Game changer Project: violins of hope

Educating our community about the Holocaust so that we will never forget and it will never happen again was the mission of The Violins of Hope Elgin Collaborative. The Violins of Hope Elgin Collaborative (VOHEC) joined cultural, educational, and governmental agencies to bring the Violins of Hope to the Elgin community. The Gail Borden Public Library designed the display and exhibited the Violins of Hope from April 2023—September 2023.  Over 75,210 people viewed the exhibit, with 23 docents guiding 542 of those visitors on 70 tours of the Violins of Hope exhibit. 11 programs were held at the library—concerts, plays, film screenings, and lectures—and attended by 1030 people.   Music provided hope during humankind’s darkest hours and continues to do so today. At one hope-filled event, Elgin Symphony Orchestra performed on the “playable” violins at Hemmens, moving the audience of 1161.

ESO musicians played string quartets at the library and visited residents of care communities. Chamber Music On The Fox musicians presented a concert at Congregation Kneseth Israel of works by composers of the Holocaust era, notably those imprisoned at Terezín. The Rabbi and her congregation offered hospitality to concertgoers and to Avshi Weinstein, one of the collectors/founders/restorers of the Violins of Hope Collection. None of this would have been possible without the generous donations by the Seigle Family Foundation and Palmer Foundation. Their financial support ensured that the message of hope played by the Violins of Hope would be heard in Elgin.

“Great way to educate and inform the community about the wonderful contributions and positivity these violins represent.”  This comment from a visitor perfectly captures the mission of the Violins of Hope Elgin Collaborative. We set out to educate and inform Elgin so that someday there would be no hate. The word “positivity” in the visitor’s comment prevailed in the programs offered: Chamber Music on The Fox played a string trio by Gideon Klein, a musician who didn’t survive the Holocaust, but his music did; that concert was held at Congregation Kneseth Israel, where many concertgoers remarked on how hopeful they felt whenever they heard music by Jewish composers performed live. For one non-Jewish attendee, the music’s true power was revealed: “I had no idea about the role the violins played to help the Jewish people hold onto hope and survive.”

Each partner in the Violins of Hope Elgin Collaborative generously donated their unique gifts, talents, and resources. There were a lot of moving parts, but everything came together. Contributions included: • The Jewish Community Center of Chicago sponsored the exhibit, bringing the Violins and their curator, Avshi Weinstein, to the US and to the Chicago area. • The Gail Borden Public Library housed the exhibit, designing the cases, information panels, and other design elements. • 23 docents guided 542 visitors on 70 tours of the Violins of Hope exhibit, for a total of 285 volunteer hours. • Class visits for U46 students brought in 90 students, including South Elgin High School’s Beacon Academy students who created and debuted a film about antisemitism inspired by the exhibit.  • The South Elgin High School Drama Club worked with playwright Phyllis Zimbler Miller, a former Elginite, on a staged reading of The Thin Edge of the Wedge, a series of biographical vignettes compiled from Holocaust memoirs and diaries.  • The Elgin History Museum loaned its beautiful panel exhibit, The Jewish Experience of Elgin: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Assimilation, to be displayed alongside the Violins at the Library. • Musicians from the Elgin Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Music On The Fox performed throughout the Elgin area, including Hemmens Cultural Center, the Gail Borden Public Library, Congregation Kneseth Israel, and 20 residential care communities. • The Hanson Quartet of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra performed Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet at the film screening of Crescendo, offering cogent commentary about fascism and antisemitism as well as a mature, masterful performance. • City of Elgin/Hemmens Cultural Center waived the rental fee for the U46 student event and the concert featuring the “playable” violins. • PACE donated 50 round trip bus passes which were distributed to seniors who otherwise may not have had transportation to view the exhibit.

“These violins represent a history that tells us so much—forever connecting us to man’s inhumanity to man—and how we manage to survive. Never to be forgotten.”—A visitor to the Violins of Hope exhibit.  Rabbi Margaret Frisch-Klein of Congregation Kneseth Israel guided a bat mitzvah student through her mitzvah project on the Violins of Hope. Rabbi’s student was entranced by the Violins and their message of hope, and she wanted to share that legacy with others; her mitzvah project raised funds for the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra. Clearly the legacy of the Violins of Hope is hope, resilience, and survival, bound by the promise we make to each other today and tomorrow that this will never happen again. Antisemitism must be stamped out. Knowledge of humanity’s darkest hours, the courage to face these atrocities, and the commitment to spread love not hate have been instilled in our community, from youth to the elderly, thanks to the Violins of Hope.  Elgin’s great strength is its people—when we come together, there is nothing we can’t accomplish. The Violins of Hope Elgin Collaborative proved something we already take great pride in—our ability to work together.

The outpouring of love and volunteerism was amazing! Visitors came forward to lead tours of the exhibit at the library, spread the word to family and friends far and near, and share their own stories of the Holocaust. One woman taking a docent-led tour of the exhibit pointed at a portrait of a Belgian nun on the “Upstanders” wall and said simply: “She rescued me.” That was Margaret Mishkin, who then went on to share her gripping story at a library program on August 13th, “Voices of Hope: Survivor Stories of The Holocaust.” Gale Jacoby, the daughter of survivors, volunteered to be a docent, leading many tours over the last few months. Jacoby also gave several presentations to high school students, moving them to tears. Violinists Jennifer Silk and Daniela Folker performed for residents of care communities, bringing the Violins of Hope experience in 20 programs to 425 people who were not able to come to the library. Silk also led tours of the exhibit, adding her musical accompaniment.

Violins of Hope was an astounding success because it was truly a community collaboration. In August 2022 the Jewish Community Center of Chicago invited Gail Borden Public Library to host the Violins of Hope, a huge honor, and no small endeavor. Community buy-in was essential. The Library gathered its longtime trusted partners from various sectors and began working immediately to plan the exhibit, concerts, programs, and marketing.   The Violins of Hope Elgin Collaborative partners included: Chamber Music On The Fox—Mark Fry, Sara Sitzer City of Elgin/Hemmens Cultural Center—Butch Wilhelmi Congregation Kneseth Israel—Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein Elgin History Museum—Elizabeth Marston Elgin Symphony Orchestra—Eric Gaston, Marc Thayer, Rylan Virnig Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra—K. Eric Larson Jewish Community Center of Chicago—Ilene Uhlmann, Hillary Wenk Gail Borden Public Library—Sadia Ahmed, Tish Calhamer, Ana Devine, Laura Espinosa, Miriam Lytle, Carole Medal, Denise Raleigh, Jeanie Ziegler PACE—John Kokoris, Melinda Metzger Palmer Foundation—John Steffen School District U46—Brian Erlich, Jacob Vandemoortel Seigle Family Foundation—Mark and Robyn Seigle