The Power of And: Daniel Levin’s Violins and Hope

Sometimes an otherwise inconsequential word has major impact, and that is the case in the title of photographer Daniel Levin’s new book, Violins and Hope: From the Holocaust to Symphony Hall.  The title refers to a collection of violins that survived the Holocaust, and were restored to their best playable condition by the Israeli luthier Amnon Weinstein. Levin’s choice to call the book Violins and Hope, not Violins of Hope (which is what the instruments are called) broadens the scope of the storytelling. This is a book not only about those instruments, but about hope as a force in the world.

The Violins of Hope, of course, have travelled the globe, played in concert halls around the world by orchestras including–early and significantly–the Cleveland Orchestra.

Levin begins with the decision to focus his photography not on the violins themselves, but on the luthier who made it his life’s work to restore them, on his studio, and other objects and threads that help to tell the story.  Of course it is the violins that give it focus, but Levin knew that it took a remarkable person to recognize the typically humble instruments’ role in sustaining hope for so many people in such dire circumstance, and to restore them so that they could continue to speak their historic truth.

He finds great details in Weinstein’s workshop: not just the tools, but pictures on the walls, the ways things are arranged, the ways he has improvised solutions to storage or any such challenge. Levin’s photos beautifully capture the quotidian, like ball bearings in the bottom of jars of varnish, to weight them so they will not tip over; or in dozens of bridges strung on a wire to keep them together, and so on. There are also images of Weinstein at work—bespectacled, leaning over instruments, surrounded  by specialized knives, clamps, oils, and varnishes, but also postcards, letters, documents, and other artifacts that narrate the lineage of the instruments and the lives they enriched.

Sometimes the act of working on the violins revealed something of their history. In one picture we see that by opening an instrument, Weinstein found inside the pencil inscription, “Heil Hitler 1936,” and below it a swastika. He theorized that it was likely scrawled unbeknownst to its owner by a German luthier while the violin was in for repair.

Many of the photos were included in The Weinstein’s Workshop: The Luthiers who Restored the Violins of the Holocaust, which was exhibited in Phoenix and in San Francisco. Other venues in California and elsewhere were scheduled to present the photos,  but then along came COVID-19.

Because Levin is an accomplished photographer (portrait commission credits include the likes of violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, President George H. W. Bush, architect I.M. Pei, and many others) there’s the expectation that photos will completely dominate this book. The photos are magnificent, and plentiful, but that is not quite true. In fact, the prose storytelling and an interview with the luthier’s wife— Assi Bielski Weinstein—become additional highlights of the book, and help represent all the history and culture that is embodied in the instruments.

One of those stories begins with what became the superstar Joshua Bell’s violin–a Stradivarius once owned by Czech virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman, whose musical and charitable work built the Palestinian Philharmonic and saved the lives of 75 Jewish musicians and their families.  Levin photographed Joshua Bell at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

In another, an interview with the luthier’s wife, Assi Bielski Weinstein, she casually relates stories about the role of violins in Jewish culture, and tells some specific stories of instruments and people.  But her own story—conceived in the Russian woods, the child of famed Bielski resistance fighters—gives a springboard to divert into that hopeful tale of defiance.

The amazing story of these instruments has drawn incredible collaborators over the years, and Levin has continued that, including in a foreword written by Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Franz Welser-Most. Indeed, gathering the visual and narrated stories and above all the hopes of the people associated with restoring the violins and making music with them is the greatest accomplishments of this book. It is available starting August 22.

Violins And Hope: From the Holocaust to Symphony Hall

by Daniel Levin

Hardcover, 164 pages

George F. Thompson Publishing, L.L.C., 2021

ISBN: 978–1–938086–86–1

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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