Violins of Hope Teaches Jewish History Through Music

Ellis Middle and Upper School students experienced history through music in October, when Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh visited the school to present educational programming about the Holocaust through stories of the people who owned and played violins to keep hope alive during this dark time.
Following a presentation about the violins—one of which had a special connection to Pittsburgh—two Ellis students and violinists, senior Rebekah Rapp and junior Ruby Saliterman, demonstrated the instruments’ sound by playing "Hava Nagila," "Oseh Shalom," and "It’s a Small World."

"It’s kind of unreal to be able to play an instrument that is also a historic artifact,” said Rebekah. During the assembly, she played a violin that had been played in the Auschwitz camp orchestra. "I feel like it’s so important for us to continue to tell stories of what happened during the Holocaust. To be able to play an instrument that was played by another Jew in a time of uncertainty and fear is really incredible. It feels like I am continuing this legacy of hope and I get to keep the violin alive.”

Violins of Hope was founded in Tel Aviv, Israel by father and son violin makers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein to provide concerts and educational events teaching about the Holocaust through instruments that have an intimate connection to this history. Programming has been held around the world.

Since 2018, Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh has worked with a variety of community partners to provide educational and cultural programming based on this collection of violins. The project has culminated in a free exhibit at the Posner Center on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus, open through November 21, 2023. More information is available on the organization’s website.

Program Chair Sandy Rosen brought five violins to The Ellis School in October, which were played by Rebekah, Ruby, and Ruby’s instructor Galina Istomen during the assembly. The presentation was especially meaningful to Ruby and her mother, Crystal Fortwangler, who have a personal connection to the violin that Ruby played. The violin was owned by Feivel Wininger, who played it in the Ukrainian ghetto of Shargorod to provide food for his family and hope for his community. His daughter, author Helen Wininger Livnat—a family friend of Ruby and Crystal—had the violin restored for Feivel for his 90th birthday, and later donated it to Violins of Hope. Feivel often referred to the violin as "my friend.”

"It’s such a special honor to be able to play Feivel’s violin because I have a connection to it,” Ruby said. "It feels like such an honor to be able to continue to tell these stories through playing.”

The project embodies many of the values Ellis students live out each day: being a force for positive change in the world, celebrating curiosity and learning, and being caring, empathetic individuals with real integrity, cultural competency, and an ability to make authentic, meaningful connections in a diverse world. Ruby and Rebekah agreed that it’s an honor to be part of a project that helped them share this history, and reflect on these values, with their classmates.

Ruby said she hopes classmates recognize that playing the violins brings important stories back to life and keeps the memory of both the history and the player alive. The history is something we all can relate to and learn from, she said. She and Rebekah pointed out that this is still recent history, and there is still antisemitism in society.

"We’re 16 or 17, and the Holocaust…it doesn’t feel like recent history even though it was less than a century ago. But we’re only two generations away from the person who played [the violin],” Rebekah said. "That’s something I feel like students can really connect with. Like, this didn’t happen forever ago in the past. This is real history that people are still impacted by and we still have survivors who can tell their own personal histories. Being able to bring music into the Ellis community brings a different perspective on hope during the Holocaust. We hear about lives lost and all of the atrocities, but I think it’s also an important time to remember that there was hope. There was defiance.”

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