Beautiful Music

1-dsc_6582-editViolins of the Holocaust Serenade with Hope, Resilience of the Human Spirit

Written by Karim Shamsi-Basha

Sallie Downs remembers when a friend first sent her the link. It was a video of a remarkable concert featuring violins that had survived the Holocaust, as part of a program called Violins of Hope.

“It touched me,” Downs remembers. “I thought, ‘I would love to have this in Birmingham.’” She spent a little over two years asking, cajoling, even making a trip to Tel Aviv to arrange for the violins to come here. “It’s everything I hoped for but never could have imagined.

Jeffrey and Gail Bayer

As the project was evolving, Jeffrey and Gail Bayer agreed to chair Violins of Hope Birmingham, in which the priceless instruments will come to Birmingham this April 10-15 for five days of concerts and educational events.

For them, the Holocaust is more than an event where six million Jews perished.

The Holocaust is more than a place where tiny and burned tennis shoes remind us the young died with the old.

The Holocaust is not only a state where eyes go dim and heads bow in memory of those gone.

For Jeffrey and Gail, the Holocaust is the event spurring a passion unquenchable to create a legacy. One living forever in the minds and hearts of their children and grandchildren, and one shining bright on this tiny planet.

dsc_4974-copyViolins of Hope

“These violins have survived when so many people died. Their legacy lives in the hopefulness of an event as terrible as the Holocaust,” Gail says. “We had been talking about a legacy we could leave our children and our community, about some kind of interfaith dialogue because religion has been the basis of much strife and war. If we can get people to understand and appreciate each other, then we can have a more understanding world—a live and let live world.”

Violins have been an important part of Jewish culture such as the Klezmer tradition of music. During the Holocaust, some of these instruments acted as liberators and saviors. They provided comfort to concentration camp prisoners in their darkest hours, and saved the musicians who were asked by the Nazis to play. They represent the resilience of the human spirit.

“One of my hopes is to bring the Jewish community together with the general community,” Jeffrey says. “We find ourselves still fighting over whose belief in God is the right one, and that’s been raging since man existed.”

Avshi Weinstein, the man who is restoring the violins with his father, Amnon, came to Birmingham last fall to show the violins and spend time with the Bayers. Meeting Avshi made the event a reality for Jeffrey.

“Meeting Avshi certainly created a connection and made it real. The trip we’re taking to Dachau will make this connection more solid. Having Avshi here brought context and immediacy to something we have dreamt about for a long time,” he says.

“Being able to see and touch and hear the violins with Avshi’s explanations of their history made an impact on people,” says Gail.

The Violins of Hope events in Birmingham will be a beginning for Jeffrey and Gail Bayer. They will kick off the idea of starting an interfaith, human rights, and social justice fund.

“What the violins have represented was hope in a hopeless time, something positive we could bring to the community. I think that’s what captured my imagination,” Jeffrey says. “We are living in difficult, uncertain times, not just here but throughout the world. This notion of hope as we listen to the dim news gave us an opportunity to create this legacy.”

dscf8254The Violin Restorers

Nearly 50 years ago, a Holocaust survivor brought the renowned violin maker Amnon Weinstein a violin to restore at his shop in Israel. When Weinstein opened the case, black ashes fell out. He thought of his relatives who died in German concentration camps, packed it back up and told the man he couldn’t.

But the soul of the music kept on breathing.

By 1996, several people had asked Weinstein to rebuild Holocaust violins, and he decided to begin. Amnon may have relented due to the fact six million people died in the Holocaust, but he made sure their music stayed alive.

For Amnon’s son, Avshi Weinstein, Violins of Hope are more than instruments he restores, they’re a mission and a history.

Avshi Weinstein came here last fall for a few educational programs in preparation for the violins’ debut in Birmingham this April. He spent the week showing four of the famed violins to school and civic groups. One of those visits was to the N.E Miles Jewish Day School.

“I came to speak to the kids to tell them about our project, to share stories of the violins. We were very fortunate to have a violinist so they could hear them played. The sound is very close to the same sound heard during the war,” Weinstein says.

These violins have become a major part of Avshi’s life. He loves sharing their stories and how they can empower us to live by the words, never again.

“Birmingham has had its own struggle, and I am delighted to hold a concert there. These violins from death camps like Dachau and Auschwitz remind people of the strength of the human spirit,” Weinstein says.

The Weinstein collection includes about 60 violins. Some have horrific stories, others have hopeful tales. A few saved their owners because the Germans kept them playing music while they led other prisoners to their deaths.

dsc_4902-copyThe Future

For the Bayers, the Violins of Hope events coming to Birmingham signify the human spirit…and hope.

“I hope people take a sense of history from these events,” Gail says. “I’m hoping it will create more acceptance in people’s minds going forward. We want to build an initiative that will further this notion of acceptance. Not doing anything is not an option.”

For Jeffrey, the legacy he and Gail are creating is crucial during the current times. “It is beyond important we create a legacy that survives, like these violins,” he says.

The Violins of Hope concert and the human rights, social justice, interfaith dialogue fund are now the Bayers’ mission in life. They aspire to leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren that will give them hope for a safe and bright future.

1-dsc_6605-editTHE CONCERTS

←The Jerusalem Quartet, March 25 at the Alys Stephens Center

←Multi-arts, multi-faith performance to welcome the Amnon Weinstein family to Birmingham: April 11, Location tba

←Concertmaster & Friends Quartet for the end of the time with Violins of Hope: April 12 at the Alys Stephens Center

←Violins of Hope concert featuring the Alabama Symphony Orchestra conducted by Music Director Carlos Izcaray: April 14 at the Alys Stephens Center


←“Bystanders and Complicity in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South” symposium: Feb. 22-23, presented by the UAB Institute for Human Rights at UAB’s Alumni House

←Human Rights New Works Festival, March 15-18 at Red Mountain Theatre Company

←Violins of Hope Art Break, March 20 at the Birmingham Museum of Art

←Survivors’ Sabbath service for the Birmingham community, April 13 at Temple Emanu-El

One Response to “Beautiful Music”

  1. T.K. Thorne says:

    I can’t imagine hearing these violins and not being deeply moved. They will speak for voices that can no longer speak, and I think their owners would be happy that the music they play will convey, not only grief, but hope. It is such contradiction that gives life meaning.

    Our city also has a history that reflects contradiction–the pain and suffering of the Civil Rights struggle that has the potential to shine a light.

    We are fortunate to have a Sallie Downs and Jeffrey and Gail Bayer and others in our community making this happen and creating a legacy of hope.

Leave a Reply for T.K. Thorne