My Unforgettable Week with the Violins of Hope's 'Bielski' Violin

July 2, 2023, 3:51 PM · In December 2021 I received an unexpected e-mail that rendered me completely speechless. The e-mail notified me that I was one of just a handful of musicians who was being given the chance to perform on one of the surviving violins from the Holocaust and prison camps.

To back up, the Long Beach Symphony, where I have played in the violin section since 1994, originally was scheduled to perform a concert with Violins of Hope (VOH) in April of 2020. However, society shut down due to Covid,  and the concert was postponed to January of 2022.

The collection of "Violins of Hope" (VOH) are violins which were played in and survived concentration camps during the Holocaust. There are about 60 violins in the collection. Only approximately 10 could be restored to playing condition. The remaining violins were so badly damaged they are not playable. They can always be seen on display whenever the collection goes on tour.

When the VOH concert was rescheduled, I honestly expected that I would be one of the players that would be NEAR one of these historic violins. I thought that, at best, I would be walking by the instruments or maybe being lucky enough to sit near one during the concert.

In the email, I was told which violin was assigned to me, should I accept: The Bielski Violin. This was very real indeed, and there was no question about whether or not I would accept this opportunity; my answer was an unequivocal "Yes!"

Two nights before our first rehearsal, I attended a donor event where we officially received the violins. The event was held in the Aquarium in Long Beach, inside the IMAX theater. Anita Pressman, a friend of over two decades, was my guest. She took some snapshots of some key moments.

IMAX theater Violins of Hope

When I entered the IMAX theater, I was taken back when I saw the collection of violins on display for the donors to view. I went straight to the violin assigned to me so I could see it up close before the event began.

It is one thing to read about these violins. It is entirely a different experience to actually walk up and view the violin I knew would be going home with me for the rest of the week.

Before the handful of musicians formally received our assigned violins, we watched a short documentary on the violins, which grabbed my heart and drew me further into the moment, helping me understand what was about to happen.

The musicians were given the violins in a very particular way, a serious ceremony that reflected the gravity and responsibility of receiving these historic violins from Violins of Hope, starting with a short documentary. (The video below is cued up to that documentary. The full video is my journal about this experience.)

At the end of the short documentary, a speaker read the history of each violin, one by one, then announced the name of the musician assigned to the violin. The musician took an empty case to the front, where they placed the assigned violin inside.

When I started hearing the story of the Bielski Violin, I knew it was my turn. My heart began pounding. As I listened to the history, I could feel that this experience was the start of a "defining moment" in my life. Suddenly "head knowledge" was turning into reality. No longer was I reading about history. Now, I was about to actually touch history - and bring it home! The gravity of the responsibility began hitting me hard.

Dynell receives Violins of Hope
Dynell, receiving the Bielski Violin.

When my name was actually announced,, my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. I walked to the table and helped gently put the violin in my own violin case.

It didn’t matter that I had known about this moment long in advance. It didn’t matter how much research I had done in the past couple of weeks.. There was no way to prepare for receiving a Holocaust violin into my violin case, zipping it up, and walking off stage. My hands shook, and I was sure people in the audience could see my heart jumping out as I walked away.

After the receiving ceremony, a photographer took portraits of the musicians with the violins.

Dynell Weber with Bielski Violin
Portrait: Dynell Weber (me!) with the Bielski Violin

A couple of days later, as I was practicing on the Bielski Violin at home, I had a realization.: I did not want to miss a single moment of this special week. In fact, I wanted to document it, and I wanted to do it right. I wanted a photo shoot with this violin, and I wanted to video-record something.

The idea was originally for me, my own personal record of the week. At the time, I never expected to be asked to publicly write about my experience. At first, I imagined an iPhone photo shoot and an iPhone recording - very simple.

But those around me encouraged me to ask for expert help. So I asked my two-time Emmy winning cousin, Scott Weber, a professional sound engineer; Barbra Porter, my long time friend and colleague, now a professional photographer; and pianist Bryan Pezzone - before I could even finish a sentence, they all said "YES!" Then Jim and Colleen Thatcher graciously opened their home to all three of us so that we could record there.

All that was left was deciding what to play. The recording would be the next day. I chose "Liebeslied," by Kriesler – "Love's Joy, Love's Sorrow."

recording on the Bielski Violin
Recording on the Bielski Violin.

As I was hatching this plan, other musicians were also getting used to their violins. Of course, no two violins are alike. Violins are like siblings. They can look alike, but have two entirely different personalities and ways of communicating. To switch to a different violin with a different feel or thickness, different tone quality, even a different placement of notes - and to get comfortable in time for a concert - that posed some (fun) challenges.

Taking that into consideration, it seemed rather gutsy to add more pressure on myself -  "Hey, I think I will do a spontaneous video tomorrow to memorialize this week.. Hmmm, and what shall I play?" But for me, this became an extremely personal - even spiritual - experience.

Because I was recording for my own memories and for family, friends and students, I documented in the video a personal experience which took my week to a deeper level of appreciation: A special soul came with the violin who made himself very present during the week.

