Hearing the Past: Restoring Violins from the Holocaust

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Reuters/Stringer

Turkey's Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva looks at violins that belonged to victims of the Holocaust, at an exhibit in Istanbul in 2005

More than 60 years after the Holocaust, restored violins convey pain and loss — and hope.

Today is the UN-designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and CNN has a piece about a unique effort to express the incomprehensible.

Amnon Weinstein is a Tel Aviv based luthier who, over 15 years, has found and restored some 26 violins that belonged to Jews during the Holocaust. Thanks to him, violins that were once played in concentration camps and ghettos, violins that survived the war not all their players did, can be heard today. And they bring with them a message.

(More on TIME.com: “For Them, Time Ran Out.”)

“It is a very complicated period that is impossible to understand, impossible to explain, but the sound of the violin is taking us back to this time,” Weinstein says. “Today it is difficult to convince people something like this happened. This is our mission, that everybody will understand a little bit the friction. The violin is a friction, but you can hear a sound and it is making life a little bit more understandable.”

The strings sound out a tragic shared experience, but also tell individual stories. One of the restored instruments reportedly belonged to a 12-year old boy named Motele, who had to play for the Nazis. He used his violin case to sneak explosives into one of their buildings, eventually blowing it up. Motele survived the act of resistance but not the war.

(More on TIME.com: “Even After Exile, Palestinian Musician Vows to Play On.”)

“If you have very good ears and you are listening, it’s unbelievable what you can hear when these violins are played,” Weinstein told the Forward in 2009. “You can hear the suffering.”

But you can also hear life. Though they come from the past, the violins are not stuck in it. In 2008, at a “Violins of Hope” concert held by the walls of old Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary, musicians played 16 of the restored instruments. Among the compositions performed was Israel’s beautiful, haunting national anthem — Hatikva, The Hope.

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