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Papa Jack’s violin. Photo by Sarah Federman, design by Albert Tong

  • The Keeper of the Violin

    My grandfather Jack Federman was born in 1902 in Sosnowiec, Poland, which was then under Russian control. Life wasn’t easy for Jews there, and at the age of about fourteen, Papa Jack, as we called him, fled the pogroms with his younger brother, Henry, in tow. The two of them moved across Europe and found their way to Palestine by ship. As some of the earliest members of He-Halutz, the brothers worked two years with the Zionist Youth Movement. They then chose to emigrate to New York City. Soon after his arrival, Papa Jack acquired the violin he would hold so dear.

    I grew up cherishing my grandfather—and, coincidentally, playing the violin. One Sunday in the mid-1980s, he made space on his dining room table, previously dedicated to our Sunday brunch of bagels, lox, and Entenmann’s coffee cake, and started chattering away about the fine quality of the instrument. I had never heard him play, nor had my father. We did not even know he had a violin. But because I had shown dedication, playing the instrument throughout elementary school, he decided to reveal his treasure and pass it on. I left their Long Island apartment that afternoon, proudly carrying the adult-sized treasure, far too big for my fourth-grade body.

    Time passed. I grew tall enough. But my interests had turned to piano and classical guitar. Papa Jack asked for the violin back. I felt hurt by his request. I wanted to turn to my grandmother— the soft, sentimental one, wrapping her arms around you and stuffing you with cake. My grandfather had escaped Poland by crawling under a fence. The gruff demeanor that likely helped him escape, set up a new life, and be successful had not much diminished. I understood that taking back the violin signified for him a personal failure of sorts. It meant I no longer deserved to be the Keeper of the Violin, an honor I was not too young to understand.  But I cherished his violin and felt closer to him by having it. I just couldn’t bear to return it.  

    So, the violin lived in my father’s climate-controlled attic in Westchester for two decades. After Papa Jack died in 1997, my father carried it down and took it to a specialist to learn more about what had, for me, become a mysterious instrument.

    My father learned that the bow—in perfect condition—was manufactured by W.E. Hill & Sons in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century in England. The bow was crafted by Arthur Scarbrow, a protégé of Alfred Hill. He marked his work with a 0—as artisans were not allowed to inscribe their full names. The wood came from Brazil. The base is silver, wrapped with real baleen (popularly but mistakenly known as whalebone). But for all the information about the bow, the specialist could tell him nothing of the violin. My father scribbled the details onto a piece of paper, stuck it in the case, and closed the lid. The violin rested in the attic another two decades until my father died in 2017.

    I returned home for the funeral. Two of my closest friends helped me pack up my childhood mementos. We put everything in boxes and stacked them for shipping to Washington, D.C.

    On my way back, in a daze of grief, I traveled first through Manhattan. Only upon entering Grand Central Terminal did a weight in my right hand catch my attention. Standing there in the main hall, I realized my grandfather’s violin was the one family possession I had taken with me from my childhood home.

    He had arrived in New York more than a century before. Now with just a small backpack and a violin, I carried not much more than he had then.

    Only a few jobs were open to Jews when he arrived. Of course, my grandfather never explained his decision to become a furrier this way. Instead, he described his first day seeing where pelts were cut: “I saw the white coats the workers wore, and I thought, ‘Wow, they look like doctors.” He went on to build his own furrier company, Royal Furs, which for a short time dominated the Manhattan fur scene. He employed eighty factory workers cutting, matching, and sewing the pelts. Papa Jack was the designer.

    He met my grandmother during this time, when, at nineteen, she served as his bookkeeper. She kept terrible records, so he tried to fire her. “Fire me, and I’ll stop dating you,” she told him. So, he married her and then fired her.

    With his thriving enterprise, Papa Jack supported his family and his parents, whom he successfully brought to the United States. Unfortunately some of his siblings refused, disbelieving the coming dangers. When I first interviewed Papa Jack in the 1990s, he could not say their names without breaking into tears. He quickly turned the conversation toward his thirty-five years of successful business. It ended when he made the fatal error of investing in pony furs instead of beaver. The family lost everything.

    My father found his own success. He had his own Manhattan business, and over the decades he and I met perhaps a hundred times at Grand Central Terminal. After a full day of corporate hustle, he would wait for me at the brass clock with the glistening opal face.

    But with both my father and grandfather now gone, I felt strangely alone and almost like a new arrival. As I stood under the celestial ceiling of one of the world’s most stunning train stations, I floated unaccompanied. I had lost my anchor. I shuffled through the crowd carrying only some overnight clothes and an instrument I could no longer play.

    When I moved to a condo in Baltimore, the violin could no longer live hidden in an attic, so its mysteries called to me often. What was the story of this instrument? When did Papa Jack buy it? I rang my uncle Saul. Saul had played it a few times, but he couldn’t remember his father ever playing it. I don’t even know if he ever learned to play it, but his love of music would surface occasionally. In the 1980s, he pulled my mother aside and asked her to please learn Schubert’s “Serenade” on the piano. She did. And in his 1990s, after losing his wife and his vision, he spent his days listening to opera.

    Roger Perrin
    Roger Perrin with the violin
    Photo by Sarah Federman

    My home is situated between the Peabody Music Conservatory and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, so musicians abound. I even live next to world-renowned organist John Walker. I asked John where I could take the violin to be restored. He sent me to Perrin and Associates Fine Violins, a restoration shop just up the street.

