Grand Canyon University (GCU) student Garrett Smith was not expecting that a presentation about the history of violins would help him better understand the human element of the Holocaust.

As part of a class assignment last week, Smith attended a Violins of Hope lecture hosted by GCU, a private Christian university in Phoenix.

“Frankly, we’ve heard and read about the events before in class,” Smith, a psychology major, said. “But seeing the actual instruments changes it from this unfathomable story to real people. I felt a strong impact from relearning such a large event from such a personal perspective.”

Violins of Hope, a project of Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, made its Phoenix debut on Feb. 3 and will feature a variety of lectures, events, films and musical performances through the end of March. A major part of the program is its educational component. More than 40 schools all over the Valley, as well as schools in Tucson and Flagstaff, will host Israeli violin maker and Holocaust educator Avshalom Weinstein, who has restored dozens of violins from the Holocaust with his father, Amnon. He will describe the history of the violins and the Violins of Hope program to more than 20,000 students. 

GCU, in partnership with the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, was one of the first schools to host Weinstein.

Before Weinstein’s presentation, the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Sherman Elliot, gave a brief general history of the events leading up to the Holocaust. In 2003, Elliot completed the Anti-Defamation League’s Bearing Witness program to become a certified Holocaust educator.

During his lecture, Elliot emphasized that it didn’t happen overnight. It started with words and propaganda to alienate, blame and discredit Jews. He said he was honored that GCU was able to host Weinstein and Violins of Hope to help share so many lost stories.

When it was his turn to take the stage, Weinstein said he hoped students would understand that “music is an international language that can always allow us to talk to each other.”

Weinstein brought three violins with him and talked about how he and his father had acquired the instruments. He then told the stories of how each violin survived the Holocaust and what it took to restore it. The father and son have restored more than 60 violins that survived the Holocaust. Many of the instruments came from Jewish ghettos, forest hideouts and concentration camp orchestras.

During the presentation, local violinists Megan Asher and Cynthia DuBrow performed classic Jewish music on the restored instruments. 

Co-chair for Violins of Hope of Phoenix, Julee Landau, said the program’s educational component will expose students to the personal stories of the Holocaust. Landau, who also serves as board vice chair for Federation, hopes students will learn lessons about why the Holocaust is relevant today. 

Landau has been organizing all the different educational events for Violins of Hope’s stay in Phoenix. 

“We try to end each of the events on a message of hope and to reinforce a lesson of acceptance toward others,” Landau said. “We also want to focus on what connects us. Certainly, music is universal and we all have similar emotional reactions to it when we hear it. And when we learn about the people behind these violins, we feel their story.”

After the lecture and concert, Elliot said finding new ways to educate students about the Holocaust is becoming crucial as the number of survivors dwindles and eventually disappears. 

“We have to keep doing it and we have to apply it to current political events around the world,” Elliot said. “Otherwise, I worry we’re no longer going to bear witness and we’ll see it happen again.” 

Many GCU students at the event honed in on that message.

Jessica Fallen, who majors in psychology and justice studies, said Weinstein’s lecture taught her more about the conditions of the concentration camps and the power music had during those times. 

Writing student Kyla Hansen said that although the music was beautiful, it was hard for her to listen to it when she learned about the concentration camp orchestras.

Weinstein had described in detail what many of the orchestra musicians endured as they were forced to play music for the Nazis. Sometimes the orchestras had to perform while the Nazis executed other Jews in front of them.

Weinstein said he had met many Holocaust survivors who had a difficult time listening to music because of their experiences. 

“So many people are impacted by music on a day-to-day basis,” Hansen said. “And then to hear that many survivors hate music because of what the Nazis did. The presentation really showed the cruelty of the Nazis in ways I just wasn’t expecting.” JN

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