JAY — On Oct. 18 students at Spruce Mountain Middle School learned about the Holocaust and World War II through a Violins of Hope presentation.
Select members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra performed musical selections from that era while narrators provided information about the Violins of Hope and what was happening in and around Germany during that time.
Performing were 1st Violin in the quartet and PSO Concertmaster Charles Dimmick, 2nd Violin in the quartet and Assistant Principal Concertmaster Amy Sims, Principal Cello Sein Lee and Assistant Principal Viola Willine Thoe.
The violin Dimmick has is special, not because it is the greatest violin in the world but because it literally went on a journey to get here, PSO Director of Education John Elliott said. “That violin was made in Germany in the early 20th century and it was purchased by a young man who grew up learning how to play,” he noted. “Something bad happened to him and he was forced to live in a concentration camp Auschwitz for part of his life. He and that violin both survived and he moved back to Germany after World War II.
“He didn’t really have any possessions other than his violin,” Elliott said. “He sold it to another violin player for $50. The man who bought it hoped his son would one day grow up and learn how to play it. His son, Freddy did learn how to play and he donated that violin to a group of people who had a group of instruments called the Violins of Hope.”
All violins in the Violins of Hope collection have similar stories, Elliott said. All have been given the refurbishment and tender loving care as if they were the greatest sounding instruments on Earth, he noted.
Violin-makers Amnon Weinstein and Avshalom Weinstein own the violins, violas and cellos in the Violins of Hope collection. There are about 100 instruments in the collection with all having a connection to the Holocaust. Some were donated by or purchased from survivors or family members while others carried the Star of David, a symbol used by the Nazis to identify Jews.
The string quartet performed the first movement of String Quartet in C minor composed by Sholom Secunda.
Secunda was from a Jewish family, he and his family were forced to flee to the United States where he became a well-known composer, Elliott said. “His story is somewhat common in Jewish families,” he noted.
“These violins came from a period of time known as the Holocaust, Alex Magnaud, an educator with the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta, said. “The Holocaust was the deliberate murder of European Jews by Nazi Germany,” she noted. “It took place over a period of time from 1933 to 1945. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany were the main people responsible for the Holocaust but they had many willing collaborators such as the German Army and ordinary German citizens.” Thousands of others participated in Germany and many other European countries, she added. Many countries at the time, including the United States would not allow European Jews into their countries, she added.
During the Holocaust six million Jewish men, women and children were killed with 1.5 million of those murdered under the age of 18, Magnaud said. “They were deliberately exterminated,” she noted. “This was two-thirds of all the Jews in Europe and one-third of the entire world Jewish population.”
Avshalom Weinstein was part of the SMMS presentation and spoke about the violin played by 2nd violinist Sims. It was made by a violin maker in his 70s working in Europe before the war who did not survive the war, he said. The violin was owned by a wealthy industrialist who died in 1947, Weinstein noted. The only things left from that industrialist is this violin and a small photograph, he added.
“There were tens of thousands of concentration camps all over Europe,” Weinstein said. “Every camp had an orchestra. The Auschwitz orchestra had to play every day in the morning, even in the rain or snow.”
The Nazis used music to make the Jews in the camps work, Weinstein said. The musicians were the last to go to work and the first to come back, it was how some of them managed to survive, he added.
“The Holocaust was unique, different from any other mass execution that happened before or since,” Magnaud said. “Every single one of the millions of Jews living in Europe was targeted by the Nazis to be murdered. The Nazis’ attack on the Jews was different from their actions against the other peoples of race. During their time in power the Nazis persecuted and murdered many others: gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals, Polish and Russian prisoners of war. The victims numbered in the millions.”
Magnaud shared many more details about the thoughts and actions of Hitler and the Nazis before and during the war. Interspersed were three performances by the string quartet:
• Kol Nidre composed by John Zorn
• Adagio for Strings composed by Samuel Barber
• String Quartet No. 3, movement 4 composed by Szymon Laks
The last piece was the first piece of music Laks – a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps – wrote after fleeing to Paris, Elliott said. Laks stopped writing music for several years, he added.
During a Q & A session several students said they liked the last selection the best. It had a faster tempo and was more upbeat than the previous ones.
There is a wide spectrum of quality in the Violins of Hope collection, Elliott said. Some are only in pieces to preserve what was written on the inside, he noted.
SMMS Principal Caroline Luce asked the students to reflect on the character trait of integrity that the school has been focusing on, or how that helps to be more compassionate. She noted the recent hate crimes at the high school.
“We are not going to repeat those mistakes,” Luce stressed.
Afterwards Sims noted the honor it was to be a guardian of an instrument someone else had owned and cared for. “It is very appropriate to sit down, be very still and ask permission to play,” she said. These instruments which come from a time of hatred are valued, she stated. It is important to acknowledge that, it touches the heart, she said.
“There is more to the story than getting into the shallow end of the pool,” she added.