A violin from the Violins of Hope collection, a project to collect and restore instruments played by Jews during the Holocaust. An exhibit of the instruments is in Maine this month, culminating with two concerts by the Portland Symphony Orchestra that will feature musicians playing Verdi’s “Requiem” on some of the instruments. Courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

At the height of the Holocaust, Jewish prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp in what is now Czech Republic joined in chorus to sing Verdi’s “Requiem,” an operatic piece of classical music that is simultaneously haunting and hopeful.

They were led by conductor-turned-prisoner Rafael Schacter, who taught others from a score he smuggled into the camp.

The performances – an estimated 16 in all, according to historical accounts – were both an act of defiance against Nazi oppression and an enduring message that music can uplift even in the darkest of circumstances.

Eighty years later, members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra will perform the same piece during two concerts this month, and they will do so using some special instruments that connect back to that time.

The PSO has partnered with Violins of Hope, an effort by father-and-son violinmakers Amnon and Avshi Weinstein to collect instruments that were played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. The stringed instruments have been restored and offered for traveling exhibits and concerts all over the world.

This is the first time they have come to Maine.


In addition to the concerts on Sunday and Tuesday, Oct. 25, there are several opportunities for people to see and learn about the instruments through collaborations with area organizations, including the Holocaust and Human Rights Center, the Maine Jewish Museum and the Maine Jewish Film Festival.

PSO conductor Eckart Preu outside Merrill Auditorium in 2020. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“This is my third time collaborating with Violins of Hope, so I know the collection and I know how powerful these programs can be,” said symphony director Eckart Preu, who was born in East Germany. “Playing these instruments, it brings a different dimension to the music. We’re connecting with real people and real tragedies, which is gut-wrenching, but it also reminds us that art and the human spirit survives.”

Avshi Weinstein, who lives in Israel but often travels with Violins of Hope, is in Portland this month to participate in educational events. The effort started with his grandfather, who bought many of the instruments and kept them as a collection. Many years later, after the instruments were restored, someone suggested hosting a concert. The first was held in 2001 in Istanbul, and the organization has grown ever since.

“Every musician who plays an instrument leaves a sound mark, and so when they are played by others, there is a connection to that,” Weinstein said in an interview. “And from an education standpoint, any time you can make a personal connection, it’s much more powerful. The number of people who died, it’s so overwhelming, none of us can comprehend the numbers. But when you tell singular stories, people can relate to it.”

An estimated 6 million Jews were killed by Nazis between 1941 and 1945.

Charles Dimmick, a violinist and concertmaster for the PSO, said every instrument has a history, but it’s not always known. His main violin dates to the 18th century, for instance, but he knows nothing of its past.


Knowing the history of the instrument he’ll be playing this month has given him pause.

“It’s one of those things you want to make sure you think about enough, but don’t let it get in your head,” he said. “Any time you get to play an instrument, it’s always something of a burden just to make it come alive. With these, I think it becomes necessary to communicate what it means to have these instruments survive all these years.”

In addition to performing on Verdi’s “Requiem,” Dimmick will solo on the theme from “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg’s indelible 1993 film about the Holocaust.

Preu said it was important when planning the Violins of Hope concerts to collaborate with many local organizations with similar missions. One was the Holocaust and Human Rights Center, which was founded as a nonprofit 37 years ago. Thirty of the violins will be on display at the center, on the University of Maine-Augusta campus, through Tuesday.

“When I think about these instruments, I think they really represent the victory of the human spirit,” said Tam Huynh, the center’s executive director. “The more we can preserve these stories, the more we learn about history in a way that we’re not doomed to repeat it. That compels each of us to look inward to examine our own prejudices, especially in these unsettling times.”

A display from the exhibit that is visiting the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta, then the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland. Photo courtesy of Holocaust and Human Rights Center

The exhibit will be at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland from Thursday through Oct. 27. Museum executive director Dawn LaRochelle said the exhibit connects people to history in a way that reading a text cannot.


“At a time of increasing anti-Semitism and heightened racial tensions, it’s so impactful and important to have this tangible reminder of the extremes to which such isms can take us, but also the hope that there is more that unites than divides us.”

As fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain alive to carry on those stories, efforts like Violins of Hope become increasingly important.

Preu also said the power of music like “Requiem” only grows.

“It’s one of the most powerful pieces ever written. It’s hair-raising,” he said. “And although it was written as a prayer for the dead, Verdi ends it with this feeling of hope and humanity.

“What I hope people will go through is this journey, from this darkness and remembrance of what happened to light … even if we’re not in light just yet.”

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