In the 1980s, a young man brought his violin to Amnon Weinstein, a Tel Aviv luthier, for repair. He told Weinstein that it belonged to his grandfather, who had last played it while imprisoned at Auschwitz. Inside, Weinstein found a black powder: ashes from the crematorium.
This powerful encounter was the seed of Violins of Hope, an effort to retrieve and repair string instruments owned by European Jews in ghettos and Nazi death camps during World War II.
With the help of his son and fellow luthier Avshalom, Weinstein has been lovingly gathering and restoring these instruments over the past two decades, as well as piecing together the stories of their owners.
The Violins of Hope collection now numbers more than 80 instruments, and this Sunday, three of them will be played as part of the San Francisco Symphony's chamber music series.
The concert was spearheaded by Symphony cellist Barbara Bogatin, who will trade her usual 18th-century Florentine cello for one of the few cellos in the collection, crafted by an unknown maker in Dresden in 1890.
Bogatin's interest in the music of the Holocaust started on a Symphony tour of Europe seven years ago. On a day off from performing in Prague, she toured Terezin, site of the Thieresenstadt Ghetto, where more than 30,000 Jews were believed to have died of disease and malnutrition. Another 88,000 were deported to concentration camps.
But despite the horrific conditions, the ghetto had a vibrant artistic community, with a library, an artists' circle, and an orchestra largely comprised of professional musicians.
"When I was there, I got interested in this music, and there was a whole room [in the museum] with compositions, with instruments," Bogatin said. There, she encountered the music of Hans Krása and Gideon Klein, two Czech composers imprisoned in Terezin who died at ages 44 and 25, respectively.
When Bogatin found out that Violins of Hope would be bringing 51 of its instruments to tour the Bay Area, she proposed a concert featuring the music she discovered in Terezin.
The program for Sunday's concert will feature three works by Krása and Klein. Bogatin says their work is professional and sophisticated, in the vein of Leoš Janáček or Arnold Schoenberg, but also deeply rooted in the folk music of the region.
"In the Klein [string] trio, the second movement is a variation on a Moravian folk melody, with a very sad theme," Bogatin explains, noting the poignancy of composers using a melody from a land that rejected them.
On stage, Bogatin will be joined by two of her Symphony colleagues: Adam Smyla, a violist from Poland, and Raushan Akhmedyarova, a violinist from Kazhakstan.
"We have been in rehearsal, trying to get in the mind of the composers, trying to understand the terror, the ongoing uncertainty, the feeling of incredible despair," she said. "And yet: writing music, performing it, remembering childhood, remembering the beauty that they have seen."
In addition to Sunday's concert, the Violins of Hope will make a number of other appearances around the Bay Area this winter, including display exhibits at San Francisco's War Memorial Veterans Building and Los Gatos' New Museum. Tomorrow night, the Oakland Symphony will play Mahler's Symphony No. 4 with some of the instruments from the collection.
"Instruments, all of them, had a role to play in helping people survive," Bogatin said of the concerts. "We are very humbled and honored to play these instruments, honoring the people who played them, saved them, suffered with them."
The San Francisco Symphony's Violins of Hope concert will be held at Davies Symphony Hall (201 Van Ness Ave.) this Sunday, February 23 at 2 p.m. Tickets ($40-85) are available here.