Violins of Hope is a work of research and scholarship that forms one of the most moving chronicles in the history of Western music. James A. Grymes has earned our plaudits and praise, and deserves our everlasting gratitude.
— Academy Award and Grammy winning composer/conductor John Williams
Of all the books on the Holocaust I have read recently, the one that is the most readable and, indeed, uplifting is Violins of Hope by James A. Grymes.
— Dr. William L. Shulman, President of the Association of Holocaust Organizations
Grymes traces the beautiful and haunting history of violins played by Jews in the Holocaust. Each chapter is dedicated to one violin and its players, places, and how it eventually came into the hands of Israeli violinmaker and repairman Amnon Weinstein. Across the board, the violins aided someone’s survival or made their life more bearable. In Auschwitz, SS members formed orchestras for entertainment from the prisoners there. Often players received special treatment from the guards. They noted, “We played music for sheer survival. We made music in hell.” It was by no means a guarantee of survival, and some orchestras were gassed immediately after their set. But some of the stories are accounts of hope, education, and joy. In the backwoods of Norway, the conductor Ernst Glaser headed an initiative where he played for the Norwegian resistance movement, hiding out in the wilderness to relay Norwegian history and pride. Motele Schlein’s story describes using his musical prowess to sneak into an SS party and plant bombs. Motele muses, “I’ll play so well tonight, that you’ll be blown apart dancing.” The accounts are unembellished, with plain, yarn-spinning language. They breath new life into history.
Combining musicology with history, Violins of Hope by James Grymes makes a unique contribution to Holocaust scholarship. This captivating work vividly illustrates Jewish courage and resistance through tracing the journeys of seven violins and the triumphs and struggles of the musicians who played them between 1939 and 1945. Grymes’ narrative takes the reader from Berlin just before World War II to Palestine, Poland, Romania, Mauritius, and Norway during the war. In every situation, whether a concentration camp, an internment camp, a partisan group in the forest, or a symphony orchestra, a violin played an essential role in fostering Jewish survival and hope. Through the lens of music, the brutality of war is juxtaposed against the fight to keep the soul alive. Eventually each of these violins was restored through the expertise of the master Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein, the founder of the Violins of Hope project. That project and this book are significant and inspirational memorials to the vibrant spirit of those who perished.
— Jewish Book World
Musicologist Grymes traces the histories of seven violins and their Jewish owners in Nazi Germany. The stories are heartbreaking. One of the violins survived Auschwitz and another accompanied its owner during six years of living on the run. More than a mere history of an instrument, the book shows how music can entertain, soothe and even save lives, proving that even in mankind’s darkest hour: “Wherever there were violins, there was hope.”
When you think of “music history,” you probably think of something dry, cold, and unemotional. Music historian James A. Grymes will change your mind with his book, which focuses on violins during the time of the Holocaust, and how they inspired comfort, hope, and perseverance. Grymes also tells the story of Amnon Weinstein, an Israeli violinmaker who has spent the past two decades restoring these instruments.
Violins of Hope centres on a project by Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein to locate and restore violins that were played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust, as a tribute to those who died – including 400 of his own relatives. Musicologist James A. Grymes takes a selection of these violins as the starting point to delve deeply into the horrifying stories of the Holocaust, pulling together details from a huge number of sources. He includes many excerpts from letters and quotes from interviews, and draws on first-hand accounts to form his narrative. . . . There are shocking details of cruelty and torment, but throughout Grymes deals with the most harrowing of subject matter with a delicate and sensitive touch, conveying heartrending stories with at least the odd glimmer of hope amid the horror and loss.
