Israeli Life: Breaking the Silence
An extraordinary luthier tracks down violins that had been through the Shoah, fixing the instruments and uncovering the stories of the Jews who played them.
The faded black-and-white photograph shows a handsome young man with a violin standing in an elegant room. The man, Shevah Brayer, is a musician who perished long ago at a concentration camp in Poland. His brother, Dov Brayer, snapped the photograph 70 years ago at the family home outside Lvov in what was then Galicia.
Today, Dov holds the picture tightly as he enters a Tel Aviv studio, hoping to resurrect, if not his brother, then at least something that belonged to him: the violin. “If I can do something for my brother—may his memory be blessed—I owe it to him,” Brayer, 87, tells his interlocutor as he hands him the photograph.
Brayer has come to seek the help of Amnon Weinstein. The 68-year-old Israeli is an internationally renowned maker and repairer of violins, a luthier. But, in recent years, Weinstein has acquired a reputation for something else: tracking down the violins of the Holocaust—and the stories of the people who played them.
Weinstein’s bushy eyebrows furrow as he scrutinizes the photograph. “This was a professional violin,” he says, “not just a simple klezmer. And it was made in Poland.”
“Yes, yes,” Brayer says, nodding excitedly. “It was given to my brother as a gift by a Polish noblewoman. He was a concertmaster. We believe he played it at the entrance to the Janowska concentration camp near Lvov. That is where he died.”
There is silence for a moment. Weinstein, a man with an unruly mass of gray curls, a handlebar mustache and dark eyes that occasionally flash with anger or well over with sadness, seems lost in thought. Finally, he says: “We can never understand what happened in the Shoah. But if we can understand what thoughts went through the minds of the people who played music at the entrance to the camps…maybe we can understand something. These instruments are a testimony from another world.”
Weinstein examines the photo again, this time with a magnifying glass. “The scroll of this violin is extraordinary,” he says, pointing to the decorative top of the wooden instrument that had been intricately carved in the shape of a dog’s head. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
However, Weinstein doesn’t offer his client any false hopes. “The chances of finding it are 1 in 10 million,” he says. “But thanks to this unique scroll, at least it’s not impossible. And if I do find this violin,” he adds, “it will be played in a huge concert.”
As he walks Brayer to the door, Weinstein tells him, “Now, it’s my problem, not yours.”
Over the last 20 years, Weinstein has acquired about a dozen violins that had been played by Jews up to—and sometimes during—the Holocaust. Several of the instruments survived long after their owners perished. Most had been mute for at least 50 or 60 years until they made their way to Weinstein, who then refurbished the instruments, enabling them to be played again in concert halls in Israel and abroad.
Weinstein not only puts the instruments back together, he also tries to assemble the stories of the people who once played them. He hopes in this way to bring to life the spirit of the musicians who did not survive: people like Motele Schlein, a child partisan who clung to his violin in the forests of Belarus; or Yaakov Zimmerman, thought to be the first Jewish maker of violins as well as a respected music teacher in Warsaw. To this partial list, Weinstein hopes to add the story of Shevah Brayer, conductor of the Lvov Symphony Orchestra.
Cloistered away in the center of Tel Aviv, Weinstein’s workshop is like a hushed monastery where men hover over sacred objects. The sounds—chipping, scraping and hammering—bring to mind a carpentry shop, but the dialogue is more like a hospital emergency room. “We’ve got to open him up,” says one of Weinstein’s assistants, hunching over a violin. “I don’t see any other way to save him.”
Dangling from ceiling beams are rows of violins in various stages of completion or repair. There are planks of aging wood from Europe—some hundreds of years old—to be used for future instruments, and cabinets bursting with bottles of glue, alcohol and other solutions.
Violins of every sort can be found here, from the most carefully crafted concert instruments to simple fiddles.
“This one was played by a Jewish klezmer,” Weinstein explains, holding up an instrument inlaid with a Magen David. “A rabbi would have looked approvingly at this large Star of David, making it easier for the musician to be hired for Jewish weddings.”
Weinstein’s personal connection to violins began with his father, Moshe “Moishele” Weinstein. One day, 7-year-old Moishele heard a klezmer group performing in his Polish shtetl. When the itinerant musicians left town, he followed them. Eventually, his parents found him and gave him a severe beating. But from that day on, Moishele played the violin.
Fast forward to the 1930s. as a young man, Moishele Weinstein wanted to live in Palestine. Knowing he would not be able to make a living playing music there, before he left, he set out to learn to repair violins and apprenticed with Yaakov Zimmerman.
Weinstein immigrated to Palestine in 1938. His parents and nine brothers and sisters remained in Poland, never to be heard from again.
In Palestine, Weinstein built and repaired violins for the burgeoning Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. His son, Amnon, studied the craft with leading masters in Italy and France before returning to Israel to join his father.
