Four months after the Tree of Life tragedy, Sandy Rosen was serving as a docent in Phoenix for a unique exhibit. That’s where she met Pat Siger, another Pittsburgher.
“We had become friends in the desert,” Siger says.
That exhibit was Violins of Hope, something that Rosen and Siger realized in early 2019 just had to be in Pittsburgh.
“When I spoke to (the organizer) Amnon Weinstein, he said, ‘Terrific, but we’re not available until October 2023.’”
On Saturday, Oct. 7, the women will see their ambition realized when the exhibit opens at the Posner Center at Carnegie Mellon University.
Twenty years ago, Weinstein began searching for and restoring violins from the time of the Holocaust. Many of them are adorned with six-pointed Stars of David, added by the original violin makers.
“The more ‘Jewish’ a violin looked … the more likely that the local rabbi would recommend that its owner be hired to play … and the more likely that the performer would receive tips from the celebrants,” according to Violins of Hope’s website.
There are now 102 instruments in the collection, including violins, violas and cellos.
“While the provenances of these instruments are not always clear, they are symbols of Klezmer and other Jewish traditions that were all but completely destroyed during the Holocaust,” the website reads.
“The instruments are the tool to tell the story of hope, of resilience, of a future,” Siger says. “It allows those that perished to have a voice again. Each of them has an amazing story.”
Rosen tells the story of one violin that belonged to a girl named Catherine. Once she got older and learned that the violin was owned by someone who perished in the Holocaust, she put it in its case and buried it in her backyard with flowers from the garden. Many years later it was uncovered and brought to the Weinstein family in Tel Aviv.
“When they opened it up, they found these dried flowers in the case and they ground them up and included them as part of the finish on Catherine’s violin,” Rosen says. “I think that’s beautiful.”
Another violin came from a woman who played with a Pittsburgh orchestra. It was given to her by a retiring violinist at the end of his last concert. He said it had come to him from someone in Poland. When she sent the violin to the Weinstein family, they authenticated it as from the period.
“It is now included in the collection and has come back to Pittsburgh,” says Lynn Zelenski, project manager of Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh. “She’s going to be reacquainted with it for the first time in many years.”
The exhibition is the centerpiece of the series, but there is a full calendar of ongoing events through Nov. 21, including concerts and lectures.
The exhibit will coincide with the fifth anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting.
“The first two concerts are already sold out,” Zelenski says. “There are 63 events across the city over the seven weeks, and they are about as diverse as you could possibly imagine.”
“I had a chance at Eradicate Hate to speak to many of the surviving family members of the tragedy,” Siger says. “The trial is over but the healing has just begun and may take a lifetime. But for me, the message of Violins of Hope is resilience, memories and forward-thinking. It’s the positive part of the darkest part of history.”
“The music itself is so heartwarming and provides the reminder that, through the horrors that are associated with the history, we move forward, and the resilience of the music just provides us with hope and opportunities,” Zelenski adds. “We do all we can. We hope to capture that and see a brighter future and a better tomorrow.”
The closing concert will take place on Nov. 25 at Heinz Hall with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It will feature guest soloist Joshua Bell, who will play a violin owned by Bronislaw Huberman.
When Jewish musicians, doctors, artists and factory workers were being fired from their jobs in Nazi Germany, Huberman realized that there was an opportunity to save some of the top Jewish musicians.
He chose 75 members of the community who would form what is today the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. With the help of Albert Einstein, Huberman raised enough money to get the musicians and their instruments out of Germany, to Israel or Palestine.
“This is an opportunity to bring together a final goodbye before we send the instruments on to the next city,” Rosen says. “It will be spectacular.”
The presenting sponsor is The Arthur J. and Betty F. Dinskin Cultural Endowment Fund of the Jewish Federation Foundation.
Siger says that the Violins of Hope exhibit is fortunate to be hosted by Carnegie Mellon University.
“Being on an academic campus of this level has elevated the story and how we’re telling it,” Siger adds. “A university setting is the most appropriate place to begin to educate the public. These students are going to come with very little background of the Holocaust. We’ll also open during homecoming weekend for Pitt and surrounding colleges.”
Five years after Squirrel Hill made worldwide news for all the wrong reasons, Pittsburgh is coming together once again to shine a beacon of hope through the sounds of carefully curated instruments.
“We were lucky,” Siger adds. “I felt like we knew our community well enough to know that they would be supportive. The generosity of the community took my breath away.”