— The Strad
During the past 20 years, Israeli violin maker Ammon Weisnstein restored neglected and damaged violins once owned by victims of the Holocaust. It was a personal pursuit: Weinstein had more than 400 relations who had died in Nazi concentration camps. “I seek out the remaining sliver of culture,” he has said. “Dusty violins in thousands of pieces, and I renew their lives as I repair and renovate them, piecing them together and cleaning them so that they may play their lively tunes again.” Some of those violins have toured the world in recent years. Now, musicologist James A. Grymes has chronicled the story of six of the so-called Violins of Hope. While the back stories–in which the violin’s owners become the victims of the horrific murder and malice inflicted on Jews by the Nazis–are grim, the outcomes are inspiring. Two of the violins became liberators that freed their owners from the Nazi regime; a pair of other violins played a role in the sparing of the lives of two musicians in ghettos and concentration camps; one other provided comfort in the darkest hours; and the sixth helped to avenge murdered family members. All serve as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
— Strings Magazine
In Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust–Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour (Harper Perennial, 2014), James A. Grymes writes a narrative that is heart-wrenching and poignant—-yet often uplifting. In this book about World War II, the author has a unique perspective, focusing on Jewish musicians and their instruments. He relates Holocaust experiences that both sadden and inspire. Not all of the individuals mentioned escaped Nazi persecution, and many instruments were lost. Grymes concentrates on lives of several violinists and their violins. Reading these stories, I was frequently on tenterhooks. I felt mixed emotions—-dismay and outrage, relief and gratitude. The author summarizes the book’s theme: “Wherever there were violins, there was hope.”
— Pan Pipes
“Violins of Hope” tells the remarkable stories of violins played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust, and the renowned Israeli violinmaker, Amnon Weinstein, who restored the neglected and damaged violins bringing these inspirational instruments back to life. Each chapter is dedicated to one violin and its players, places, and how it came into the hands of Amnon Weinstein. The book starts with some descriptions of the horrors of concentration camp existence (it can hardly be called life) with which most readers are somewhat familiar. It then takes us through achingly human stories in which Grymes captures the narratives of six violins and offers a profound connection to the musicians who played them. One interesting aspect of this book is the depiction of the vast variety of feelings, emotions, and reactions of both the participants of the orchestras, and the other prisoners. Of the former, there was guilt, or the lack of guilt. Some simply said … “I’m not doing it for them “ (the commanders) “I’m doing it for myself.” Others felt guilty because they had better food, and less exhausting work details as a result of being musicians. The non–musicians were often angry for the same reasons. In a situation unlike anything experienced before – or after – how would one respond? There was no road-map, no template for how one should behave or feel. In a time of starvation, feeling for one’s fellow–man might well not exist – and who could blame those who took advantage of their musical ability? Even though the players got special treatment, it was by no means a guarantee of survival. A Gypsy Orchestra played for the infamous Dr. Mengele’s birthday; asked if they should return another time they were told “That won’t be necessary” and the entire camp was exterminated the next day. Now-famed Elie Wiesel, than 16 years old, heard a musician named Juliek play a Beethoven Concerto. “Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound,” Wiesel later wrote. “It was as though Juliek’s soul had become his bow.” The next morning Juliek was dead. This is a book of intense poignancy … written by a man who is both a fine writer and also a respected musicologist. We are fortunate that he wrote as he did, and left us a testament of hope in the midst of Hell. Henry Meyer, one of the musicians and survivors came to Cincinnati after being freed from the camps. He became the founding member of the well known LaSalle String Quartet. “Music saved my life,” said Meyer, “there is no doubt about it.”
