'Music lives on': Montreal concert features violins that survived the Holocaust
Published Sunday, November 3, 2019 10:00PM EST
TORONTO -- At a special concert in Montreal this weekend, a unique set of instruments rang out in Canada for the first time -- violins that once belonged to Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.
At the Maison Symphonique in Montreal this Saturday, the Orchestre Metropolitain brought out the violins’ historic story of resilience as they used them to play symphonies by Bach and Mahler, among other composers’ work.
One of the performers, Monica Duschenes, said that “it’s a big honour to be able to play (one of the violins.)”
“It’s a very moving story that these instruments survived when their owners didn’t, and survived such a terrible period of history,” she told CTV News. “And now they’re coming alive in our hands.”
The violins played in Montreal are part of a collection of more than 70 instruments which were owned by Jewish musicians before and during the Second World War. Eight of the violins were brought to Montreal to be part of the concert.
The violins are known as the “Violins of Hope.” They were collected and carefully restored by Israeli violin-maker Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom Weinstein, a process which can take between three months to two years depending on the condition of the instrument.
“A lot of them, apparently, arrived in pieces,” Duschenes said. “So it wasn’t just a question of changing the strings and putting on a new bridge. It was really total restoration.”
Jewish musicians were sometimes forced to entertain Nazi guards in the death camps. Others were ordered to play music on their violins while being marched to the gas chambers.
For Fishel Goldig, a survivor of the Holocaust, seeing the violins in Montreal sparked memories from when he was nine years old and living in one of the ghettos created by the Nazis.
When Jewish people were segregated from the rest of the population into the ghetto, they were only supposed to take essentials with them, Goldig said. But some brought their beloved instruments anyway.
A violinist had lived a floor above him, he added, providing a glimmer of hope.
“Although you were not allowed, you were not supposed to have (an instrument) … he got it and he brought it with him and I used to hear him at night,” Goldig said. “He would practice when we were in the ghetto.”
The violinist “perished,” Goldig said.
“I don’t know what happened to the violin, but maybe it’s one of (the Violins of Hope).”
Not all of the previous owners of the violins died in the Holocaust, but some did, according to concert presenter Katia Dahan.
The violins range from 150 years old to a relatively young 90 years old, she said. Some were owned by professional musicians, while others belonged to amateurs.
One violin, around 120 years old, has a shining Star of David inlay on the back, and is thought to have been owned by a “very wealthy” musician, Dahan said.
Duschenes had requested to play a specific violin, called the Wagner Violin, after tracking its history and realizing that it may have been played by a former teacher of hers in 1936.
Although Duschenes’ grandparents left Europe before the war, the Second World War took the lives of some of her relatives, she said, making the concert “particularly meaningful” to her.
The event page on Place Des Arts’ website said the violins are visiting Canada in honour of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands by Canadian troops. The event was presented in collaboration with the Montreal Holocaust Museum.
Ultimately, the fact that these instruments survived war, concentration camps and the ravages of time and are still bringing music to audiences to this day is “beautiful (and) symbolic,” Dahan said.
“It's a sign of resilience, it's a sign of hope and freedom.”
It’s a message that audiences in Montreal heard loud and clear this weekend.
“You can’t destroy everything,” Duschenes said. “Music lives on.”