Violins, Volunteers, and the Message of Hope
Tish Calhamer pictured with Avshi Weinstein, 4/24/2023 Violins of Hope Grand Opening
This week marks World Kindness Day and JCC Chicago is proud to showcase many of the ways we continue to promote themes of kindness, community and hope. JCC Chicago hosted Violins of Hope Chicago, a collection of more than 70 string instruments played by Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust, from April to September 2023, the most expansive and longest running Violins of Hope residency since the project’s inception in 2006. The J invited Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin to be part of Violins of Hope Chicago, hosting exhibitions, programs and performances. While the instruments traveled around Chicagoland and Illinois, reaching nearly 200,000 people in-person and millions more virtually, the project in Elgin was a true highlight. Tish Calhamer, Director of Community Engagement at the Gail Borden Public Library, shares how this initiative and partnership impacted the Elgin community.
The commitment to spread love, not hate, has been instilled in our community, thanks to JCC Chicago and the Violins of Hope initiative. When the J presented this opportunity, our team was eager to jump in and educate our community about the Holocaust. It was our mission to inform our community so that we never forget, and it never happens again. The Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin united cultural, educational, and governmental agencies to bring the Violins of Hope to our community through a variety of ways. Each partner in the Elgin collaborative generously donated unique gifts and resources:
- JCC Chicago sponsored the exhibit, bringing the violins and their curator, Avshi Weinstein, to the U.S. and Chicago.
- The Gail Borden Public Library housed the exhibit, designing cases and information panels. From April—September 2023, over 75,210 people viewed the exhibit, with 23 docents guiding 542 visitors on 70 tours. 11 library programs—concerts, plays, film screenings, and lectures—drew 1030 people.
- South Elgin High School students created and debuted a film about antisemitism inspired by the exhibit.
- The South Elgin High School Drama Club performed playwright/former Elginite Phyllis Zimbler Miller’s The Thin Edge of the Wedge, vignettes compiled from Holocaust memoirs and diaries.
- The Elgin History Museum loaned its beautiful panel exhibit, The Jewish Experience of Elgin, to be displayed alongside the Violins.
- Elgin Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Music On The Fox musicians performed throughout the Elgin area; including the Library, Hemmens Cultural Center, Congregation Kneseth Israel, and 20 residential care communities.
- Generous donations by the Seigle Family Foundation and Palmer Foundation ensured that the Violins’ message of hope would be heard in Elgin.
We laid a strong foundation to enact our mission but what we didn’t expect was the response from our community to be so beautiful.
“Great way to educate and inform the community about the wonderful contributions and positivity these violins represent.” This visitor’s comment perfectly captures the mission of the Violins of Hope. Music provided hope during humankind’s darkest hours and continues to do so today. The Elgin Symphony Orchestra performed on the violins, moving an audience of 1161. Chamber Music on The Fox played a string trio by Gideon Klein, who didn’t survive the Holocaust, but whose music did, at Congregation Kneseth Israel. 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.”
The Violins of Hope inspired community members in the name of hope. Docent Jennifer Silk eagerly brought out her violin, playing Jewish composers Mendelssohn and Bernstein; heartwarming Yiddish songs such as “My Yiddishe Momme,” and standards by Berlin and Gershwin. Local artist Chuck Cassell designed a beautiful poster of a klezmer violin to promote the exhibit.
Visitors came forward to lead tours of the exhibit and share their own stories of the Holocaust. One woman pointed at a portrait of a Belgian nun on the “Upstanders” wall and said simply: “She rescued me.” That was Margaret Mishkin, who then shared her story at the library on August 13th, “Voices of Hope: Survivor Stories of The Holocaust.” Gale Jacoby, daughter of survivors, volunteered as a docent and led many tours. Jacoby also gave presentations to high school students, dramatically brandishing her grandmother’s candlesticks to 800 students who had no idea of the humanity lost during WWII.
Michael Barbour, professional violinist now dishwasher at Paul’s Restaurant in Elgin, made local headlines when his violin needed repair. Paul’s customers took up a collection to pay for the repairs. Michael played Bach at the Violins of Hope grand opening, transformed into the Violinist of Hope that evening! Avshi Weinstein called Michael’s performance and personal story one of the most memorable moments of the Violins of Hope exhibit.
Visitors were full of praise, often describing intense emotions. Others felt a responsibility to the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust. Wrote one visitor, ‘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.”
Learn more about the Gail Borden Public Library Violins of Hope exhibit here.
Tish Calhamer has worked at the Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin, IL for 30 years in a variety of roles including reference librarian, book cart drill team instructor, and most currently, Director of Community Engagement. Her mission is to connect people with each other, their communities, and the world through library resources. She was born in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mother and German-American father and is trilingual. Tish grew up in La Grange Park, IL, graduating from Lyons Township High School in 1986. She attended the University of Illinois/Champaign-Urbana from 1986—1993, receiving B.Mus., M.Mus., and MLIS degrees in 1990, 1992, and 1993 respectively. Tish resides in Elgin with her feline overlords, Carlo and Rosalie, and enjoys reading, cooking, knitting, and music despite their interference.