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Violins of Hope; New exhibit at the National Music Centre

A gallery on the fifth floor of the National Music Centre (NMC) has been transformed into a Holocaust memorial with the exhibition called Violins of Hope.

It’s a private collections of dozens of violins that were owned by Jewish people in the 1930s and 40s.

Curators say wherever there was music, there was hope — and the role of violins at such a horrific time in human history was to touch hearts and spread that hope around.

Marnie Bondar, co-chair of the Holocaust and Human Rights Commemoration and education department for the Calgary Jewish Federation, championed the exhibition coming to Calgary. She says it’s incredibly meaningful to the Jewish community.

“Absolutely, with the rise of anti-Semitism in particular,” she said. “Not so much Holocaust outright denial — although there has been an increase of that — but with Holocaust distortion and not believing all of the facts and what happened.

“This exhibit is one of the ways that we can really address that,” she added, “and help share both the individual stories of some of these violins and the people that were attached to them.”

Violins part of Jewish history

Bondar says violins are part of the Jewish history and when Nazis came to power in Europe, life dramatically changed for all Jews, but especially for Jewish musicians.

“When we look at what Jews took with them, I think it speaks volumes that often what we found is people took photos of family members and look how many people took their musical instruments, that’s what mattered,” she said. “(Under Nazi rule) Jews are no longer allowed to be in orchestras, Jews aren’t allowed to play music and ghettos, although they do, you see a real impact on European Jewry under Nazi rule.”

Bondar says every violin in the exhibit tells a story.

“They’re stories about love and hope and healing and how music can really transcend so much,” she said. “The music that is played on these violins, speaks to the ability to retain your humanity in inhumane conditions and maybe escape reality for little bits of time.”

Deeply humbling

Brandon Hearty, NMC manager of exhibition development, says the centre didn’t receive the collection until mid-April, but he had over a year to create the exhibition by learning as much as he could about the people who owned the instruments. He says the experience has been deeply humbling.

“Doing the research, trying to find more information about some of the individuals was sort of an initiative that we took on,” he said. “In many instances that resulted in additional content so more photographs, more documents and in a lot of cases it’s more tragedy.

“The more detail you know, it’s more of a tragic thing because you humanize these individuals, ” he adds.”You come to know them, right? Not just through their instrument, but through examining their actual history and stories.”

Hearty says the collection is well over 10 years old has been shown all over the world, but mostly the instruments are played in performances by different philharmonic orchestras, with the Calgary Philharmonic putting on a performance using some of the violins from the collection on May 15th.

“It’s (the people behind the violins whose) story that we’re trying to share,” he said. “The music, the violins and the hope that’s associated with the creation of music sort of becomes secondary to just the educational experience of saying, these people existed, they were challenged, they were targeted, they were displaced and in many cases they didn’t survive.”


Irene Ross is a survivor. She’s 84 years old and says on May 22nd, 1940, two weeks after Germany occupied Holland, her mom gave her to non-Jewish strangers to keep her safe. Her mom went into hiding for three years to avoid being sent to a concentration camp and the two were reunited when Canadian soldiers liberated Holland.

Ross says the exhibition is overwhelming.

“I can’t believe how these violins could have been saved,” she said. “All the people that perished, I kind of wish the violins could talk.”

Andrew Mosker, NMC president and CEO, says this is the first international exhibition the centre has ever hosted. He says Violins of Hope was designed to emit emotion from visitors.

“It’s a powerful feeling when you feel emotional, or you feel goosebumps when you look at the images, when you hear the music in here in this gallery, when you read the stories about each of the individual violins,” he said. “That means the power of music is alive and is impacting you, the visitor and that’s what we set out to do when we build exhibitions.”

Mosker says while this is the first international exhibition here, it won’t be the last. Learn more about Violins of Hope here.

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