Amnon Weinstein, the man who restores violins that have survived the Holocaust, is in Birmingham this week from Israel, along with his wife, Assi, and son, Avshi. He will present more than 40 violins to the people of Birmingham through myriad educational events and concerts.
Sallie Downs, executive director of the Violins of Hope Birmingham, approached Weinstein when she visited Israel. He immediately agreed to come to Birmingham because he was aware of the civil rights struggle Birmingham and Alabama have endured.
“The history of Birmingham and Dr. Martin Luther King, and what happened here during the civil rights movement, this is our life. It doesn’t matter if it’s about color or religion; it’s the same hatred,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein spent some time Tuesday at the Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center showing his violins to members of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, and to the conductor, Carlos Izcaray. To Weinstein, education is the most important part of his mission.
While at the performing arts center, Weinstein also received a gift from Birmingham resident Marilyn Pipkin, a violin repair kit that belonged to her late husband.
“I think the most important part of this project is education, especially for the schools and the younger generation,” Weinstein said. “If you try to speak about the Holocaust directly, it can drive some away, but when you are speaking through music, through these violins that have been in the camps and the ghettos, it’s easier for the younger generation to open their ears and to hopefully understand it better. The message for all is simple. Never again, never again.”
Weinstein has a collection of more than 60 violins. Most were given to him by sons, daughters and other relatives of Holocaust victims and survivors. Their sounds echoed in concentration camps during one of humanity’s worst and most hateful actions. Now Weinstein restores them and encourages orchestras to play them around the world.
Weinstein’s entire family of 400 people were murdered in the Holocaust. Restoring violins that were played as people marched to their deaths is his way of dealing with this act of pure hatred. For him, these instruments provided hope where there was no hope, and an escape where there was no escape.
“The violin is one of the instruments that is very special because it’s existed the same way with the same tonality since the 1500s. I believe the power of music during the Holocaust was like when the baby in the womb hears his mother’s heart beat – very powerful,” Weinstein said.
“Music connects us to history in a way we can relate to, and that’s particularly true of the violins, just thinking about the role the violins played during the Holocaust makes us shiver as we feel, think and identify with the victims. Music has the power to heal and to shine a light on the need for greater tolerance and compassion among all people,” he said.
Violins of Hope Birmingham
Downs was the catalyst for bringing the Violins of Hope to Birmingham. She contacted Weinstein, then traveled to Israel and shared her desire to bring the violins to Alabama. Now she fills the role of the executive director of Violins of Hope Birmingham.
“I thought it was important for our city to witness these instruments and their impact. With our history of civil rights in Birmingham, we share the struggle for human rights. Amnon was all for the trip. He was familiar with our civil rights movement,” Downs said.
Downs has led the effort to bring the Violins of Hope to Birmingham for more than a year. She headed a committee that included many Birmingham activists to shine a light not only on the Holocaust, but on the human struggle for equity and justice.
“I think the story of these violins transcends the Holocaust. They embody the human struggle for survival, and for resilience. To me they are a symbol for something very powerful,” Downs said. “We are very excited to host a concert tonight at the 16th Street Baptist Church under the direction of Birmingham’s own Dr. Henry Panion. The iconic church is very important for the Weinsteins.”
In addition to the concert tonight, and the main concert Saturday night at the Alys Stephens center, there are a host of educational programs throughout the city.
“We thought it was important to introduce the Violins of Hope to the students and the young people of our city. We are hosting several schools at different venues to tell them about these amazing instruments,” Downs said.
Jeffrey and Gail Bayer
After Downs met Weinstein and asked him to come to Birmingham, she approached Jeffrey and Gail Bayer, who offered their support for the effort. The Bayers recently returned from a trip to Dachau to hear the Violins of Hope in concert.
The trip was especially powerful for the Bayers, who are looking forward to creating a legacy in Birmingham that will survive long after the Violins of Hope are gone. They desire to create a world where tolerance and acceptance are key, and where hatred and racism are long forgotten. They want a beautiful “live and let live” world for their children and grandchildren.
“I feel naive saying this, but when we saw the pictures of the Jewish people taken out of their homes, they were beautifully manicured with suits and pocket squares, they looked like everybody else. When you realize they were part of the overall population, banking, industry, medical, then taken from their homes, you realize the power the Nazis had,” Jeffrey Bayer said.
The Bayers through Violins of Hope Birmingham wanted to bring to the city not only the sounds and the compelling story of these instruments, but their continuing legacy as well. They wanted to make a tangible difference, a long-lasting effort of unity and harmony.
“The city of Dachau is similar to Birmingham. Their mayor shared with us at dinner what it was like 60 years after the Holocaust. He tried to convince people we are different now. That’s what we find ourselves in Birmingham; we must escape our past, we must create a new future for our children and grandchildren,” Bayer said.
The concert in Dachau drew more than 600 people, and the Bayers listened to a speech by the mayor urging people to work toward a future free of hatred and racism. After Dachau, the Bayers visited Dubai, where they noticed that Arabs loved them and hosted them with graciousness and hospitality.
“We started in Munich, then we went to Dubai. There we saw a country filled with nationalities, 230 nationalities. Everything was new and fresh. We discussed our relationship with the Arabs; they loved us and welcomed us,” Bayer said. “Then we went to Amsterdam and visited Anne Frank’s home. The trip went from a horrific past to new beginning and back to horrific past. This is why the hope these violins bring is so important, so we don’t repeat the horrific past.”
For more information, visit www.violinsofhopebhm.org.