What the Violin Taught Me About Artistic Resistance and the Holocaust

What the Violin Taught Me About Artistic Resistance and the Holocaust


"One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism. A first-class orchestra will be this fist."-Bronislaw Huberman

My son tentatively touches the bow to the instrument, his little fingers hesitant but eager, the strings tight as if with the same excitement and anticipation reflecting from his big eyes

One would think he was touching a masterpiece or finding a long lost treasure by his reaction.

He has quite decidedly fallen in love with the violin, an instrument whose rich history I would never have known had he not shown such affinity. However, being the nerd that I am, when he chose this, I began to read and research.

What I discovered was not only a small little instrument, packed with power and passion, asserting her voice as she danced down through generations, but also a symbol of artistic resistance in a way - a means to having a presence in societies that preferred to ignore the Jewish minority’s existence or even sought to uproot or eliminate them completely. In essence, in learning about the violin, I unearthed a history of a marginalized group's refusal to be silenced. 

He moves the bow, excited by the thrill of new sounds, even those that come out tense and sorrowful.

Tension. Sorrow. As anti-Semitism flourished in Europe, the violin was one of several creative ways for the Jewish people to defy repeated attempts to eliminate their humanity and continue to express themselves. Her size was conducive to a life on the run from pogroms and Nazis, to subversively resisting oppressive shots at stealing this despised minority's voice and culture, instead smuggling the iconic little fiddle with them throughout societies that resented their presence - again, a cultural or artistic resistance.

Even within the Jewish community, the violin became an inventive way to get around certain Jewish prohibitions regarding artwork by elaborately decorating the instrument in place of more conventional wall art.

I watch my son again as he makes his first attempts at playing the violin. I recall hearing that this instrument is one of the most difficult to play, not easily controlled, almost defiant against being mastered. 

Defiance. Not easily controlled. This brings me back to her history, representing defiance against conventional powers, not easily controlled, much like the oppressed group the instrument became associated with, a people who had to quickly learn to think outside the box to survive.

Sometimes, she was a ticket to a better life outside of the restricted Jewish community or, during the Holocaust, to surviving when all others in the community perished. At other times, she was part of a radical strategy to bravely rebel, as in the case of the twelve-year-old Jewish partisan Mordechai "Motele" Shlayan, who used his violin case to transport explosives to a Nazi pub, bringing down the entire building and many Nazis with it.

Whether the violin was invented by Jews or not is highly debated. However, one thing is clear; she became so iconic to the Jewish people that each family, each community, needed to have a skilled violinist. It was the violinist that brought life to the pivotal events of the community. And it was often the violinist, during the Holocaust, that gave a sliver of humanity when it seemed that all that was beautiful or good was gone amidst crushing oppression, continuing to bring life even in the midst of the ashes of death. In some twisted way, perhaps this ability to bring life and humanity was why even the Nazis sought out Jewish violinists to keep themselves entertained, hoping to restore their own sense of normalcy in the midst of committing horrific injustice.

I can already see my son's perfectionism compelling him to figure out how to master the violin’s resistant strings. His strong will has met its match, an instrument with an equally strong will. He is eager for the challenge.

Resistant. What better instrument to represent such cultural resistance, to have carried such stories and seen both trauma and celebration? Her strings carry a longing to be free, resilient and timeless, challenging constraints, echoing sorrow at certain times and joyful triumph at others.

During the Holocaust, many violins were confiscated by the end and far too many whose hands had expertly worked their bows and strings had their lives cut short. But her voice carried on and many stories were discovered with tiny, wooden instruments years, even decades, later.

However, while we never forget the dead, may we also never forget the beauty and power of cultural resistance, remembering the creative ways that, throughout history and especially during the Holocaust, people challenged the powers of their time and held steadfastly to their humanity; may we never forget other marginalized groups today who are barely holding onto hope too -- minorities, refugees and all those suffering from violence and hatred.

And may we ask ourselves, here in Israel, in this little stretch of land in which the Jewish people are no longer a weak minority but a strong power, will this beautiful melody of defiance, of thinking outside the constraints of society's pressures, fade away? Or will it grow in complexity and strength, remembering and joining with the tune of others in this land who now must assert their humanity and refuse to be silenced or to have their culture eliminated? Will we truly say, "Never again," for ourselves, and for all created in the image of the divine and who live in this land?

Brilliance and creativity were never born of comfort and security. They are kin to courage and passion, to challenging the status quo. May this melody continue and may those of us who now have privilege and comfort never forget. 

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