Roger Loria, a Holocaust survivor, knows the importance of music. Jewish musicians were often forced to play music in ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust as people were getting off of trains, marching to work and going to gas chambers. Their music was a way to save themselves, while the Nazis used it to mask the horrors of what was to come.
On Tuesday, at a media preview event for a new exhibit that is looking to spark meaningful conversation and educate on the history of the Holocaust, the Belgian-born Loria, who lives in Richmond, talked about a particular moment when music impacted his life. He was held prisoner several places in Europe during the Holocaust, the last one being at Rivesaltes, a military camp in France that shipped thousands of Jewish people to Auschwitz. Loria outlived all of the family on his father’s side; they have the largest mass grave of a single family in Poland, and some of his family has no markers or graves.
After the war, Loria lived in an orphanage with 100 children in Antwerp, Belgium. They were eventually all taken to Israel, and when they arrived at the port of Haifa, Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah was played.
“The meaning of Hatikvah is hope,” he said, “and that hope permeated us all the way to our bones for the first time.”
The hope Loria and others felt from that music is being rejuvenated through an exhibit that will bring more than 60 violins that were played in concentration camps and ghettos, including Auschwitz, during the Holocaust to Richmond.
The Violins of Hope exhibit, which will display violins played by Jewish musicians, is coming to the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States for the first time this month. From Aug. 4 to Oct. 24 violins will be displayed at three different Richmond museums: the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
During the event, Loria talked about the importance of Holocaust education for young people. Around 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, but nearly a third of Americans and 41% of millennials think 2 million or fewer people died, according to a Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany study. The study also found that nearly 50% of millennials cannot name a singular concentration camp or ghetto out of the more than 40,000 that operated during the Holocaust.
“It’s extremely important because it gives another dimension to young people,” Loria said, “how hope is being transmitted through music, through sound, through an instrument.”
The exhibit is usually kept in the workshop of an Israeli master craftsman and violin shop owner, Amnon Weinstein, who recovered and restored the violins with his son.
Avshi Weinstein, Amnon Weinstein’s son, attended the event Tuesday and said in an interview that the violin exhibit brings a new part of the war to the forefront of conversation. The exhibit was built off of a collection of violins his grandfather had bought, which grew when his father began to outsource and ask people if they had instruments from the time period.
“It’s to show a different aspect of the war, through music,” Avshi Weinstein said. “It’s something that many people are not really aware [of] how much music was a part of the war, how much the Nazis used it in so many different ways.”
The exhibit is also held in collaboration with the Richmond Symphony, which will play the violins in special performances with various pieces from the Holocaust, including Schindler’s List. The Virginia Holocaust Museum will host a community concert this Thursday at 6:30 p.m., and there will be four more community concerts at other locations throughout the duration of the exhibit. On Thursday, Sept. 9, there will be a special concert at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart and again Friday, Sept. 10, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
“We live in a time when there is a terrible uptick in racism and antisemitism and hatred,” Virginia Holocaust Museum executive director Samuel Asher, who also had family members die in the Holocaust, said in an interview. “’It’s really important to hear one story at a time, and that’s what the Violins of Hope does. It tells one story at a time, and it helps people understand.”
Avshi Weinstein echoed Asher’s sentiments and discussed the importance of learning about singular stories.
“The problem is that when you present the Holocaust in school, they go through the numbers, which are overwhelming,” he said. “But when we go through the single stories of different people, it relates a little bit more ... and you see that in the end, we’re talking about individuals.”
The Virginia Holocaust Museum has been working to bring the exhibit to Richmond for more than three years, Asher said. He added that working with the other museums has been a “great collaboration” that allows the exhibit to reach a wider audience.
“The whole idea was to connect, because we stand together against racism, and we stand together against all forms of intolerance,” he said, “and the only way to do that is for us to work together.”
The Black History Museum’s operations and visitor services manager Mary Lauderdale said in an interview the museum felt “excited” and “blessed” to host the exhibit.
“This is a great opportunity to showcase hope and despair in all kinds of cultures,” Lauderdale said, “to show that we are more alike than we think we are, and that music is something that transcends race, religion, culture, everything.”
Loria said seeing the exhibit was an emotional experience, but his younger self would feel “amazing” to see it displayed.
“Jews could not carry a piano. They had a violin,” he said. “So that’s what you carry on the road, and that’s what your culture was. You carried your culture with you. In the song, and in the music.”
For more information about tickets for concerts, community events, education programs and other music performances featuring the exhibit violins, visit violinsofhoperva.com.