Calgary Philharmonic performs with the Violins of Hope: A night to remember!

Calgary Philharmonic Concertmaster Diana Cohen captivates the audience as she plays the Auschwitz Violin during the Violins of Hope Concert, conducted by Juliane Gallant, May 15, 2024, Jack Singer Concert Hall. Photo by Milt Fischbein.

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – May 15 was a night to remember as the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra presented the highly-anticipated Violins of Hope concert in association with the Holocaust and Human Rights: Commemoration and Education Department of the Calgary Jewish Federation. The concert was part of a wide range of events and activities showcasing 64 stringed instruments—including violins, a viola and a cello—owned and played by Jewish musicians during the Shoah. Some of these musicians survived thanks to their talent, literally playing for their lives, though many could never again bring themselves to perform.

“It was a meaningful night,” said Diana Cohen, Concertmaster of the Calgary Phil, who performed three solos on the “Auschwitz Violin,” one of 11 used by the Philharmonic during the concert, conducted by Juliane Gallant and featuring Meditation from Thais by Jules Massenet; Hebrew Melody Op. 33 by Joseph Yulyevich Achron, arr. Ohad Ben-Ari; Symphony No. 1 in C Minor Op. 68 by Johannes Brahms; Theme from Schindler’s List by John Williams; and Violin Concerto in E Minor Op. 64 by Felix Mendelssohn.

Associate Concertmaster John Lowry was also a featured soloist, making it the second time he has played one of the Violins of Hope in Calgary. In 2009, Lowry and violinist Andrea Neumann played two of the violins accompanied by Cellist Beth Root Sandvoss and pianist Elizabeth Bergmann at a performance during the Beth Tzedec Congregation Jewish Film Festival.

There are challenges when playing an instrument that is not one’s own, Diana Cohen told AJNews following the Calgary Philharmonic’s May 15 performance.

“It’s not always easy physically, especially in a solo setting,” Cohen said.

The Auschwitz violin has “… a very soulful sound but not a very big sound,” said Cohen, adding that that is what a musician would ordinarily wish for during a solo.

To balance things, the orchestra had to bring their volume down.

“It felt like a much more intimate performance,” recalled Cohen.

Still, it was certainly powerful from the perspective of audience members who leapt to their feet several times during the emotionally-charged evening.

“What is really special about these violins are their stories,” said Cohen, who added that she felt moved as she imagined that the musician who played the Auschwitz Violin may have found that act to be his “only salvation” in the notorious death camp.

“Maybe that instrument kept somebody alive,” mused Cohen. “That’s a wonderful thought.”

Cohen’s intuition is correct. According to information gathered by National Music Centre Manager of Exhibitions Brandon Hearty, after World War II a poor Auschwitz survivor sold the instrument to Abraham Davidowitz, himself a Holocaust survivor, who was then working in Poland for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The man told Davidowitz that he had played the instrument in an orchestra at Auschwitz and that his life had thus been spared.

The impoverished survivor needed money and never wanted to play the violin again.  Deeply affected by the story, Davidowitz bought the instrument for $50, hoping that his son Freddy would take up the instrument.

Freddy Davidowitz eventually donated the violin to the late Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom (Avshi) Weinstein, second- and third-generation luthiers who, to date, have collected and restored 100 Violins of Hope permanently stored in Israel. The Auschwitz Violin has since been heard by audiences around the world.

The violins in the Weinstein collection are not state of the art instruments; the best and most valuable violins were looted by the Nazis, says Avshi Weinstein.

But the Violins of Hope are undeniably priceless.

Sharing the Violins of Hope with audiences “… is a wonderful way in to Holocaust education,” said Cohen. “You’re doing a lot of the work on your own when you’re listening to these instruments. It is an indirect but maybe more personal way of thinking about the Holocaust.”

“It’s a beautiful project that Avshi Weinstein and his father have done,” added Cohen. “Music usually has an impact on people, so it’s an interesting way to talk about what happened.”

