The Violin of Hope with a heartwarming Alberta connection

The Violins of Hope is an exhibition of violins that survived WW II. The exhibition will be on display until May 15 at Studio Bell in Calgary. Visit

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – Nothing tugs at the heartstrings like the violin, whose sound has often been compared to the human voice. Some scholars believe that its predecessor, the viol, may have first arrived in Italy tucked under the arms of Jews who managed to escape murder during the Spanish Inquisition only to be expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.

Helena Bosse playing the Hecht violin. Photo courtesy of Janert Warkentin-Bosse.

While the violin often channels Jewish suffering, it is also the musical instrument most associated with Jewish celebration. Klezmers once traveled from shtetl to shtetl, performing at weddings and other lifecycle and communal celebrations.

The violin was also the means by which Jewish virtuosos could make a living. Some earned their golden ticket into cities, orchestras and social circles previously hostile to Jews.

Musicians, including klezmers, symphony conductors and music teachers, were among the millions rounded up and murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. They often arrived at the gates of labour, concentration and death camps armed with their most treasured possessions: their musical instruments.

Photographs, historical archives and oral histories shed light on the ways Nazis used Jewish musicians and their craft to humiliate and degrade Jewish prisoners. But those forced to serenade Nazi officers at parties and fellow inmates as they were herded toward the gas chambers also carried out a powerful form of spiritual resistance.

Facing deportation to the camps and fearing the worst, some musicians hid their instruments. Others asked non-Jewish neighbours and friends to care for and play their violins until…if…they were able to return.

Such was the case with the Hecht Violin.  One of the best-documented instruments in the Violins of Hope collection, it even has a Heartwarming Alberta connection.

Janet Warkentin-Bosse is the daughter-in-law of Helena Bosse who, like her mother Helena Visser, cared for the Hecht violin for decades after violinist Fanny Hecht—correctly fearing that her family would be rounded up by the Nazis—asked Visser to look after it until she could return to claim it.

Warkentin-Bosse, who spoke with AJNews and shared blogs she had written about the violin, said that Helena Visser, also a violinist, often played alongside Hecht. Sometimes Visser’s young daughter Helena also played with them.

On one occasion, says Warkentin-Bosse, a violin teacher who was impressed with the Stradivari stamp inside Hecht’s violin, stole the instrument. Fortunately, Visser chanced to see the violin in a nearby pawn shop.  An acquaintance of the family, who happened to be an operative in the underground, paid the thief a visit, convincing him to retrieve the violin (or else!) and return it to Fanny Hecht.

The Vissers, who were not Jewish, lived in the same building as the Hechts, which was located in a Jewish neighbourhood in Amsterdam, close to the power plant where Visser’s husband Jan worked as an electrical engineer.

They were eyewitnesses when their Jewish neighbours, including the Hechts, were rounded up. Some neighbours were violently tossed out of windows by their Nazi tormenters. Helena Bosse—only eight or nine years old at the time— never forgot the sight of one man falling to the pavement with his coattails flapping behind him or the debris and blood left behind in the courtyard where she and Jewish children from the building had once played.

The doors to Jewish apartments were taped off so that the Nazis could return for their plunder. At great personal risk—and against the objections of her husband—Helena Visser entered the Hecht apartment using the key entrusted to her by Fanny Hecht and retrieved the violin and a few other items for safekeeping. But the Vissers never saw Fanny and Alex Hecht or their sons Fritz and Ernst again.

The violin remained in Helena Visser’s hands for many years, until she passed it on to her daughter. Both women cared for and played the violin as Fanny Hecht had asked Visser to do.

A new generation of girl power was enlisted when Helena Bosse asked her daughter-in-law Janet Warkentin-Bosse to help her find the right home for Fanny Hecht’s violin. Bosse wanted the instrument to go to a Jewish family or organization, but it had to be the right one.

It has been said that truth is stranger than fiction. That was certainly the case when, after dozing off one night while watching TV in bed, Warkentin-Bosse awoke to a documentary on PBS about Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein, who, together with his son Avshalom, was collecting and restoring violins that had been played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.

