Violins of Hope

October 27-29, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT) will present Sounds of the Sun as part of its seasoner opener in conjunction with Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh. Sounds of the Sun is a world-premiere ballet choreographed by Jennifer Archibald. It is inspired by the true life story of Florence Waren, a Jewish dancer and French Resistance fighter during World War ll. During the performance, a violin from the Pittsburgh Violins of Hope exhibit will be played onstage.

The Violins of Hope is a collection of 102 violins, violas and cellos that were owned and played by Jewish musicians both before and during World War ll. Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein began the project to collect and restore these instruments and tell their stories. Each instrument conveys the inspiring story of its owner, the pain they endured, the atrocities they faced, the scars of the survivors and the memories of those who did not survive the Holocaust.

The collection strives to educate about the Holocaust and memorialize the original owners through concerts, exhibits and community education events. This unique, free exhibit can be viewed at the Posner Center on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus from October 7-November 21, 2023.

Some of the examples of violins in the poignant collection include:

Joyce Vanderveen Violin
This violin will be played onstage during Jennifer Archibald’s Sounds of the Sun premiere.

The violin belonged to Joyce Vanderveen, a talented and well-known young dancer and musician from Amsterdam, who was just 13 years old when World War II broke out across Europe. Joyce survived with her family and her cherished violin. After the war she became a renowned ballerina and later, a Hollywood actress. It was then that she placed her beloved violin beneath her bed, never to touch it for the ensuing 25 years leading to her death. She also never spoke about the violin of the Holocaust with her son. Her violin found its way back into the spotlight when her son discovered the Violins of Hope project. A symbol of resilience and survival, the violin continues to inspire as it is played once again. Joyce’s legacy lives on through this instrument, a testament to the enduring power of art and music.

An interesting side note is that Joyce’s picture, probably a publicity photo clipped from a magazine, was discovered hanging on a wall in Anne Frank’s bedroom. Anne died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. The photo remains on the wall at the Anne Frank House, now a museum.

Hecht Violin
This violin belonged to the Jewish family Alex and Fanny Hecht and their sons Fritz and Ernest. The Hechts lived in Germany but emigrated to Amsterdam soon after the war began. After the Nazis invaded Amsterdam, Fanny gave the violin to her neighbor Helena Visser for safekeeping, as she did not want the Nazis to have her prized possession. The entire Hecht family was arrested and sent to different concentration and labor camps. None of them survived. The Visser family kept the violin safe for 74 years until they turned it over to Violins of Hope so that it could be played in the Hecht’s memory.

Lyon Violin
In 1942, thousands of Jews were arrested in Paris and sent to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. On one of the trains was a man holding a violin. When the train stopped in rural France, he cried out, “In the place where I now go – I don’t need a violin. Here, take my violin so it may live!” He then threw the violin out of a train window and a French worker picked it up and saved it. Years later, his children found the violin in his attic and took it to a French violin maker, with whom they shared the story of it. The violin maker knew of Violins of Hope and donated the instrument to the collection.

Henry Brender Violin
Henry Brender was a prodigal violin player who grew up in Romania and studied music in world-famous academies in Vienna and Budapest before World War ll. He was sent to a hard labor camp during the war but escaped along with his violin. He survived the war and became a soloist with the Bucharest Philharmonic. He was later detained and imprisoned for six months by the communist Romanian government. In 1960, he immigrated to Israel and joined the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, where he played until his retirement in 1985.

Dachau Violin
This violin belonged to Abram Merczynski. In August 1944, 21-year-old Abram and his two brothers, Isak and Zysman were deported from Poland, to Auschwitz and then to Dachau concentration camp. Abram played his violin wherever he was, even in the labor camps. Abram and his brothers survived, as did his violin. Before they emigrated to the United States in 1955, the three brothers rented a room with a German family in Munich. Abram bought himself a new violin and gave his old instrument to the family’s young son. Abram lived to be 88 and his daughter, Eleanor, said he never stopped playing the violin. Abram’s original violin now continues to tell the story of survival, music and friendship.