Violins of Hope will be in Calgary May 3 – June 16

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) – The sublime sounds and stories of the Violins of Hope— formerly owned and played by Jewish musicians murdered during the Holocaust—will soon speak to the souls of thousands in Calgary.

The one-of-a kind collection, which includes a viola and a cello, consists of stringed instruments collected, repaired and preserved by the late Tel Aviv-based luthier Amnon Weinstein and his son and fellow-craftsman Avshalom (Avshi) Weinstein, who lives in Istanbul.

Sixty-four of these treasures are coming to Calgary. Most will be exhibited—and some played by visiting artists— at the National Music Centre from May 3 to June 16 while others will be featured in a May 15 concert by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Juliane Gallant.

Each of the Violins—permanently housed in Israel—tells a unique story. Some were played in the ghettos, some in the death camps. Many feature inlaid stars of David, usually denoting a klezmer. One bears a swastika.

All were either purchased by or donated to the Weinsteins’ non-profit Violins of Hope organization.

The National Music Centre is pulling out all the stops to ensure that the Violins of Hope leave a lasting impression on people of all ages,” said Calgary Jewish Federation Holocaust and Human Rights: Remembrance and Education Co-Chair Marnie Bondar.

“They have made it their mission to learn as much as possible about each violin, adding richness by insuring that some of the lesser known stories about the violins are shared.”

“We dedicated a considerable amount of time to building on all the research that already pre-existed from other institutions,” said Jesse Moffatt, senior director of collections and exhibitions at the NMC.

The goal is a value-add for visitors to the NMC, and Moffatt hopes some of the research done by the NMC team will be useful to other organizations as they host future exhibitions.

“We are excited that our annual Holocaust Education Symposium will be held at Studio Bell, where Calgary and area high school students and teachers can interact with the violins while learning about the musicians who once played them,” adds co-chair Dahlia Libin.

Some 2,700 Grade 11 students and their teachers will be participating in the Symposium, which takes place May 6-10 and May 13-16.

While the teens—like all visitors to the exhibit— will be grappling with challenging subject matter, the violins and their stories will hit some high notes too.

According to Moffatt, 26 of the best-documented instruments will be used to tell stories, while seven will be utilized in public programming. Eighteen violins—about which very little is known—will be featured on a sculptural element created especially for the Calgary exhibit.

The remaining instruments will be put in the hands of Calgary Philharmonic musicians as they rehearse for the May 15 concert.

Visitors to the NMC will learn of the violin thrown from a cattle car on a train from France bound for Auschwitz, another buried under snow in the Netherlands and one that saved the lives of Jews forced to play in a concentration camp orchestra.

“We are lucky to be able to host an international exhibition,” said Moffatt, adding that this is a first for the NMC.

The fact that the Violins of Hope provide a point of entry for Holocaust education, and that the Weinsteins have made the stringed instruments usable by musicians, “really resonated with our philosophy,” Moffatt said, adding that the NMC takes pride in its large collection of restored instruments, which artists are encouraged to play.

“The intention is that these instruments and their stories live on,” said Moffatt, who himself comes from a background in restoration.

The Violins of Hope exhibition is centred on seven themes: Historical context of the Holocaust; the history of the collection; three generations of the Weinstein family (Amnon Weinstein’s father was also a violin maker); Bronislaw Huberman and his founding of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (later the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra); Jewish Luthiers; music in the concentration camps; and music as resistance.

“Within each one of these themes you have individual stories linked to the objects, so it becomes a more fulsome story, a more fulsome opportunity to educate people,” Moffatt said.

There will be concerts, including some within the exhibition spaces, and an artist-in-residence program during which musicians will have opportunities to create new music with some of the instruments.

Socalled with Strings will be performing on May 26.

Two artists notable for using traditional Jewish music in non-traditional ways will be in the house. On May 26, Montreal rapper Socalled—famous for combining Klezmer and Hip Hop—will be performing a collection of Yiddish songs with his all-Jewish string quartet, Erica Miller, Abigaile Reisman, Pemi Paul and Beth Silver.

Toronto-based artist Lenka Lichtenberg, whose Thieves of Dreams won the 2023 Juno for Global Music Album of the Year, will perform on June 2, accompanied by Jewish husband and wife team Drew Jurecka and Rebecca Wolkstein.

Thieves of Dreams: Songs of Theresienstadt’s Secret Poetess—a multi-media concert— is based on poems written by Lichtenberg’s grandmother when she was a prisoner at Theresienstadt.

Offerings will continue to evolve, says Moffatt, who encourages visitors to go to for details on these performances and other programs that may be added.

The NMC exhibit explores what Jewish music was like prior to the Holocaust and will include insights into the music enjoyed by European Jews in social settings.

There will be listening stations featuring Klezmer music and music created during the Holocaust, including Yiddish songs that morphed as their lyrics were changed.

“It will be a very informative, educational and inspiring exhibition, promises Moffatt. “This is about the power of music.”

Six million is an “unfathomable number,” Moffatt notes, adding that the violins will help visitors to focus upon individual stories of victims and survivors of the Holocaust. After all, it is in stories about individuals that the enormity of the Holocaust comes into sharpest focus.

“This exhibition is allowing us to live our vision, “says NMC President and CEO Andrew Mosker.

When Mosker was first approached by Bondar and Libin more than a year ago, he says it took him “less than five minutes to say yes” to the partnership.

