Israeli Violin Maker Unearths Secret From the Holocaust

When a mysterious instrument arrived at Amnon Weinstein’s Tel Aviv studio, he took it apart to discover a chilling message from Nazi Germany.

A year ago violin maker Amnon Weinstein received an unusual delivery from the United States. Inside the package was an old violin, of the sort that frequently arrives at his studio. But when he took apart the violin to examine it more closely, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“I opened it, I looked, and it took me several days to calm down,” Weinstein recalled this week.

Weinstein, who was born in 1939 in Tel Aviv, is a second-generation Israeli violin maker. During the past 20 years he has devoted his life to researching and collecting violins from the Holocaust period − among them, the violin that arrived from Washington, D.C. last year.

When Weinstein took the violin apart to restore it and prepare it for sale, he discovered a drawing of a swastika inside, alongside the inscription “Heil Hitler.” The owner of the violin even signed his initials and added the year: 1936, the year of the infamous Olympic Games in Berlin.

The violin was sent to Weinstein by an American violin maker, who had bought it from an Orthodox Jewish violin seller. Weinstein, who specializes in repairing Holocaust-era violins, was the natural address. “He asked me if I was interested in the violin, and said that if not, he would burn it. I told him to send it immediately. It arrived that same week,” said Weinstein.

The mysterious instrument is a unique item in Weinstein’s collection, which includes 45 violins from the Holocaust that he has collected in the past 20 years. “I’ve seen many things inside the violins, but nothing like this,” he says. “People always write in violins to record the date of their marriage or their children’s birth. It’s very common.” One of his colleagues told him he had once found an inscription inside a violin that read: “1933 Hitler came to power.”

But what particularly caught Weinstein’s eye was the swastika, which appeared to have been drawn with great force. “A graphologist who examined the writing confirmed that it belonged to a very aggressive person,” he added. “I’ve never seen such hatred inside a violin.”

Weinstein has not yet been able to trace the history of the violin. And we may never know the identity of its former owner. But he has a theory, based on his many years of familiarity with the field.

The tale of the apprentice

Weinstein’s story of the violin begins in 1936, when an amateur German Jewish violinist goes to a local violin maker to have it repaired. In the workshop the violin is opened, and someone writes the phrase “Heil Hitler” inside and draws a swastika.

“Whoever wrote inside this violin was not a master violin maker but a junior employee, an apprentice in his workshop,” Weinstein says. “At night, when the boss left, he did what he did: He opened the violin, wrote, and closed it without anyone knowing anything.”

The theory, he says, is based on the widely accepted knowledge that most 20th-century German violin makers were not supporters of the Nazi party. Furthermore, most of their customers were Jews. “Until now I’ve never encountered such a thing. I don’t believe that a violin maker, someone who studied the profession, would do such a thing,” said Weinstein.

He notes that the Jewish man who’d been playing the violin in the years since was unaware of the swastika and the Nazi inscription hidden inside his instrument. “Imagine that Jewish player who all his life played a violin with ‘Heil Hitler’ written inside. This inscription can’t be seen from the outside,” says Weinstein.

This week, when he was holding the violin, which is kept in his Tel Aviv studio, Weinstein declared: “We will never repair this violin. It will remain as a badge of shame for the Germans. Let them see how far they went in their hatred of the Jews and of culture. It’s hard for me to understand how someone sullied his violin like that.”

Weinstein is also aware of the other side of the coin, which only intensifies his frustration. “We mustn’t forget that the Germans had tremendous appreciation for music, for playing and for violins. It’s not a barbaric nation that was seeing a violin for the first time and went and broke it against the wall. On the contrary.”

A memorial to those who remain unknown

Next week Weinstein will travel to Monaco to another concert in a series called “Violins of Hope,” in which musicians play violins that were used by Jewish violinists, most of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. These violins undergo renovation and restoration in Weinstein’s studio and from there proceed to the concert halls.

“In that way they serve as a memorial to all those anonymous violinists who were murdered, and to all the klezmers who created an extraordinary Jewish culture and the thousands of violins that the Nazis confiscated from the Jews,” he says.

“Our ability to repair such violins, to play them in a concert and to make people cry, is proof that we have succeeded,” says Weinstein. For him the name of the series, “Violins of Hope,” is “the strongest proof that it was impossible to destroy the wonderful culture of the Jewish people and their love of music.”

“For me the violin symbolizes voices from the past. The sounds of six million names, whose voices we won’t be able to hear. A monument of sounds for all those whose voices were silenced. A testimony of sound that is unparalleled in the history of mankind,” he says.

Eight Holocaust-era violins from Weinstein’s collection will be played in the concert in Monaco. One of them is called the “Drancy Violin,” after the internment camp from which French Jews were sent to their death.

“The owner of this violin, whose identity we don’t know, was in a railroad car on the way to Drancy or on the way from there to Auschwitz,” says Weinstein. During the journey he threw the violin out the window and shouted to one of the people on the platform: ‘Catch it, because it won’t have a chance in the place where I’m going.’”

The violin broke, and was given to a violin maker, who kept it. From there it came into the hands of a French Jewish woman and in the end it made its way − like many others − to Weinstein’s studio.

“It’s the biggest repair I’ve made to a violin,” he says. At the concert in Monaco it will be played by the famous Turkish violinist Cihat Askin from Istanbul. Turkey was the first country to host the Violins of Hope concert series. After performances in Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, Weinstein’s violins also traveled to Jerusalem, Paris, London, Madrid, Switzerland and Charlotte, North Carolina.

His studio, in a basement on Shlomo Hamelech Street in Tel Aviv, is a one-of-a-kind museum for violins from the Holocaust. Each has a story which Weinstein already knows by heart. Some also have accompanying historical documents and pictures that he collected assiduously. It’s hard to interrupt him. Every violin reminds him of a story.

He speaks excitedly about the fine violins that immigrated from Europe to Palestine with the players who were invited to play with the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936; about the players who were unwilling to play German instruments again after the end of the war, and who broke or sold them instead; about the violins that remained in the ghettos, the forests and the concentration camps; about those that were looted by the Germans, whose whereabouts no one knows to this day.

“Today there are many violins on the market, but there’s nothing that can equal the playing of a Jewish violinist,” he says. “Someone can play fantastically, like thunder and lightning. But that comes and goes. On the other hand, when you hear a Jewish violinist, you hear the music of a soul, which remains with you.” 

Nir Kafri