As the education director of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, Jeffrey Jamner has led Holocaust education programs in Kentucky schools for years. He has one story about a violin he always tells students.
It is from a passage in Elie Wiesel’s novel Night, based on the author’s own experience as a boy imprisoned in the Auschwitz death camp: Young Elie and the other prisoners traveled through a blizzard on what was known as a death march, because anyone who stopped marching was shot on the spot. At night, the prisoners piled into cold barracks. Elie lay awake.
“Suddenly, he hears the sound of the violin in the darkness in the middle of the night,” Jamner said.
Elie recognized the music as Beethoven’s violin concerto, and realized it must be coming from Juliek, a prisoner from Warsaw who played in the orchestra at the Buna concentration camp.
“He transports us to that time and place where the sound of Beethoven is coming out of his violin, but it’s more than that,” Jamner whispered, continuing to read from Night.
“He was playing his life, his soul was gliding across the strings. He was playing his charred past, his extinguished future, and he played that which he would never play again,” Jamner read.
When Elie woke up, Juliek was dead. His violin was trampled.
Jamner interprets Juliek’s music as an act of resistance. The Nazis didn’t allow Jews to play Beethoven, because they considered them unworthy of the German composer.
“He in that act claimed that this great music, this music that is on par with the greatest works of art that anyone ever created — that it does not belong to the Nazis, that it belongs to all of humanity,” Jamner said.
Jamner tells this story when he travels to Kentucky schools. This week he is telling it accompanied by a violinist playing an instrument that survived the Holocaust — survived like Jamner’s parents, whose mother was a child in Auschwitz.
The violins were collected by Avshalom Weinstein and his father. The two violin makers have built a collection of 18 string instruments that survived the Holocaust, which they restored in their shop in Israel.
The Violins of Hope Collection
The unique collection of violins is touring Louisville to tell the stories of the Jewish musicians who played them in the ghettos and concentration camps of the Holocaust. The tour was made possible through a collaboration of local sponsors. The Violins of Hope collection is also traveling into local schools. Weinstein’s program helps fulfill a recent state law that requires Holocaust education.
Last week Weinstein and one of the restored violins visited Atherton High School. Weinstein told how Jewish prisoners used music to resist, or to prolong their life. How they perished. How Nazis used and abused music for their power, forcing Jewish musicians to play in death camps. Every concentration camp had at least one orchestra. Auschwitz had seven or eight that played as prisoners marched to the gas chambers.
“We know about musicians who played on the way to the gas chambers. They would put down their instrument and join their families,” Weinstein described to students. “And unfortunately we only have about 18 instruments, but there are thousands and thousands of more stories.”
Atherton student Teagan White plays the violin in the school’s orchestra. She was so moved by the presentation, she walked up to Weinstein afterward to thank him.
“As a musician this really touches my soul to the fact that you see how many people were absolutely tortured and hurt,” Teagan said.
Violins Spark Student Conversations
In her orchestra class that afternoon, Teagan and her classmates reflected on the program. Teagan said one thought hit her the hardest:
“To be forced to play something that is supposed to be beautiful and moving and not being able to pick up your instrument when you’re in that mood or you feel that emotion is absolutely heartbreaking.”
The class discussion was organic. It was not even part of her orchestra teacher’s plans that day. And it is just one example of how teachers are fulfilling a recent state law that requires Holocaust education in public schools. Kentucky is one of fewer than a dozen states with a law like this.
“Having a law makes it so much easier to ensure that the Holocaust is taught, regardless of whatever the standards are,” said Ryan New, a JCPS instructional assistant who helps implement state standards for social studies. “Standards can come and go, but the law will ensure that it remains.”
The Holocaust has long been taught in history and literature classes, but programs like the Violins of Hope make the lessons personal and memorable.
‘Music Transcends Trauma’
Jeffrey Jamner tells students how much European classical music meant to his parents as they restarted their lives in New York, after leaving Germany and Poland. They bonded on a first date listening to classical records. Jamner remembers how his mother used to sing Verdi’s Requiem at the top of her lungs while cleaning their house. He said his mother may not know that Jewish prisoners were forced to play the Requiem in the Terezin ghetto.
Jamner grew up surrounded by music and became a pianist and arts educator.
“My mother, who had such a horrific childhood, has asked me on a couple of occasions if I would consider playing Chopin at her funeral one day,” Jamner said. “Chopin is a revered son of Poland, where she was born. I think it would be too painful for her to go back to the place she was born, but the music means so much to her, that it transcends the trauma of her childhood.”
He said that is his message to students — that music transcends trauma.
“It’s an honor and a gift to help make what could otherwise be another reading assignment, black and white pictures in a history book, come alive, and to stand there before them as someone whose parents survived the Holocaust, and for them to see that. Here I am telling my family stories — and we have found life again.”
Violins of Hope will tour Louisville throughout this week, with more events, lectures, concerts and an exhibit at the Frazier Museum.