In Germany, Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January is known as ‘Der Tag des Gedenkens an die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus’ which translates literally as ‘the day of remembering the victims of National Socialism’. But in Berlin, where there are so many moving memorials to these victims, every single day of the year is filled with acts of remembrance. Visitors to the German capital come to pay tribute and their feelings of horror and incomprehension keep the memory of Nazi atrocities alive.

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Angela Merkel at the opening ceremony for International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Berlin on 26th January

‘Berlin Unwrapped’ contains two special chapters: ‘Jewish Berlin’ and ‘Hitler’s Berlin’ which both describe a host of memorial sites. They include details of the Memorials to the Murdered Jews of Europe at the Brandenburg Gate, the former concentration camp at Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg, the former Headquarters of the Gestapo, the ‘Topographie des Terrors’, and the Villa Wannnsee where the Nazis decided on the ‘final solution’.  Since ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ was published in 2012, two other significant memorial sites have been added. The Memorial to Homosexuals persecuted under Nazism was unveiled in 2008 and now there is also the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma victims of National Sozialism (October 2012) in the Tiergarten near the Reichstag and the Memorial for Disabled Victims (September 2014) by the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall at Potsdamer Platz.

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Memorial to the Sinti and Roma victims

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Memorial to the disabled victims of the Nazis

On Wednesday 27th January this year, the German President Joachim Gauck addressed a packed chamber in the Reichstag where survivors of the Auschwitz death camp sat watching MPs, government ministers and Chancellor Angela Merkel. He said: “There is no German identity without Auschwitz….The memory of the Holocaust remains a matter for every citizen who lives in Germany. It belongs to the history of this country.”

But sometimes words are not enough or even possible. Only music can speak to the soul. This year, to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Berlin Philharmonic performed a concert uniquely connected to this historic event. It was entitled ‘Violins of Hope’. On the cover of the printed programme was a drawing of a violin whose strings were made of barbed wire, an image taken from James A. Grymes’ book of the same name and subtitled “Violins of the Holocaust – Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hours,” published in 2014. .

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The book is the amazing account of violin-maker Amnon Weinstein’s 20-year search for violins that belonged to musicians in the Nazi death camps, and his subsequent restoration of the instruments.

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Amnon Weinstein in his workshop in Tel Aviv

In the concert on Wednesday members of the Berlin Philharmonic were playing 16 of these very instruments. The soloist was Guy Braunstein, a former leader of the orchestra, who had initiated the concert. This review of the concert is from the Turkish newspaper ‘Today’s Zaman’:

“The Berlin Philharmonic’s string players, led by Sir Simon Rattle and his young protégé Duncan Ward, performed after an opening address by Germany’s foreign minister, Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The program began with the finely wrought tenderness of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, followed by Achron’s achingly beautiful “Hebrew Melody,” Adler’s plangent “Elegy” and Bruch’s impassioned “Kol Nidrei” with solo cellist Zvi Plessner. Violinist Guy Braunstein performed solo works by Bach and Beethoven before Plessner joined him for a haunting arrangement by İstanbul’s renowned violinist, Cihat Aşkın, of the traditional melody “Avinu Malkeinu.” Ben-Ari’s wildly divergent and descriptive six-part opus was the finale; its last movement was a wonderful sonic portrait of the hope that springs eternal despite unspeakable tragedy.”

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 Guy Braunstein, soloist at the concert

There is a fascinating documentary on RBB (the regional TV channel for Berlin and Brandenburg) about Amnon Weinstein’s Violins of Hope and the preparations for the concert in Berlin. You can access it until 3rd February by following this link: Violins of Hope. Although it is mostly in German, many of the interviews are conducted in English. It tells the story of the violins which found their way out of the death camps and their subsequent restoration in Israel. The Berlin Philharmonic is also shown in rehearsal and the interview with Sir Simon Rattle is especially moving, where he ends by saying that where there is music there is hope.

Violin restorer Amnon Weinstein was very emotional about his visit to Berlin. His violins had already been played at memorial concerts in Jerusalem, Paris, Madrid, London and Rome, but he felt Berlin was different because there were no survivors from the death camps who he could talk to. At the end of the concert on Wednesday he was led on to the stage at the end of the concert by the German Foreign Minister and given a standing ovation. Some of his restored violins are on display in the foyer of the Chamber Music Hall at the Philharmonie until 22nd February. There is further information about the provenance of the instruments and the concert on the Berlin Philharmoniker website and an excellent article on the Deutsche Welle website

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 The Violins of Hope

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