— The American Israelite
The cruelties of the Third Reich have been well-documented in countless Holocaust studies. This report contemplates the crimes of the Nazis from a special point of view. Grymes traces the histories of seven violins and their Jewish owners throughout the murderous German campaign. At first, talented musicians, barred from playing in Aryan orchestras or for Aryan audiences, were able to find a venue in Nazi-sanctioned Jewish Culture Leagues in several cities in occupied Europe. From those leagues, the renowned Bronislaw Huberman recruited members for his Orchestra of Exiles. The great violinist spent his energies delivering players from sure death to Palestine and the ensemble that became the famous Israel Philharmonic. Toscanini conducted the initial official performance, and a German violin remains from that concert. In Norway under Vidkun Quisling, a riot ensued when a Jewish virtuoso was scheduled to play an instrument once owned by national hero Ole Bull. Another violin accompanied its owner on a nearly six-year escape from Vienna, via Mauritius and prison, to Haifa. An Auschwitz violin survives from one of the several camp orchestras that marched prisoners to their tasks and back again. The violinists played, as well, for those headed to death and for the entertainment of their captors. (Primo Levi, for one, would never forget or forgive those mad voices of the labor camp.) Grymes interweaves the detailed stories of unremitting terror–some evocative of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (1965)–with accounts of the music and descriptions of the violins. Those recovered instruments are part of the Violins of Hope Project, a program founded by the esteemed Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein. A special Holocaust study of the unique link that violins, klezmer or classical, have continuously had with the Jewish spirit.
The internationally renowned musicologist James A. Grymes, professor of music history at the University of North Carolina, has published the gripping book Violins of Hope about instruments played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust, and about the Israeli violinmaker Amnon Weinstein who has spent a large part of his life in bringing the stories of these instruments to light. One of them is Ole Bull’s violin, a Guarneri del Gesù, from 1742. The violin was to be played by the Oslo Philharmonic’s concertmaster, Ernst Glaser, at a concert in Bergen in May 1940. Glaser was Jewish, and Nazi rioters created scandal in the hall. The Bergen Philharmonics conductor Harald Heide saved the situation by shouting “Play the national anthem, dammit!” The rioters quieted down and were obliged to stand in the Hitler salute, and Glaser escaped into safety. The chapter about Ernst Glaser is more exciting than a crime novel. But his story, and the others in the book, are completely true.
— Klassisk (Norway’s premiere classical music magazine)
Violins of Hope is truly a unique contribution to Holocaust literature and the outcome of a significant labor of love. It is dedicated to those whose violins made a difference at a time of monumental challenge, when Nazism sought to silence the free flow of humanity’s transforming music and the arts in general. The meticulously researched account by the academic author is far from dry–the reader will even shed tears–beginning with the Weinstein family in Tel Aviv, Israel, whose second generation continues to repair violins along with broken hearts. Those violins serve as eloquent, though bruised witnesses not only to the Holocaust’s vast tragedy, but also to the power of music to save lives.
— Martyrdom & Resistance
(American & International Societies for Yad Vashem)
These are fascinating, horrifying, tender, extremely brutal, disturbing, and enchanting stories. Presented in a clear, never academic voice. No wonder Grymes was awarded the National [Jewish] Book Award for it. Among the violins are an Amati and a Guardagnini. But they play a secondary role. The focus is on the fate of the people. Those who were murdered, who fled, hid, fought, and survived. The violins inspired them and those who heard them, giving them a memory of beauty. And great courage. . . . Rarely comes a music book that reads like a novel, and the reading of which gets under one’s skin. This is the case here. Also because Grymes has to tell these stories. And that makes it wonderful.
— Wina–Das jüdische Stadtmagazin (review of the German translation)
Using the tortuous fates of seven violins played during the Holocaust, James A. Grymes depicts the extraordinary and harrowing lives of their players and former owners–people in very disparate situations and in widely scattered locations. The result is a multifaceted picture of what happened then and a new, expanded, and illuminating approach to understanding this never-to-be-completed, dark chapter of history. The book is read with great sorrow and full admiration.
