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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Violins of Hope

Last week my wife and I visited the Violins of Hope exhibit currently on display at Carnegie Mellon University. The project that was five years in the making is the main exhibition of violins that were played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust and lovingly restored by Israeli luthiers, Amnon and Avshi Weinstein. Each instrument has a unique and inspiring story that connects us all to the history of the Holocaust in a deeply emotional, personal and relatable way. The exhibit which runs through November 21, 2023, is on display at CMU’s Posner Center.

One of the stories shared by the docent at the exhibit was that of a teenage violin prodigy, Motele Schlein. Below is an account of this young man’s heroism and the story of his violin.

Crafting Beauty from Despair: Violins of Hope

by Peter Duffy

April 29, 2009

Soon after landing in Tel Aviv a few years ago, I found myself in the atelier of Amnon Weinstein, a renowned violin maker on Shlomo Hamelech Street. I had come to Israel in search of Jewish partisans, those exceptional individuals who had not only risen up against Hitler in Eastern Europe, but also, soon afterward, had defended an Israeli state struggling for life. Weinstein, as it happens, married into partisan royalty: His wife, Asaela — or Assi, as she is known — is the daughter of Asael Bielski, the second of the three Bielski brothers (made famous by Edward Zwick’s recent film “Defiance”) who saved 1,200 Jews in the occupied Soviet Union during World War II.

While my mission was to find Assi, I couldn’t help but be enchanted by the aura of Weinstein’s workshop: the scent of varnish, the instruments in various stages of construction, the steady succession of friends and musicians. At the center of it was the distinctive figure of Weinstein himself. With his bushy mustache flecked with bits of wood shavings, and glasses perched at the end of his nose, he looked every bit the master craftsman, right down to his brusque disinterest in suffering fools. “Are you serious about this project?” he asked me bluntly.

Indeed, his credentials as an artisan are impeccable. He learned his art at the side of his father, Moshe, who was born in Vilnius (known also as Vilna) and began servicing Bronislaw Huberman’s newly established Israel Philharmonic Orchestra when he arrived in Tel Aviv in 1938. Moshe Weinstein provided the first violins for youngsters with names like Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Shlomo Mintz. Amnon then went to Europe, where he was tutored by such masters as Étienne Vatelot of Paris and Pietro Sgarabotto of the northern Italian city of Cremona, birthplace of the Stradivarius violin. He took over his father’s shop the day the old man died.

When I met him, Weinstein was in the midst of a project, begun in 1996, to locate and restore violins played by Jews in the ghettos, camps and forests during the Holocaust. In Israel, the effort has recently received a fair amount of attention. In September 2008, 16 of the instruments — Weinstein has found some 20 in all — were played at a gala concert at the foot of the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem, featuring the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic and the Ra’anana Symphony Orchestra. The Jerusalem- and Paris-based agency BluePress has chronicled Weinstein’s project with a sumptuous book of photographs by Lucille Reyboz and a just-completed documentary film by Jean-Marie Hosatte. The company is currently negotiating to have the film, “Amnon’s Journey,” shown in the United States.

“If you have very good ears and you are listening, it’s unbelievable what you can hear when these violins are played,” Weinstein said. “You can hear the suffering.”

Perhaps the most celebrated of Weinstein’s violins is one that relates to the tradition of resistance embodied by his wife’s family. It was brought to him in 2000 by Seffi Hanegbi, a tour guide in the Negev desert who is also of celebrated partisan lineage: He is the grandson of Moshe Gildenman, the Jewish partisan commander in Ukraine renowned as “Diadia Misha” or “Uncle Misha.” Gildenman, a native of the town of Korets, led a unit with his son (Seffi’s father), Simcha, primarily in the Zhitomir region, conducting a wide variety of guerrilla missions against the German occupiers and their collaborators.

Hanegbi arrived at the workshop with an unremarkable German-made violin in a battered case, an artifact that had been gathering dust in the family home for decades. “It was a common instrument for all the Jewish people,” Weinstein said. “Simple, not expensive, nothing special.” Hanegbi described to Weinstein how the violin belonged to a partisan, the youngest member of Gildenman’s group, a blond-haired boy known as Motele.

Motele’s story is the stuff of legend. Gildenman’s fighters discovered him one day, sleeping in the woods. The 12-year-old son of a miller from the village of Karsnovka, Mordechai Schlein had fled to the forest after his parents and younger sister were killed in an aktion. After joining the Jewish outfit — one of several detachments within a 1,500-strong Soviet partisan brigade — Schlein was selected by Gildenman to travel with several other partisans into the village of Ovruch on August 20, 1943, according to Gildenman’s memoirs.

Armed with false papers in case he was questioned, Schlein was instructed to join a crowd of beggars in front of the church and to play Ukrainian folk tunes on his violin. His mission was merely to keep an eye out for his fellow partisans and alert his commanders if anything happened to them.

But the boy had talent. Soon a crowd gathered to hear the melodies he remembered from his neighbors back home. Among the spectators was a German officer, who plucked him from his spot and took him to a restaurant favored by the occupiers. He was told to perform with an elderly piano player, who spread out sheet music for Paderewski’s Minuet, a popular but difficult piece written by the Polish composer. Schlein played so well that he was offered a job to perform there every day.

One day, he noticed large cracks in one of the restaurant’s storage rooms, and he hatched a plan to place explosives in the fissures. Since it was now harvest time, and there was frequent traffic between village and countryside, Schlein was able to sneak into the woods and, using his violin case, gradually transport 18 kilograms of incendiary material into the building, shoving the explosives into the cellar walls during breaks in his playing schedule.

Then he waited for the opportune moment to strike. It came when members of an SS division visited on their way to the front. After playing deep into the evening with his accompanist, Schlein adjourned to the basement as the drunken Germans took over the piano. “In the dark he found the end of the bomb wick and ignited it,” Gildenman wrote. “When he came to the exit, he slowed down and approached the German guard and allowed himself a joke. He held up his right arm and called out, ‘Heil Hitler!’” Schlein was 200 yards away when the bombs detonated, killing an unknown number of Germans. Upon reaching his fellow partisans, Schlein raised a clenched fist to the sky and said, “This is for my parents and little Bashiale.”

Schlein would not survive the war. He was just 14 when he was killed during a German bombardment in 1944. Gildenman took possession of his violin, carrying it with him to Berlin, then Paris and finally Israel, where he died in 1958.

After Weinstein completed restoration work on the violin — it was in relatively good shape, he says — Hanegbi donated it to Yad Vashem with the stipulation that it be available for performances. Last September, a teenage boy named David Strongin played what is known as “Motele’s violin” during the concert at the walls of the Old City, joining the great Mintz on “Hatikvah” to conclude the evening. On Monday, April 20, Strongin played it again during the opening ceremonies for Yad Vashem’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah.

“I cry,” Hanegbi said when asked how he responds to hearing the instrument produce music. “It’s true, really. Every time I hear the violin play, I have tears in my eyes.”

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