Warkentin-Bosse and her husband Aart (Helena Bosse’s son) excitedly shared the story about Amnon Weinstein with Helena who agreed that they should make contact.  Toward that end, Warkentin-Bosse wrote to author James A. Grymes who had penned the book Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust- Instruments of hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour, upon which the eponymous PBS documentary had been based.

Grymes provided Warkentin-Bosse with contact information for the Weinsteins.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2016, Warkentin-Bosse and her husband Aart boarded an Air Canada flight to Israel together Aart’s sister and brother-in-law and the cherished violin.

During the flight we discovered that the majority of the crew were of Jewish descent,” wrote Janet Warkentin-Bosse in a blog post to family and friends.

“The flight attendant in our section asked why we were traveling to Israel. We told him…what our mission was. He started to cry and thanked us for returning the precious cargo to its rightful people.”

The flight attendant then shared the heartwarming story with the rest of the crew, who dropped by one-by-one during the flight to express how moved they were by the story.

“We had no idea the impact this little violin was making on this community of people. We were also overwhelmed by their response,” Warkentin-Bosse wrote.

The flight attendant asked Warkentin-Bosse if he could see the violin once the other passengers disembarked.

“When I turned around, the entire flight crew were standing and waiting to see our precious cargo. Most had tears in their eyes,” Warkentin-Bosse wrote. “I opened the violin case and there was complete silence. Then the flight attendant asked if he could touch it. He ever so gently picked up the violin with shaking hands and slowly took in a deep breath of it. He was crying. He was stroking the violin as a mother strokes a crying child as if to say, ‘Everything is alright now.’”

In Jerusalem, Bosse’s family toured Yad Vashem, where Warkentin-Bosse and her husband spent most of their time in the archives researching the Hecht family. Sadly, they confirmed what their family had long suspected: Fanny and Alex Hecht were murdered at Auschwitz in 1943. Their youngest son Ernst, 17, perished at Sobibor. A mere five months before liberation, their eldest son, Fritz died at Monowitz (Auschwitz III).

Following their time in Jerusalem, Helena Bosse’s family traveled to Tel Aviv, where they visited with Amnon Weinstein at his atelier and put the Hecht violin in his loving care.

If the violin could speak, it would have many stories to tell, dating back to 1743 when it was made by a Stradivari (not the Stradivari, says Janet Warkentin-Bosse, who was told by Weinstein that the maker of the violin was, most likely, a cousin to the legendary Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari.

Nothing is known about other owners of the violin, but somewhere along the line, the instrument came into the possession of Fanny Hecht’s forebears who handed it down to her.

“It moved around,” said Warkentin-Bosse who told AJNews that the Hecht family originally lived in Germany, where no relatives of theirs are believed to have survived the Shoah.

When Helena Bosse’s family immigrated to Canada, she brought the Hecht violin to British Columbia and then to Alberta where her family settled in Okotoks, near Calgary.

Bosse, now 89 years old, played the violin for decades until severe arthritis prevented her from continuing to fulfill her mother’s promise to Fanny Hecht.

The last time Bosse played the Hecht violin was in 2017.

Details relating to the violin and the Hecht family were pieced together over the years by Helena Bosse, her sister and two brothers, each of whom, Warkentin-Bosse says, had “little bits of memory about these people.”

Warkentin-Bosse says her mother-in-law “guarded that violin like it was a child, adding that it was “very difficult” for Bosse to part with the violin, even knowing that it was going to the right place.

The Hecht Violin has returned to Alberta with 63 other stringed instruments from the Violins of Hope collection  this month.  Some of the violins will be exhibited between May 3 and June 16 at the National Music Centre while others will be played by members of the Calgary Philharmonic in a May 15 concert.

This is music to the ears of Janet Warkentin-Bosse.

“We feel so strongly that these stories need to be told,” Warkentin-Bosse told AJNews.

And those beautiful violins belong in the hands of the living that they may continue to be played and heard.

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

1 Comment on "The Violin of Hope with a heartwarming Alberta connection"

  1. Marlene Franks | May 4, 2024 at 2:18 am | Reply

    What a beautiful story! This week Caesar Civetta who runs a program “The Beethoven Festival
    Orchestra” out of New York did a program on Itzhak Perlman. In the program, Perlman makes reference to one of these violins. So heartwarming to read this. “Yasher Koach to the two
    Helenas and Janet Warkentin-Bosse.

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