For 20 years, Israeli violinmakers Amnon and Avshalom (Avshi) Weinstein collected and restored Holocaust-era violins. The father and son duo presented these beautifully crafted string instruments worldwide through their project Violins of Hope — an international sensation showcasing Jewish stories of resilience, resistance and unity through the power of musical performance. The Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC Chicago) proudly welcomes Violins of Hope to Chicago and the surrounding Illinois areas from April to September.
To kick off the Violins of Hope residency, arguably the longest and largest in scope to date, JCC Chicago is hosting a special opening night concert on April 20, 2023, at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe. The evening will begin with a VIP reception with hors d’oeuvres and drinks where guests can mingle with Avshi. Attendees can then enjoy an exhibit of the instruments before the official opening night concert.
The concert musicians will include violin students from the Arkady Fomin Scholarship recipients, the internationally acclaimed Ariel Quartet and principal clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg. The night’s music will include works of Jewish composers and the melodies and themes of intrinsically Jewish pieces.
After the opening concert, the restored instruments will appear throughout the Chicagoland area at more than 100 events in libraries, festivals, places of worship and museums for various exhibitions and concerts for the next six months. Some events will be free and open to the public, while others will be private.
“We’re taking the violins across the city and the state through exhibitions, performances and education,” explains Ilene Uhlmann, JCC Chicago’s Director of Community Engagement and Violins of Hope. “We made a conscious decision to make this [experience] as low barrier as we possibly could. We want this to be a broad message. We don’t think this message is for one people, culture or religion. We believe this is a human message.”
The message Uhlmann refers to is one of hope, resilience and unity told through the stories behind the violins. Attendees will learn about the amateur violinist and butcher, Erich Weininger, arrested and sent to Dachau, eventually returning to Vienna only to be one of the last Jewish people to escape Nazi Europe. And about Violette Silverstein, who survived by playing in a women’s orchestra conducted by the niece of Gustav Mahler. Amazingly, her violin was just recently unearthed in Paris and is traveling to Chicago, after having been restored, as part of the collection. The stories are captivating and inspiring, and are an engaging new way to learn about the Holocaust and Jewish people.
“The stories are fascinating,” says Uhlmann. “Some of the [violins] are dedicated in memory of people who made a difference. But some violins don’t have a story. We don’t know their past. We don’t know who played them. In James Grymes’ book about Violins of Hope, he talks about the fact that those are the most precious because those people don’t have a voice, and when we play them, we speak for them. We’re saying, ‘We don’t know who played it, and we don’t know what their story is, but that violin is here and has a message.'”
Since JCC Chicago made these events accessible to everyone, they hope individuals will take the time to attend them and learn. JCC Chicago also hopes attendees can leave with a better understanding of the elements that connect humans from different backgrounds.
“We live in challenging times,” says Uhlmann. “I do hope people will come away inspired, having learned something and thinking about how we look at each other differently. We are all one humankind and that which we have in common is stronger than that which pulls us apart.”
Bringing Violins of Hope to Illinois is made possible through significant funding from Front Row Sponsors, including MacArthur Foundation, Jelmar, Walder Charitable Fund and Pritzker Military Foundation, on behalf of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library. The Opening Night Concert is presented with support from the Zollie and Elaine Frank Music Fund at North Shore Congregation Israel.
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Jessica Braun Gervais is a Chicago-based freelance writer specializing in health, wellness, and fitness. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from Columbia College and has written content for various health and wellness institutions. Jessica Braun’s passion for wellness comes from her life as an elite athlete competing in Muay Thai kickboxing competitions across the country. In addition to sharing her expertise through writing, Jessica Braun also works as a group fitness instructor and personal trainer. When she’s not writing or training, Jessica Braun enjoys reading historical fiction novels, discovering new coffee shops, and cuddling with her cattle dog, Brady.