“We’re a non-partisan organization that brings people together to promote the power of music and to foster dialogue and be a catalyst for positive things in the world. This checks all of those boxes and many more,” Mosker told AJNews.

In addition to acting locally and regionally by hosting the Holocaust Education Symposium, the exhibit provides an opportunity to bring a national musical component through visiting artists, Mosker said.

Bringing the Violins of Hope has also helped the NMC to “… fulfill its mission as a National Music Centre that has an international reach,” Mosker said.

“I know we are all going to learn so much from it, and I’m confident that positive things will come out of it for everybody.”

The Violins of Hope exhibition has been made possible by generous donors who will be acknowledged at the NMC.

This year’s Yom Hashoah program, which takes place on May 5, will also feature the Violins of Hope.  Following a 6:30pm commemoration ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial site adjacent to the Calgary JCC, the 7:30pm program Heartstrings: Music of the Holocaust will take place at Beth Tzedec Synagogue. There, following the traditional candle lighting by survivors and their descendants, National Music Centre staff members will share some of their research on the violins as the impact and power of music before and during the Shoah is explored. Rounding out the evening will be a brief musical concert featuring one of the violins.

On Sunday, May 15, the Violins of Hope will be front and centre at the Jack Singer Concert Hall during a concert by the Calgary Phil. Doors open at 6:30pm, when audience members are invited to a one-hour pre-concert meet and greet with Avshi Weinstein during which a few of the violins will be displayed. The concert—billed as A Musical Journey from Holocaust to Hope— begins at 7:30pm.

Amnon Weinstein, of blessed memory, holding two of the violins in the Violins of Hope collection. The photo was taken in November 2009 at the Beth Tzedec Congregation Jewish Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Harvey Cyngiser.

“This is such an important project to us and to me personally,” says Calgary Phil President and CEO Marc Stevens. Formerly a resident of London, Stevens told AJNews that he often visited the Imperial War Museum and, in particular, an exhibit there devoted to the Holocaust. He made a point of taking young cousins with him so as to help them develop an appreciation of “this horrific and momentous part of our shared history.”

When Bondar and Libin approached Stevens about partnering on the Violins of Hope, he was already aware of the collection, having heard about a 2015 collaboration between the Weinsteins and the Cleveland Orchestra.

While the Violins of Hope have previously been featured in Canadian concerts, including  a 2022 concert by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Stevens said that none have been done on this scale, incorporating so many of the instruments.

Stevens says he is particularly thrilled that the local non-Jewish family responsible for saving the storied Hecht violin will be in attendance at the concert.

“There are so many sad stories and terrible histories, but the fact that these instruments did come through it, and the tales of resilience and hope that they embody, is really important,” Stevens adds.

 Sadly, Amnon Weinstein did not live long enough to celebrate the return of the Violins of Hope to Calgary. He passed away just last month at the age of 84, some 15 years after he first brought two of the violins to Calgary for the North American premiere of Amnon’s Journey—a documentary about his sacred mission—at the 2009 Beth Tzedec Congregation Jewish Film Festival.

While the documentary alone was worth the price of admission, Film Festival Founder and Director Harvey Cyngiser knew at the time that he had to make the most of the incredible story.

“I made two cold calls, one to Amnon and one to John Lowry,” Cyngiser told AJNews. “Incredibly, both agreed to be our guests at the film festival.”

Lowry was Associate Concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic, a position he continues to hold.

Following the screening of Amnon’s Journey and addresses by Weinstein, documentary director Jean-Marie Hossate, and producer Edgar Cohen, Lowry and violinist Andrea Neumann played the violins in a concert that included the music of Bela Bartok and a number of Jewish composers. Cellist Beth Root Sandvoss and pianist Elizabeth Bergmann, who together with Lowry and Neumann comprise Lands End Chamber Ensemble, rounded out the musical experience.

Cyngiser still describes the event as one of the most memorable in the 24-year history of the Calgary Jewish Film Festival.

Close to 800 Calgarians attended the event, which was the first in North America to feature the Violins of Hope. Hundreds of Edmontonians attended a second concert at that city’s Oasis Convention Centre.

“The violins both had a beautiful, shimmering tone,” recalls Lowry.  “They were very well chosen by Amnon…. He really looked after them and made their soul and their sound emerge.”

One of the instruments had previously been played by celebrated violinist Shlomo Mintz, recalled Lowry. Poignantly, Mintz’s performance at Auschwitz is captured in Amnon’s Journey.

Lowry was particularly moved as he played Tanec (Dance) by Hans Krasa, a Jewish composer who perished at Theresienstadt.

“We played a lot of Jewish music, and the people seemed to respond to it so incredibly warmly. It was so meaningful to them, and that made it even more moving for us,” Lowry said.

The Violins of Hope continue to be a source of inspiration for audiences around the globe.

The Nazis and their collaborators very nearly achieved their goal of obliterating European Jewry. But they could not kill the music.

And as we Jews have said in every generation—even (perhaps especially) in the face of tragedy and loss—where there is life, there is hope.

The Violins of Hope exhibition runs May 3 – June 16 at The National Music Centre (Studio Bell), 850 – 4 St. SE, 10:00a – 5:00pm daily. All exhibits, including the Violins of Hope, are free to NMC members. For information and tickets go to

 The Calgary Philharmonic Violins of Hope Concert takes place Sunday, May 15 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall, Arts Commons, 205 – 8 Ave. SE. For information and tickets, go to

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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