them into it. We have many great choral groups and the Fort Wayne Youth Symphony. It all began to come together, and there was total buy-in from everyone involved.
“We decided we wanted to put a real focus here on the educational component,” Schreier said. “We decided that the first time these violins would be played was by the Fort Wayne Youth Symphony Orchestra, and that was a strategic decision. We wanted the instruments to connect to the young generation. And we have a strong educational component with the docents that have been trained to visit the Rotary Clubs and local schools to teach people about these instruments and the people who had owned them.”
From Concerts to Museums …
The event encompasses many different aspects of education and the arts.
The University of Saint Francis will host the exhibit which features 17 of the 50 instruments. The Fort Wayne Museum of Art will house another five, and the rest will be played at a variety of performances during the two weeks that Violins of Hope will visit Fort Wayne.
While many who visit museums and special exhibits are used to a no-touching approach to such precious reminders of our past, Palermo explained that touching is necessary for these instruments.
“An instrument has to be played or it dies,” he said. “And it’s important to remember that these weren’t virtuoso instruments. They were essentially practice instruments, and now that they’ve been restored, many of them are in better shape than when they were played originally.”
While Amnon Weinstein is the luthier who first began this project, his equally skilled son, Avashalom, will be visiting Fort Wayne and will be at several events, including the luthier demonstration at Sweetwater Sound.
For those less familiar with the intricacies of stringed instruments, there are still many other unique opportunities available. Joseph Decuis is hosting a special dinner at their farm in Roanoke.
“It’s easy to forget that before the Holocaust, these people had lives,” Schreier said. “So Joseph Decuis is coming up with a celebratory dinner, the kind of thing that Jewish families would have eaten in Europe and Eastern Europe during that time.
“That’s part of what was amazing as we planned the events for this. No partner we talked to said no.”
… to Religious services
Food, music, dance, storytelling, art, exhibits, theater, genealogy workshops, and special screenings of films provide a little something for everybody, and while some events require tickets due to limited seating, many of the events in Violins of Hope are free, making it accessible to anyone in the community.
There are also special religious services including a Shabbat Service at the Congregation Achduth Vesholom and a Jewish-Catholic Prayer Service at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church. Also, PBS 39 has scheduled a heavy slate of special programming to coincide with the event.
All of these special exhibits and events help drive home the human cost of the Holocaust and reminds those who bear witness of how hate can divide and destroy a community.
“We can’t do anything for those we have lost,” Schreier said. “But we can remember them and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”