Sahara Sriraman, Spectrum Editor
Beautifully polished wooden violins sit delicately on their stands, surrounded by panes of glass, each telling a painful and personal story of the horrors experienced during the Holocaust.
“Violins of Hope RVA,” an exhibit featuring violins that endured the Holocaust, utilizes these instruments to tell the stories of those who survived it. Donated by survivors of the Holocaust and restored in Israel, the violins can be seen at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture from Aug. 4 to Oct. 24.
Martina James Nalley, the project manager of Violins of Hope RVA, was approached by the Virginia Holocaust Museum to head the exhibit over two years ago. The project wanted to create a citywide partnership by including other museums in the exhibit to convey how the Holocaust affected different communities.
“It’s an exhibit that tells the impact of music and arts at a time of war and, I think, destruction and devastation. Violins and music, in general, provided hope to these individuals who were in the concentration camps,” James Nalley said.
She said the exhibit is also meant to educate people on the Holocaust, through the telling of the stories of people involved and the continued impact it has.
This exhibit tells the stories of those in Richmond and across the state, James Nalley said. Their proximity of the stories forces people who view them to think about the impact of the Holocaust even decades later.
“You really walk away with a greater sense of understanding, but you also walk away from each of these exhibits with a different understanding because they’re all told from a different perspective,” James Nalley said.
She said the Black History Museum focuses on how music played a major part in social justice movements while a lot of the violins at the Holocaust Museum are connected specifically to survivors.
James Nalley said one of the violins at the Holocaust Museum is the Auschwitz violin, which was played in the Auschwitz concentration camp and was used by the Nazis to trick people entering the camp into believing that the camp was a safe place when they arrived.
The VMHC and the Virginia Holocaust Museum are displaying seven violins each while the Black History Museum has five, totaling 19 violins in total. There are 58 restored violins in total — those that will not be displayed in the museums will be played at the three concerts featuring the Richmond Symphony on Sept. 9, 10 and 12.
“It shows you what quality craftsmanship that these violins have that they’ve lasted this long,” James Nalley said.
William Rasmussen, the senior museum collections curator at the VMHC, said the museum wanted to participate in the project to illustrate the importance of the Holocaust and how it affected Virginia’s history.
“This struck us, initially, as a different way to approach a very ugly story and turn it into a beautiful story,” Rasmussen said.
He said there are four stories that connect the Holocaust and Virginia in their exhibit highlights. The first was about the Quanza, a Portuguese cargo ship used by hundreds of Jewish people to escape Europe and come to the United States and Mexico. About 80 of the survivors got off the ship in Norfolk, Virginia.
The second story looks at Hyde Farmland, which Rasmussen said was established by the Thalhimer family in Nottoway County as an agricultural school, bringing in about 30 Jewish agriculture students from Germany.
Rasmussen said the third encompasses the impact of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited interracial marriage and defined “white” as someone completely Caucasian. Rasmussen said it strengthened the supremacy movements in Germany and America, making it difficult for Jewish people to immigrate to America.
He said the last story looks at the story of Holocaust survivor and longtime Richmond resident, Alan Zimm. He died last year at the age of 99.
Rasmussen encourages people to visit the exhibits to give these stories the attention they deserve by simply experiencing them through the violins, which he said were a large part of Jewish culture.
“[Violins] can carry deep emotion as well as rhythm and happiness, so it’s a versatile instrument,” Rasmussen said.
Samuel Asher, the executive director at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, said that he wanted to bring the exhibit to Richmond because he knew the monumental effect it would have on the residents. The other two museums wanted to be part of the exhibit to ensure it would reach more people.
“We all agreed we could have a much broader audience and we could each tell different stories,” Asher said.
Asher said that over 70 of his family members were killed during the Holocaust, giving this project a larger impact for him and allowing him to honor their life through art while acknowledging the horrors they faced.
Asher said the Richmond community has shown immense support for this exhibit. The first two concerts have sold out and the number of people viewing the exhibits has increased since they opened.
“The whole hope was to bring this to as many people as possible, and Richmond has responded,” Asher said.
Since there will be concerts in other parts of the state, including the Tidewater area, Asher said this project’s effect is not limited to the Richmond area.
“It’s very important that in times like we have now, when there’s a lot of discord in our country, that we try and pull together,” Asher said. “If we can come together and we can stand up against racism and intolerance and antisemitism, that’s what we need to do to help our country and help our community.”