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Holocaust-Era Violins Bring Hope and Music to Richmond

String quartet performs
Crixell Matthews
A string quartet plays at the Virginia Holocaust Museum. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Disclosure: VPM i s a content partner for Violins of Hope Richmond.

Around six million Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust. There are thousands whose names have been lost to history. But through their love for music, Avshi Weinstein and his father Amnon have tried to keep the memory of some alive.

For the last 20 years, the two master violin makers from Israel have collected and restored dozens of instruments. But these aren’t just any violins. Each carries a story, and the collection itself carries a people’s legacy.

They all belonged to Jewish musicians who were killed in the Holocaust. The Nazis confiscated these violins across Europe, and at the time, Jews were forced to play them as a form of humiliation and degradation.

“Almost every camp had an orchestra. We’re talking about thousands of orchestras, thousands of musicians in the camps, in the ghettos,” Avshi said. But he says reclaiming these instruments represents the victory of the human spirit over evil and hatred.

It’s a way for those who were voiceless then to carry on their stories today.

“Each story is unique in its own way. Each story connects to one person or one family. Some of them are people we have heard of, some people that you might find a little bit of documents about. But the vast majority of them are simple people,” Avshi said.

The father and son’s collection, dubbed “The Violins of Hope,” has travelled across the world. Now, it sits in Richmond. Through the month of October, 60 of these instruments are being showcased in the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture and the Black History Museum.

“We lost about 75 members of my family in the Holocaust,” said Samuel Asher, the executive director of the Holocaust Museum. “My family took a terrible toll, as did many, many other families and many of the Holocaust survivors that came to Richmond after World War II.”

Asher says it’s important to take time to individually process each survivor’s story, because they were all their own person. The collection of violins — each with its own tones, carvings and imperfections — achieves this goal.

“People have a harder time understanding the Holocaust and grasping six million that were killed, one and a half million children that were killed,” Asher said. “But you can understand the story of a violinist.”

While the Holocaust was carried out nearly 80 years ago, antisemitism and white supremacy are alive and well in the United States. One must look no further than the attacks on the U.S. Capitol earlier this year, where many rioters held hate symbols and wore shirts celebrating Nazi concentration camps.

Asher says the Violins of Hope exhibit is a painful reminder of what can happen when these hateful sentiments go unchecked.

“It’s our job to really spread the word, to tell people what the worst things that can happen did during the holocaust, and to make sure that we prevent it from happening again,” he said.

Besides being displayed at various museums, the violins will also be played on stage. Later this month, the Richmond Symphony will bring these historic strings to life during three concerts at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the Dominion Center’s Carpenter Theater.

The instruments will also be heard during community concerts at religious and cultural sites throughout the city.

“For me, in the end, the most important thing is that people will come, they will hear the stories, hopefully they’ll remember something and understand that if we don’t take good care, these things might happen again,” Avshi said.