“If this isn’t divine intervention, then I don’t know what is,” says a smiling Janet Warkentin-Bosse. “I was in bed watching television, dozed off and, as I was falling asleep, by chance pressed the button for a channel I never watch. I woke up because I heard the sound of violins – and found myself watching a documentary about a project called ‘Violins of Hope.’ I watched the whole thing, until almost 2 A.M., and I still had trouble sleeping – because I knew I’d found what my family had spent decades searching for.”
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By “the family,” she mostly means husband Aart Bosse; his sister, Marlies Boelhouwer; and their mother, Helena Bosse. They live in Canada but were born in the Netherlands. There, in Amsterdam, their grandmother, Helena Visser, had become friends with neighbors who had moved there from Germany – Adam Alexander Hecht, born in 1881, and his wife Fanny, born six years later. The couple had two sons: Fritz, born in 1921; and Ernst, born in 1926. All of this information was carefully collected over the years by Aart and Marlies, with a lot of help from Janet and Marlies’ husband, Tom Boelhouwer.
On a recent visit to Israel, at Yad Vashem the family were able to learn more about what became of their grandmother’s neighbors – the Jewish Hecht family that had fled Germany in an ultimately futile attempt to escape the Nazis. The parents both died in Auschwitz in 1943. Ernst died in Sobibór that same year and the other son, Fritz, died in the Monowitz concentration camp in January 1945.
Fanny Hecht owned a fine violin. When she realized that the Gestapo would inevitably show up one night to round up the family and deport them to wherever they were sending all the Jews, she asked her neighbor, who sometimes played music with her, to come and take whatever she could from the house, especially the violin, and keep it for her until she returned.
Grandmother Helena entered the apartment that was locked up after the neighbors were taken and sent eastward, and took the violin home with her for safekeeping.
Over the next 74 years, the violin was passed down through three generations of the Dutch family, and it also went with them to Canada.
“It was only on this trip – our first time in Israel – that we were able to ascertain what happened to them and obtain verification from the records at Yad Vashem that no one from the Hecht family survived the war and they all perished in concentration camps,” say brother and sister Aart and Marlies.
“For many years, though, we and our mother made various attempts to return the violin to Jewish ownership,” they continue. “We knew its rightful place was with an authority or organization that symbolically represents the heirs. But no organization we contacted gave us the feeling that it was particularly interested, or that it would do something good with the violin.”
The Violins of Hope project is well-known in Israel and is also active abroad. The driving force behind it is Amnon Weinstein, a violin-maker by trade, and also a former artist and member of the Ten Plus group. Many of his relatives were killed in the Holocaust.
For many years, he has been investigating the fate of the numerous violins that were owned by Jewish families, learning what became of them in the immediate postwar years and also later on.
A talk he gave on the subject in Germany 25 years ago gave him the impetus to turn his interest into a larger project: To collect violins that were owned by Jews during the war, restore them to working condition and then give them to musicians to play in concert.
Honoring the memory
On September 24, 2008, the first symphonic concert of restored violins was held in Jerusalem, featuring the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra and the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra. Shlomo Mintz was the soloist. Many more concerts followed, including one in 2015 on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle.
That same year, there was a concert by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, with Mintz as soloist. This was the concert featured on the documentary that Warkentin-Bosse happened to catch. After seeing it, she visited the Violins of Hope website and ultimately got in touch with Weinstein.
“We’ve received a lot of violins in different ways,” recounts Weinstein. “Usually it’s from relatives with whom the violin ended up, and they know it belonged to a relative who was killed in the Holocaust. Or it comes from people who have some interest in this musical memorial we are making. But with this Dutch family, this is the first time I’ve encountered such a story. It’s a good violin, German-made, valuable. It’s in excellent condition because it was hardly touched over the decades. They kept it for more than 70 years in order to keep their promise, and they wanted to return it to someone who will honor the memory of its legal owners.”
Weinstein recalls that, once, a professional violinist contacted him and told him she had a violin she had personally received from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
“Goebbels had access to the finest violins, and this was a very rare and expensive instrument,” says Weinstein. “She had made up her mind to return what had been stolen, to give it to us as representatives of the heirs – but then she died shortly after that initial contact. Afterward, there was no more contact and the violin disappeared. I can only guess that her heirs realized its value and didn’t share her pangs of conscience. Or maybe they didn’t even know where the violin came from.”
After contacting Violins of Hope, Marlies Boelhouwer and Aart Bosse decided to pack the violin and deliver it to Weinstein personally.
“It was an opportunity to bring to a conclusion this story that has been with our family for so many years, to return the violin to Jewish hands, to restore it to use. And besides all of that, we wanted to visit Israel,” Marlies and Aart explain.
In a Facebook post, Warkentin-Bosse described how the grandmother’s tenacity had made all of this possible: “After the Hecht family was taken, the Germans locked up their apartment. Aart’s grandmother had a key, but her husband argued against her going into the apartment and taking something, lest somebody report she had stolen property that had been confiscated by the Germans. But Grandmother was very stubborn, and so the violin was found. Now I hope it will be played and be the voice of the family.”