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Sonya Lazar (dark hair) playing one of the Violins of Hope at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s “Violins of Hope” concert held on Saturday, December 3, 2022


Violins of Hope
Photo by Shosh Shalev-Minuk

 
A Miracle of Music: The Story of the Hecht Violin of Hope

by Penny Jones Square, Dec 12,2022

 

A miracle is nothing more than dormant justice from another time arriving to compensate those it has cruelly abandoned.

—Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale

 

Far from being simple or naïve, hope demands, creates, and is the expression of indomitable moral courage.

—Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l, Haggadah: Essays

 

Wherever there were violins, there was hope.

—Amnon Weinstein, Israeli master luthier and restorer of Holocaust violins

 

The violin is a distinctly Jewish instrument, a traditional and treasured possession passed down through generations and an integral part of Jewish culture since the late seventeenth century. Most importantly, being small and portable—easy to carry and run with—the violin was the instrument for a people who has endured ongoing persecution. Its searing sound, singing cries of the heart—prayers of petition, joy, and sorrow—is an expression of the Jewish soul. When forced to play the violin during the Shoah, even at the very gates of Auschwitz while Jews were herded out of cattle cars, and in the camps where Jews were beaten, shot, and led to the gas chambers, Jewish musicians played “for their lives and to keep hope alive”; “for sheer survival,” they “made music in hell,” as stated in the documentary Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust.

 

Yet, from the depths of this unimaginable darkness springs the light of the project “Violins of Hope,” a collection of restored instruments played by Jewish musicians during the Shoah. Having survived concentration camps and pogroms, being buried in gardens or protected for decades by those who were entrusted with their care, some of these violins are now being played again in concerts around the world, giving voice to the millions silenced, expressing the “indomitable moral courage” of their hope, and so redeeming their unspeakable loss.

 

And this thanks to renowned Israeli master luthier and founder of “Violins of Hope,” Amnon Weinstein, who has devoted his life since the 1990s to restoring these precious instruments that they might “speak for the murdered,” that “every sound” heard from them and “each concert” at which they are played might be “a victory” over Hitler’s attempt to kill Jewish culture along with every Jew. With his son Ashvi, Amnon has lovingly and painstakingly pieced together violins that were brought to him by survivors or those who had kept faith with promises made to their owners to safeguard them until they returned, which tragically rarely happened. In restoring the violins, Amnon is honouring the nameless millions, as well as the memory of his own family, 400 of whom were murdered in the Shoah, thereby ensuring their deaths were not in vain.

 

Each restored violin has its own story, and one such story was the highlight of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s “Violins of Hope” concert held on Saturday, December 3, 2022. Two violins of hope were played in a very powerful and moving performance, and the miraculous story of one, the Hecht violin, was shared by Janet Warkentin-Bosse, granddaughter-in-law of Helena Visser, who was entrusted with its care by her friend, fellow violinist, and neighbour Fanny Hecht. It is a story filled with what some might call coincidental or chance events, but which might be better viewed, as Janet herself does, as signifying “they were meant to be.” Helena Visser’s daughter, 88-year-old Helena Bosse, was also in attendance.

 

The Hecht violin’s story begins in 1943 in Amsterdam. The grandparents of Janet’s husband Aart Bosse (Helena and Jan Visser), though Christian, were stationed in the Jewish Quarter due to Jan’s work. Fanny and Alex Hecht and their two sons lived below them. Helena and Fanny were friends and frequently played the violin together along with Helena’s young daughter, also named Helena. The Hecht violin was a treasured family heirloom, so when it became clear the Hechts might soon be rounded up for deportation by the Nazis, Fanny and Helena made a pact. Fanny gave Helena a key to her apartment, and Helena promised to retrieve her valued possession and keep it safe until she returned. She also promised to keep the music going, as Fanny requested, should she not return.

 

Janet told how her mother-in-law, who was only 8 or 9 at the time, remembers the day the Hechts were taken away, a horrifying memory of the Nazis ransacking Jewish homes and tossing some Jews out of third and fourth floor windows. Janet also recounted that her grandmother-in-law was determined to keep her promise to Fanny despite her husband’s warning of the danger of being caught by the Nazis, relating how she crept down to the Hecht apartment one night and rescued the violin.

 

After the war, Helena and Jan Visser searched for the Hechts or any extended family members so the violin could be returned to its rightful owners, but without success. On Helena Visser’s death, the violin was passed on to her daughter Helena Bosse, Aart’s mother, who then continued the search. As Janet commented, her mother-in-law “never wavered from her mother’s pact with Fanny, and she kept the violin safe” in the hope that one day it could be returned to a family member. When Helena asked for Janet's help, miracles began to enter the story.

 

Janet told how her own search was also fruitless until one night when she woke up at 2:00 a. m. to the sound of violins playing. The music was playing on PBS, a channel she said she never watches; the remote must have been switched to that channel, accidentally, or “as it was meant to be.” The program was Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust, documenting the Weinsteins’ mission to recover and restore violins from the Holocaust and have them displayed and played again in concerts. When Janet told her mother-in-law about Amnon’s foundation, she said, “This is where the violin has to go! I feel this with my whole heart!”

 

Janet contacted James A. Grymes, author of Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust, on which the documentary was based, never expecting a reply. However, Grymes responded immediately and suggested she contact Ashvi Weinstein in Tel Aviv, who also quickly replied that he and his father would love to restore the violin and have it in their collection.  

 

Janet kept her promise to her mother-in-law that she “hand the violin over to only [Amnon’s] hands and his hands alone,” traveling to Israel to meet with Amnon in his atelier, where he asked her to write the story of the Hecht violin for him. After a visit to the archives at Yad Vashem, Janet discovered that the entire Hecht family had perished in the concentration camps. Alex Hecht and his wife Fanny Hecht-Bodenheimer were murdered on September 17, 1943 in Auschwitz, their youngest son Ernst died on July 9, 1943 in Sobibor, and their older son Fritz died on January 18, 1945 in Monowitz, Krakow.

 

By a miracle of music, the Hecht violin has been restored and is now number 62 in the growing collection of Violins of Hope (another significant concurrence as Janet was born in 1962). And now, having been played again in Winnipeg, justice has also been restored and hope affirmed in another “victory” as is the aim of Amnon Weinstein’s worthy mission.

 

The story of the Hecht violin is an appropriate miracle for the approaching Hanukkah season, reminding us to: “Believe for those who cannot.  . . . Believe for the sake of the dead, for love, to keep your heart beating, believe. Never give up, never despair, let no mystery confound you into the conclusion that mystery cannot be yours.”1

 

The Hecht violin will be on display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights from December 13, 2022 until March 13, 2023.

 

  1. Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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