Many of us were first introduced to the “Violins of Hope” when the historic instruments were featured on the popular television show, “CBS Sunday Morning.” The 20 restored violins, which continue to be exhibited and played throughout the world, once belonged to victims of the Holocaust.
The true story that accompanies each instrument is a testament to the horrors of Nazi Germany, to the power of music and to the survival of the human spirit.
Those of us who saw the exhibit at Cleveland’s Maltz Museum learned that for Jews facing unbelievable evil, the music of a violin could offer refuge, hope and give expression to their In some instances, the ability to play the violin helped save lives.
Thanks to the generosity of local survivor Bob Kahn, the Miami Valley has its own violin treasure. The Butler Twp. man’s beloved violin — and his story — are on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force as part of an exhibition entitled “ Prejudice and Memory.”
At 93, Robert Kahn is one of only a handful of survivors still living in Dayton. He has just published his autobiography and will share reflections as the featured speaker at the Greater Dayton Yom Hashoah Remembrance today — Sunday, April 23 — at Temple Beth Or in Kettering. The annual event free and is open to the public.
“There will come a time when all of the survivors of the Holocaust are gone,” Kahn says. “We need to make sure that their memories will continue.”
A conversation with Bob Kahn
By the age of 15, Kahn — who was living with his family in Mannheim, Germany — had already been stripped of many aspects of everyday life — his school, his friends, the pleasures of walking, swimming, playing outside and all forms of entertainment.
“We were practically under house arrest,” he remembers. “My leisure time was confined to my stamp collection, reading and having a Jewish musician come to our house to teach me how to play the violin. It was one of the things Hitler had not been able to control when our economic and social life had been curtailed by law.”
Q. How did that violin come to play such a significant role in your life?
A. In 1938 on Nov. 9th and 10th — known as the ‘Night of the Broken Glass’ — all of the Jewish homes and 1,200 synagogues were destroyed. Our home was ransacked by the Nazis — everything in it was thrown from our balcony and set on fire. My father was beaten with clubs and I was ordered by the S.S. to play my violin for the amusement of the crowd that was watching below. They were all laughing and enjoying themselves. That night, my father was taken away to Dachau, a concentration camp.
One of the few things left in our home was my violin. I lovingly covered it with a red bedspread that the Nazis had overlooked and hid it in the attic. Years later, when I came back as an American soldier after World War II, I contacted our former janitor from the apartment building and inquired whether he had found a violin in the attic. Weeks later a package arrived in Dayton with my violin still wrapped in the red bedspread.
I placed in in our attic above the garage. For many years, no one knew that my precious violin was there.
Q. When did you decide to take the violin out of the attic and share your story?
A. I haven’t played a violin since that day in 1938. I just couldn’t. But when I joined Dayton’s Holocaust Education Committee, I took the violin to show the group. After that, it became the centerpiece of talks I began to give at schools and on other occasions.
When the Air Force Museum decided to install an exhibit dealing with the Holocaust, I decided to give my violin a meaningful resting place where its story could be permanently displayed.
Q. I understand you will be speaking on a different subject at this year’s Holocaust memorial?
A. Yes, I fought with the U.S. Army in the Pacific. In 1946 I was living in Chicago and saw a newspaper ad asking for people who could speak and understand technical German. I got the job and came to Dayton to work for “Project Paperclip,” a top secret program conducted by a U.S. intelligence agency at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The purpose was to gain military advantages over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and the space race.
Approximately 80 German aeronautical experts were brought to the base and they were interrogated about their contributions to German Air Force developments, production, related weapons and technology. Their background was never revealed but we assumed that most of them were Nazis. That posed difficulties because of my background. It was difficult for me to have anything but a professional relationship with them.
They didn’t talk about it but through documents and microfilm, I saw evidence of the cruel tests performed on human being by Nazi scientists, engineers and doctors. The general public is unaware of the ways in which these helpless individuals died. It is those heroic Jews who were ruthlessly murdered that I want to memorialize.
Q. Tell us about your book and why you wrote it.
A. My children and grandchildren constantly ask me questions about my life. Over the years, I only gave them fragmentary replies. I realized that in order to satisfy their curiosity I needed to write a detailed autobiography — about my ancestors, my parents and sister, my young life and the 18 relatives who lost their lives in the Holocaust. I wanted to write about my escape to freedom, my life in America and service as an American solider, my work with Army intelligence. I wrote about my marriage to my wife, Gert — who I met at a USO gathering where she was a volunteer — about my children and grandchildren. My first great-grandchild was born two weeks ago.
Q. The title of your book is “The Hard Road of Dreams.” What does that mean to you?
A. I was always dreaming about a wonderful life. In retrospect I came to realize that I was leading a wonderful life. But the road to get there was fraught with all sorts of tragic events. The subtitle is “Remembering Not to Forget.”
Q. What lessons can others learn from your story? Your violin?
A. I hope that they can learn to resist any indifference to anti-semitism and other forms of religious and racial hatred. This is especially important for young people because they will become the caretakers of our nation. They can use their voices to reject evil. They will have an impact on their world and can help minimize, if not curtail, the slaughter of innocent people in other parts of the world.
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