— Neues Deutschland (review of the German translation)
For the past twenty years, Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein has devoted his time to the restoration of violins played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. Each violin has its own remarkable story as a liberator, comforter, savior, or an avenger, or perhaps as the only remaining memento of a dear relative. In Violins of Hope, musicologist James A. Grymes uses the violins in Weinstein’s collection to tell the stories of the musicians who played and heard them. Grymes is careful not to overly romanticize the powerful role of music in the lives of Jewish prisoners. He offers an honest and balanced view, being sure to point out that there were some who resented the musicians or were troubled by their music. I was also struck by how vast and far-reaching the Holocaust was. It affected locations so much farther away than I’d realized, in ways I’d never considered. I discovered the continuing impact of the Holocaust, and why remembering its horrors has relevance today. History and music history buffs will have a special interest in Violins of Hope, but Grymes’s writing style is accessible and engaging to all readers. His sentences are short and snappy, giving the book a fluidity and quick pace I didn’t expect with such a heavy topic. Yet Grymes manages to retain all of the emotions that come along with each violin’s story. He pulls you in to every single word and brings the topic to life. This book breathes. I actually had to set it aside and take a break for a few hours after reading about 12-year-old Motele Schlein. And when I reached the end and learned how things had come full circle for Amnon Weinstein, I was moved to tears. I will never forget the stories in this book.
Violins of Hope is one of those non-fiction books about people that does not pretend to be fiction. Stories told here speak for themselves, in any language and need no preening. Author Grymes is concise and academically calm. All that happened happened, history has shown what’s what, all sides are known, and there is no need to put pressure on the reader with pity or preaching. . . . Violins saved lives and helped to survive and overcome the difficulties almost non-human. At the same time the violin is an occasion to tell the stories of people, almost all of whom were not even professionals. The whole project “Violins of Hope” allows you to look at the Holocaust at unexpected angles. The choice of characters in the book, probably, was not accidental. The author would like to give the widest range of victims of the Holocaust, and it worked. Grymes, of course, could not ignore the largest concentration camps with their orchestras, which are known to the public now, and at the same time, Auschwitz and Birkenau are given only one chapter. This is surprising, of course. Grymes made a large geographic sample, this is another advantage of the book. Here are an almost unknown refugee camp in Mauritius, and the atrocities of the Romanians, and Ukrainian partisans, and Nazism in Norway. As they say, all the facets of fascism. Grymes easily controls the general historical information. The book is rich in a variety of facts. In Germany during the war there were chemical plants, which produced condoms for the army, and they were called “Sanitary Articles.” In Palestine, the Arab uprisings put pressure on the British government as to limit visas for Jews. . . . In addition to these small facts, Grymes is generous with the historical background. Each story is accompanied by a briskly written historical information about the country, a concentration camp atrocities of the Nazis and their allies – so the book becomes a treasure trove of information. In a concise and accessible way, we obtain all the necessary information, which helps to better understand the history of a hero.
“People who played music, could be neither evil nor violent.” So stated Moshe Weinstein, 1938 Polish immigrant to Palestine. The years following Moshe’s declaration proved exactly how wrong he was. And yet the stories narrated in James A. Grymes’ book, “Violins of Hope”, prove than even during one of mankind’s deepest and most horrific periods in history, music meant survival for a few. Moshe and his wife, Golda, lost their entire family in the Holocaust. Amnon, his son, grew up with the ghosts of these 400 relatives when, following in his father’s footsteps, he became a maker and repairer of stringed instruments of world renown. One day Amnon was visited by a man who had played the violin in Auschwitz. It was the violin which had saved this man from destruction because he played in the ensemble at the death camp; however, after leaving the camp, he had never again touched the instrument. He entered Amnon’s workshop with the request that the violin be restored for his grandson. When Amnon took the instrument apart, he discovered ashes inside that he could only assume to be fallout from the crematoria in Auschwitz. It was then that Amnon knew that by telling the stories of the Holocaust violins, he would at the same time reclaim his own lost family and Jewish heritage. “Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust – Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour” are these stories. For example, Chapter 3 entitled “The Auschwitz Violin” tells the story of musicians who were spared because they played in an orchestra that gave concerts on Sunday afternoons and holidays for the SS officers and guard. “We played music for sheer survival. We made music in hell.” [Heinz “Coco” Schumann]. Grymes, a music historian, tells the stories of seven violins and their Jewish owners while at the same time weaving Amnon Weinstein’s own personal journey to reclaim his own family history and the history of his people.