DU Remembers the Music of the Holocaust

Sophie Perrino | Staff Writer

Oct. 20, 2022

Students in the Mary Pappert School of Music came together with Duquesne’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Association on Wednesday afternoon to perform a moving and inspirational concert and symposium featuring the music of Holocaust victims and speakers who are dedicated to preserving the legacy of their music.
“Violins of Hope.”

The Violins of Hope are a collection of string instruments that survived the Holocaust and were restored by Israeli violin makers Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom.

During the Holocaust, Nazis used music to humiliate and degrade Jewish people, but the Weinstein family wants the music performed on the restored violins to be reclaimed as an appreciation of heritage and a symbol of rising from oppression. The string instruments they have restored “present the victory of the human spirit over evil and hatred.”

The Greater Pittsburgh Violins of Hope project, started in 2018 by Sandra Rosen, Patricia Siger and Lynn Zelenski, aims to spread compassion and awareness by “tuning out prejudice and building bridges that last”.

The symposium portion of the event opened with three speakers who stressed the importance of the music that survived concentration camps.

“[The Holocaust] is not a story about 6 million different deaths,” said James A. Grymes, author of ‘Violins of Hope’, . It’s six million stories”.

In Nazi concentration camps, Grymes said that prisoners used music to preserve their culture. Grymes is a musicologist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who has conducted extensive research on the music of the Holocaust. He wants students to explore what we can learn from the stories behind the music instruments create.

Dr. Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s, agreed, emphasizing that the Holocaust was about much more than the murder of six million Jews.

Instead, Bairnsfather said, it showed how “a civilized society…could become so perverse that human life had no value.”

Bairnsfather also noted that music is one of many significant ways people come together to appreciate our humanity.

The speakers concluded with world-renowned concert violinist Niv Ashkenazi, who regularly plays a restored violin for the Violins of Hope concert series.

Ashkenazi, who gets “a cathartic feeling” from this music, played a popular Yiddish piece on a beautiful, preserved Klezmer’s violin, which is adorned on the back with a Star of David made from nacre.

The music performance that followed featured Dr. Benjamin Binder on the piano and graduate student Lucas Ferreira Braga on the violin.

The two played Serenade for Violin and Piano, composed by Robert Dauber, who wrote the piece at age 20 when he was living in the Terezin ghetto. Dauber died of typhoid at the age of 23 in the Dachau concentration camp. The piece is Dauber’s only surviving work.

The melodic piece, embellished with elements of jazz and film music, gives Dauber a second life, an example of what Binder describes as “the power of music to connect with historically distant times and places.”

Braga, who is 25 now, “can imagine that [Dauber] had many dreams and goals for his life” before his untimely death.

Braga began playing the violin at the age of 10 for a Christian church in Brazil, where he was born. He studied at Duquesne during his undergraduate years and graduated in May with a master’s degree in Music. He is currently studying to receive his artist diploma in music performance.

In addition to the support of his friends and family, Braga credits his love of music with giving him the opportunity to travel and participate in different projects.

“Violins of Hope will be something that I’ll remember with gratitude and respect.” Braga said.

The event was first proposed by Rachel Stegeman, Duquesne’s adjunct professor of violin. The concert was organized largely by Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) committee head Benjamin Binder, fellow member Nicole Vilkner, assistant music professor, and Sandra Rosen. Binder is also the Pappert School’s associate professor of music and chair of the musicianship department. This will be his second year as head of Pappert’s DEIA committee.

Binder, who has worked with numerous local and national organizations to share music and art with the community, finds promoting awareness and appreciation an essential part of this project.

“It’s like we’re literally walking in the footsteps of people from the past,” Binder said, adding that the survival of these violins was the “ultimate rebuke of Hitler’s regime.”

During his studies at Princeton, Yale, and Washington University, Binder earned a Ph.D. in musicology and a master’s degree in piano performance. At Duquesne, he encourages his students to form a personal connection with the music they perform.

While serious and sorrowful tones underlie the music of Dauber and other composers from the Holocaust, Binder and Braga agree that playing music from the Holocaust can also be a celebration of life.

To Braga, Dauber’s composition “is not deep or sad, and for me [it] does sound like hope”. Braga said his goal is to communicate those feelings to his audience.

The serenade, Binder says, “is very much a celebration of life”. Binder would like the audience to be able to see into a window of a young Dauber’s life and “what could have been”.

Binder wants audiences to recognize “the role that music played, for better or worse” during the Holocaust and hopes that concertgoers will be inspired to contribute to similar causes in the future.

Sandra Rosen, chair of the Greater Pittsburgh Violins of Hope, ended the event with talking about compassion.

“By looking out for our fellow man,” Rosen said “We are also looking out for ourselves”.

The Violins of Hope project will return to Pittsburgh in October 2023 in the form of exhibits in places such as Duquesne University and Posner Center. The display will feature restored string instruments and run for approximately two months.