The Violins of Hope Project: Rekindling Remembrance

Holding Fanny Hecht’s violin after Converse University’s Violins of Hope concert.

Music is the conduit of memory. It is where histories buried under thick layers of dust and stories lost to the winds of time can once more be resurrected for a new generation of listeners. Music is unique in its storytelling as it utters only the truth. Both composers and performers understand this concept—that music both strips away pretense and presents only truth to the world. That is why memories conveyed through music are more potent than through any other medium.

But what about stories contained not only in the music, but also in the instruments themselves? The Violins of Hope Project explores this very idea. Violins holding the memories of individuals who experienced the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust are being restored and played again. Life is once more being breathed into these instruments and into the long-lost stories of those who clung to music as a source of hope during the darkest of times.

This past May I had the incredible privilege of performing on one of these precious instruments for Converse University’s Violins of Hope concert. The pieces that I had learned in preparation for the concert were the Hebrew Melody by Joseph Achron and the Three Duets for Two Violins and Piano by Dmitri Shostakovich. The day of the concert was my first opportunity to play the instrument on which I was to perform that night. I was given the choice between two violins to determine which one was the best fit for both my style of playing and for the genre of the pieces. I have always heard that instruments have personality, but never have I experienced that phenomenon so vividly!

The first instrument I tried was a French violin which had been desperately thrown out the window of a train bound for a concentration camp. The railway workers heard a man shout, “In the place where I now go—I don’t need a violin. Here, take my violin so it may live!” A railway worker did just that, and so the violin lives on, carrying with it the unidentified owner’s love and memory. While it was a gorgeous, sweet-sounding instrument, the violin didn’t quite fit with the pieces and the style I was playing. It seemed to rebel against playing Klezmer music and was very temperamental with the Achron Hebrew Melody. It seemed to instead yearn for the sweeter, more delicate French music of Ravel or Poulenc.  

Next, I picked up the second violin, a German made instrument. It had belonged to a Jewish woman named Fanny Hecht who had fled to the Netherlands from Germany. Fanny loved to play music with her neighbor Helena Visser in her little home in the Netherlands. But soon the Nazis spread their tentacles into the Netherlands as well and Fanny realized that she was once again in terrible danger. When she knew that the Gestapo was coming for her, she asked Helena to take the violin for safe-keeping. The violin was lovingly treasured for seventy years, first by Helena and then by her children and grandchildren until it found its way to The Violins of Hope Project. Fanny was never reunited with her violin; both she and her husband had perished at Auschwitz.

After playing through my pieces on Fanny’s violin, something seemed to click. It was as if the violin was made to play the Hebrew Melody; its tone decidedly stronger and bolder, with a bright, ringing sweetness, compared to the softer, darkly sweet French violin. I immediately knew that Fanny’s violin was the one I was meant to play in the performance.

The concert was a somber affair reflecting of the solemnity of the event. It consisted of myself, my teacher Dr. Courtney LeBauer and two other wonderful musicians who are my fellow Violin Performance Majors at Converse University. We dressed in black for the performance so that the focus would be on the instruments instead of ourselves. The goal was to allow the audience to feel the full weight of history—of the incomprehensible number of lives lost and stories untold—and to allow this history to be spoken through the violins. And that is exactly what happened. As I performed and listened to my colleagues, I felt the spark of forgotten history collectively rekindle in both the performers and listeners. Every story embodied in those instruments came flooding out in the music and both the audience and the performers were caught up in the tidal wave of emotion. We could palpably feel the living history as it surrounded us all and took root in our hearts and memories. The performance switched between our pieces and presentations given by Dr. Courtney LeBauer and Dr. James Grymes, the author of the book “Violins of Hope”.

I am grateful beyond words to have been a part of this performance and to play alongside my remarkable peers. I would especially like to thank Dr. Courtney LeBauer for making it all possible. The gravitas of this experience and the emotional impact it had on me made an indelible mark on my heart and memory.  

Learn more about The Violins of Hope Project on their website: