Music has always been a part of life in Jewish communities throughout the world, at family events such as weddings and special events in the synagogue. The violin was favored by Jews even before the two world wars and was part of the culture of every Jewish town in Eastern Europe. The violin was nearly always the lead instrument in the Klezmer bands that appeared at events. Klezmers and violins were also immortalized in works of literature and art (Shalom Aleichem and Chagall), mainly in the early 20th century.
Jewish suffering under Nazi rule was reflected in the music of European Jews from that period. Music allowed Jews to express their humanity in an inhumane world, to escape reality, to express their aspiration for freedom and find comfort and hope.
Musical activity was widespread in the ghettos - in Lodz, Krakow, Warsaw, Vilna, Terezin and even in the work camps and extermination camps created by the Nazis
In addition to the organized musical activity, songs were also performed in the ghettos and camps by the residents themselves. One of the collections containing a number of these songs, "Songs from the Ghettos and the Camps" was published in 1946. The song "Never Say - the Partisans' Song" has become an anthem commemorating the Holocaust and is sung at Holocaust memorial ceremonies. It has been translated into several languages. The words of the song were written by partisans in the Vilna ghetto and set to a pre-war Russian melody.
The Germans established inmate orchestras in some of the concentration and extermination camps, among them the women's orchestra conducted by Alma Rose (niece of Gustav Mahler). Some of the orchestras were forced to play when new prisoners were "welcomed" to the camp, accompany prisoners as they went off to work and on the way to the gas chambers. These orchestras also played for the enjoyment and entertainment of the Nazi soldiers and officers. At one point there were six active orchestras at Auschwitz. There were smaller orchestras in Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec and Sobibor as well.
During World War II the Nazis confiscated many violins from their Jewish owners. Some of these violins were found after the Holocaust, mostly broken and ruined, and they were probably simple instruments to begin with. Some of the Jews' violins had Star of David symbols, usually on the back, engraved in the wood or sometimes as a mosaic made of wood or mother of pearl.
One of the violins that survived the Holocaust is called "Moteleh's Violin", owned by a 12-year old Jewish boy named Mordechai Schlein. Nazi officers who heard Moteleh playing in the street in 1944 ordered him to play for them at their club. Moteleh took advantage of his performances to smuggle explosives into the club in his violin case, later blowing up the building and those inside. He was eventually killed in a German ambush and his violin was taken to Israel by the family
of a friend who played with him in the Diadila Misha partisan camp in the Volhynia forest.
Another violin that survived the Holocaust was owned by a French Jew who was held in the Drancy internment camp and then sent by train to Auschwitz. On the way he threw the violin to some workers who were fixing the track, saying that if he did not live, at least the violin would survive. The children of the track worker who kept the violin brought it to a French violin maker. Violins such as the latter made their way to Tel Aviv violin maker Amnon Weinstein, who made them his life's work. He repaired and restored them, and the human stories behind them were documented. These violins have been brought to life once again by being played in Israel and around the world by the finest violinists of our time. They now "speak" after nearly seventy years of silence.
With thanks to Dr. Gila Flam and Assi & Amnon Weinstein