Avshi Weinstein, who lives and works in Istanbul (where the Violins of Hope were first heard in concert), spoke to an appreciative audience in the lobby of the Jack Singer Concert Hall prior to the Calgary concert in a chat facilitated by Brandon Hearty.

Weinstein also narrated the Calgary Phil performance, briefly sharing stories about some of the violins, a few of the musicians who played them, and members of his own family, including his grandfather, violinist and luthier Moshe Weinstein, who gave world-renowned violinist Yitzhak Perlman his very first violin.

Avshi Weinstein also spoke of his maternal grandfather, Asael Bielski, one of the legendary Bielski brothers, partisans who courageously fought the Nazis, saving more than 1,200 Jewish lives in the forests of Poland. Their story is immortalized in Defiance, a 2008 film starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell (in the role of Asael), Weinstein said.

While he was in Calgary, Weinstein spoke to many of the 2,700 Calgary and area high school students who attended the annual Holocaust Education Symposium which took place at Studio Bell, home of the NMC, from May 6-10 and May 13-16. The young adults and their teachers interacted with the violins at the extraordinary exhibit created by the NMC while also experiencing the usual components of the symposium including the testimony of Holocaust survivors and descendants.

The Violins of Hope were also front and centre at the May 5 community Yom HaShoah program held at Beth Tzedec Synagogue. Following the traditional candle lighting ceremony by Holocaust survivors and descendants, attendees saw excerpts from the documentary film Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz and heard performances by violinist Steven Klevsky, pianist Helena Barker and Calgary Opera soloist Arieh Sacke.

A highlight of the evening was a moving address by Brandon Hearty who reflected on his own journey as the NMC team created the Violins of Hope exhibition and pledged his sincere commitment as an ally to the Jewish community. Hearty’s support was especially appreciated in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks by Hamas terrorists as acts of antisemitism have proliferated and allies have often seemed few and far between.

Hearty was joined by NMC Director of Programs Stephanie Hutchinson who spoke about programs at the NMC related to the Violins of Hope.

“The Violins of Hope have brought together some incredibly wonderful and talented people from Avshi Weinstein to our friends at the NMC and the Calgary Philharmonic,” said Dahlia Libin, who co-chairs the Holocaust and Human Rights: Commemoration and Education Department together with Marnie Bondar.

“We are also grateful to our generous sponsors and the 100 volunteers who stepped up in various support roles,” Bondar said.

It is Avshi Weinstein’s hope that Calgarians will continue to walk through the doors of the NMC to see and hear the violins. He takes much pride in having personally addressed some 300,000 students around the globe since 2014, sharing true stories about the ways Nazis used music to degrade and humiliate Jewish prisoners. On the flip side, Weinstein and the folks at NMC are also amplifying the uplifting stories of musicians who survived, courageously used their talents in acts of spiritual resistance, and provided comfort—however fleeting—to fellow prisoners.

In his devastating memoir Night, the late and great Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote of the violinist who played his final notes in the dead of night in their Auschwitz barrack:

“It was pitch dark. I could hear only the violin, and it was as though Juliek’s soul were the bow. He was playing his life. The whole of his life was gliding on the strings—his last hopes, his charred past, his extinguished future. He played as he would never play again…. When I awoke, in the daylight, I could see Juliek, opposite me, slumped over, dead. Near him lay his violin, smashed, trampled….”

Fortunately, the Violins of Hope remain. The stories of those who played them and the music coaxed from them by new generations of musicians continue to warn, educate, and inspire a world that needs to hear their voices.

The Violins of Hope exhibit runs through June 16 at the National Music Centre. For more information, go to

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News.

1 Comment on "Calgary Philharmonic performs with the Violins of Hope: A night to remember!"

  1. Mark Dolgoy | May 31, 2024 at 4:20 pm | Reply

    An exceptional piece of writing!

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