Today, Amnon Weinstein runs the business together with his oldest son Avshalom, 32; Weinstein has two other children, a daughter in university and a son in the Army. Looking over at his son at work on an instrument, the elder Weinstein beams. “This is the first time in Jewish history that there have been three consecutive generations of violinmakers,” he says.
The Weinsteins’ clientele include such luminaries as Itzhak Perlman, Shlomo Mintz and Pinchas Zukerman. On the walls are framed letters of appreciation as well as photos of Amnon next to various musical virtuosos, many of whom he counts as close friends.
Weinstein first encountered a violin from the Holocaust about 30 years ago when a young man brought him one that had belonged to his grandfather for repair. When Weinstein opened it up, he found black powder inside, soon realizing that it was ashes from the crematoria of Auschwitz, where the grandfather had last played the instrument. “That was the first violin I touched with such a story,” he recalls, “but, at the time, I wasn’t yet ready to deal with it.”
It took another 10 years until the luthier became not only ready but, some would say, obsessed with these violins and the musicians who once played them.
After a radio show in which he spoke about the history of Jews and violins (“They used to say you could tell the number of boys in a Jewish home by the number of violins hanging on the wall,” he notes), Weinstein got a series of phone calls and visits that set him on his path.
The first was from Sefi HaNegbi, a man from the desert town of Arad who brought him a violin that had belonged to a boy named Mordechai “Motele” Schlein. Successfully concealing his Jewish identity, Motele—whose family had been murdered by the Nazis—used the violin to entertain German officers in their headquarters in a town in Belarus. He joined the partisans, led by the legendary Moshe Gildenman, and smuggled dynamite hidden inside his violin into the headquarters. On a day when some 200 SS officers were gathered there, Motele set off the dynamite, blowing up the building. He escaped on horseback with Gildenman’s son, Simcha, but was later killed in a German ambush.
Moshe Gildenman held on to the violin, eventually bringing it with him to Israel. HaNegbi, his grandson, brought it to Weinstein, who refurbished the instrument. It has since been played in gala concerts in Israel, Paris and Istanbul, where the story of Motele’s bravery is told.
Soon after, someone gave Weinstein a violin that had belonged to Shimon Korngold, a Warsaw industrialist. “There were two small Stars of David inlaid on the violin,” recalls Weinstein, “and a note in Yiddish had been placed inside it which read: ‘I made this violin for my loyal friend Shimon Korngold. Yaacov Zimmerman, Warsaw, 1926.’”
A stunned Weinstein realized that this was the same Zimmerman who had taught his father the craft of violinmaking. “I felt as though I was closing a circle,” he says.
Weinstein eventually acquired other violins crafted by Zimmerman and met numerous violinists—including the renowned Ida Haendel—who have warm childhood memories of lessons with the Warsaw music teacher whose fate is still unknown.
To the uninitiated, the violins hanging in Weinstein’s shop all look alike. But with a quick glance, a pluck of a string and a caress of a wooden body, Weinstein can tell an instrument’s whole story.
“This one,” he says, removing an instrument from a safe, “belonged to someone who was forced to play it in a concentration camp.”
The back of the violin, which rests against the musician, is undamaged, but, he explains, running his hand across the wood, the outer side—where the strings are—is bent and twisted.
“This instrument endured the most difficult conditions imaginable,” he says. “It was played regularly in the rain and snow, which caused it to warp. No violinist chooses to play outside in such weather—unless he was forced to.” Five inlaid Stars of David show the violin belonged to a Jew.
The instrument—which he had acquired from a woman in Florida who had no idea of its origin—came to him “in pieces,” Weinstein recalls. “It was in catastrophic shape and required 18 months of work to repair.”
Through considerable investment of time and labor, Weinstein is usually able to make such instruments playable again.
But some never sound the same, at least not to him. “I can hear the suffering of a violin that has been through the Shoah,” he says. “You can repair it, but there is something in the sound that will never be whole.”
And not every violin is salvageable.
Hanging in a glass-doored bookcase is an instrument held together with a black cord. “This one was irreparable,” says Weinstein, pointing to the deformed wood. “This man didn’t play this violin for very long before it fell apart. I keep it just the way it was as a testimony.”
Some violins are brought to Weinstein; others he seeks out through professional journals and discreet inquiries. Sometimes he enlists the aid of friends such as Mintz and Turkish violin virtuoso Cihat Askin, both of whom have actively supported him in his pursuit.
Most of the instruments Weinstein buys and repairs have no substantial monetary value; the greater investment is the time he spends bringing the violins back to life.
Why does he do it?
“To this day, I can’t explain,” he says, shrugging. “Maybe it’s because the Nazis did away with my extended family. These violins are something I can hold on to in place of the family I don’t have. It’s as though I am making a mausoleum for all the people I will never see.”
Most of the instruments have been mute since the Holocaust. To play them is to break the silence.
“When violins like these return to life, they tell a story. And if you are ready to hear the story,” Weinstein says, “maybe you can understand, in some small way, what is otherwise incomprehensible.”