Now I hope I don’t lose you here. I don’t want to call the experience with this special soul a "ghost story" because that sounds so "Hollywood." However, when playing this violin, I truly felt the presence of a soul filled with so much joy, one who was with me all week long, one who couldn’t be more joyful to be a part of this collection and being a part of the music that is restored in these violins.

This soul contributed to my week every bit as much as every musician I performed with. Therefore, I felt as if I needed to pull up an empty chair for him to 'sit at my table' all week long, and include him in my video diary I had made for myself. Little did I know I would be asked to write about this for! But since Laurie asked me to do so, I have included my video diary in this story.

If you are uncomfortable with this personal spiritual experience and only want to hear what that Bielski Violin sounds like, simply skip to “38:37" in the video or click here so you can hear the Bielski Violin sing for 6 million Jews and shares the story of Hope, love, sorrow, survival and resilience.

Even my students were a part of this defining moment in my life. I have taught violin for 30+ years, and in all my years, I have never seen reactions from students when I pulled out a violin to show them, let them hold, and play for them. Those moments were priceless.

One violin student said, "OMG! This is no different than if a museum sent you home with the Declaration of Independence! How can you even sleep at night?"

I laughed and replied, "With the violin next to my bed, with one eye open, and with a fire escape plan for every contingency."

Another violin student said, "This is the best music, violin and history lesson I ever received."

During the week leading up to the concert, those of us with VOH violins had made sure to share the moment by letting our colleagues - those who were not selected as recipients – to hold the violins and take photos with them at rehearsals.

For those of us who had a VOH violin and who had been working with a VOH violin all week, we had each experienced something profound, even emotional by the time the concert came around.

What was it like to perform with the Violins of Hope collection all on stage and each recipient next to each other?

Violins of Hope performance

Normally, concerts can feel like "just a gig". Not this one. Saturday night's concert had a feeling unlike any other concert.

By Saturday night, each musician had not only touched history, we had brought a piece of history home with us and became a voice of the past through these violins - all week long.

When the concert had concluded, after performing the Mozart Requiem, we were to return our violins backstage. Returning our assigned violins was not as ceremonious as the donor event where we received them. But it was emotionally powerful.

returning the violins
Returning the Violins of Hope after the concert.

Each musician stood at the loading dock, and one by one, we carefully placed the violin on the designated table.

Normally, musicians bolt the moment a rehearsal or concert is done. Getting home is the only thing on our minds. Violinists are notorious for being the first out the door. We can pack up the fastest.

But this was different.

This time, many of us stood around watching each other return the violins, taking a photo here and there, lingering near the table, quietly reflecting or sharing stories of the week.

In all my years as a violinist (and I have played since the age of 2), I’ve never felt so honored.  I would have felt honored to play any violin in the Violin Of Hope Collection - even for just 30 seconds. But to have had my life touched by this violin all week long, in my home, was an immeasurable experience.

In addition to working with a piece of history all week long, I’m so grateful for the efforts of my friends, who went along with my crazy idea to have a photo shoot and make a video to document this defining moment in my life.

And yet I think this moment will continue for me, that my perspectives and awareness will continue to grow and surface. With some experiences, we don’t know how they fully shape or change us until long after the event, when we are reflecting back.

For me, this is one of those experiences.

Playing a violin from Violins of Hope offered me a deep-level perspective on the human story of how life flows and survives - individually and collectively. As this Soul I speak of in my video reaffirmed to me, sometimes life expresses itself on the other side of the veil.

Through my experience with the Bielski Violin, I learned that each violinist who plays a VOH violin becomes a story teller, speaking through the voice of the violin, telling the story of the darkest days, and how Hope continues long afterwards. Each time a VOH violin is played, that person serves as a voice for 6 million Jews murdered - and thus silenced - by the Nazis.

And from my personal experience, I know that each time the Bielski Violin is played, a beautiful soul emerges as one musical voice in a collection of voices , thrilled to bring the story of Hope to the world.

Being able to express a voice of the past – this particular past – made for the most musically meaningful week I have ever experienced in my musical career. This week with the Bielski violin went straight to my soul.

I truly feel that projects like Violins of Hope help unite the world in peace, harmony and love.

PS: How to pronounce my name: The "y" in "Dynell" is pronounced more like the "i" in "dinner". Or, like the “y” in the name “Lynn” is pronounced. Also, the emphasis is on the "nell". I have been told my name has a French sounding flair when pronounced correctly… "Din-Nell’"

Here is the full video of my Violins of Hope experience, from beginning to end:

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July 4, 2023 at 10:08 AM · Your article and video are moving and fascinating, Dynell. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

July 6, 2023 at 02:15 AM · Beautiful writing about a beautiful experience. Thank you.

July 6, 2023 at 03:24 AM · Thank you for sharing this. Your account of the "ghost" M.C. was a beautiful tribute to M.C. and all the other unknown musicians who originally played those violins. Your playing is beautiful.

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