    Roger Perrin told me the violin was built in 1913. The back, he said, was constructed using a method for the Stradivarius violins. The downside, he said, is that after some time (in this case a hundred years) the wood begins to spread. He resealed the instrument.

    Perrin called me during the restoration, very eager to consign the violin. He told me it was a beautiful German instrument and should be played.

    “A violin like this could make someone very happy,” he said. He was concerned about it just sitting in a crumbling case in my closet.

    I hesitated. As the Keeper of the Violin, I felt some strange responsibility, though one without instructions. Was I to keep it? Learn to play it? Help it find a home? The conversations with Perrin became strained. I wasn’t sure about the consignment price. I brought the violin home and did some more thinking. My grandfather’s gift years before had brought me into a world of fine instrument dealing that I had never dreamed of entering.

    Still torn, I eventually made an appointment with Bruno Price, the expert in residence at Rare Violins of New York, an enchanting dealer and restoration shop next to Carnegie Hall. The beautiful wood furniture, Chagall prints, and oriental rugs inside transported me from the busy street below. Another potential customer arrived, hoping Price would have a look at his violin—a member of the Denver Symphony Orchestra. But nothing surprised me more than the low musical tones coming from the next room. Through a glass wall, I watched a world-famous cellist helping his young student choose an instrument. He looked up, smiled at me, and began to play again. My own private concert.

    Bruno Price
    Bruno Price at Rare Violins after examining my violin and bow
    Photo by Sarah Federman

    When Price sat down to examine my violin, I felt oddly nervous. He quietly looked at it from multiple angles. This seemed to go on for quite a while. He eventually stopped and said, “It’s a really nice violin.”

    He then explained how Chinese violin makers have recently been flooding the American market. A few years ago, he said, a violin of this quality this would have been highly difficult to acquire. Now, however, there is real competition from China. Even though many of the Chinese violins sound a bit tinny, they are amazing instruments in the $5,000 to $8,000 range.

    He returned the violin to its case and then examined the bow from more angles than I thought a bow had. He placed the tip on its palm, held it upright, and then kept turning it around.

    “Lovely bow,” was the verdict.

    Price said he would love to keep these items but did not think he could find a player before I died. I appreciated his morbid candor. He explained that the challenge of working with a company named “Rare Violins” is that people expect him to sell only the most expensive violins. This would be a mid-priced piece.

    He referred me to two other violin sellers in Manhattan. David Segal Violins was just a ten-minute walk away through Central Park. He said they had been there “forever.”

    Then he added, “If the world is unkind to you and they do not help you, come back to me. I’d love to have these.”

    Before leaving I asked, “Would you please tell me which way is up on this violin case backpack? When I was a kid I carried violins in only one hand. If I go in the other store with it upside down, they’ll think I’m a fool.”

    He and the Denver Symphony Orchestra member found this hilarious, turned my violin in the right direction, and sent me across the park.

    Whereas Rare Violins looked out over bustling streets from the eighth floor, Segal Violins was in 1C, a basement apartment. Instead of freshly cleaned oriental rugs, Segal Violins had dust from the ages and violins stacked everywhere—hanging from hooks, but also under, above, and on any piece of furniture available. This felt like an authentic, old-fashioned violin store. The foot traffic was high. People came in and out making requests while a young apprentice reached all the far-flung places violins resided.

    Diane Mellon
    Diane Mellon with the violin
    Photo by Sarah Federman

    Diane Mellon, painter, musician, and manager of Segal Violins, greeted me. I told her that I had just come from Bruno Price’s office.

    “He’s one of the few people I will do business with,” she said. That felt reassuring.

    After examining the instrument, she came to a similar conclusion as Price: beautiful instrument and bow. She also noted the Chinese market pushing in, but said, ironically, people in Asia want German violins. They carry a certain level of prestige, especially since many students play the classical music of German composers. Plus, the best Chinese violins are exported to the West, so those in Asia actually do not have access to them. She had a buyer in mind for this violin in Singapore. His daughter wanted a German violin—just like this.

    “How does it sound?” Diane asked.

    “Honestly, the last time I really played it, I was doing the Suzuki method,” I laughed. This model for teaching musical instruments is designed for students starting at age three to five.

    She played it. “It has a huge sound,” she said. She was sure could sell it if they did some restoration. For $1,500, this could be sold at $8,500. The bow, without much work, would be sold for $6,500.

    “I hate to split them up,” she explained. “But we’ll probably have to. People like to pick their own violin and bow.”

    It hurt my heart to think of these beautiful objects separating—leaving both me and each other. I felt that I was failing my grandfather. Diane may have noticed my distress.

    “Instruments do not get better with age,” she said. “They need to be played. After a long period of dormancy, sometimes there is a waking up period.”

    I wanted to know when Papa Jack acquired it.

    “Do you think he bought them right when he arrived or once he had earned some money?”

    “Once he had money,” she said without hesitation. “This would have been a status thing. He would have likely come to a violin store very much like this one. They would have helped him pick out his violin and then a bow. You see, the bow comes from England and the violin from Germany. It would have been quite prestigious to have the bow and violin from different countries.”

    Likely the violin and Papa Jack arrived in New York around the same time. The violin was made in Germany in 1913, though it probably did not make its way to America until 1920, she estimated.

    David Segal
    David Segal, owner of Segal Violins, after telling me I should start playing again instead of selling the violin
    Photo by Sarah Federman

    After spending some time together in the shop, I decided to leave my violin with Diane to do the work and find a buyer. I was feeling good about my decision until the shop owner, David Segal, looked up from his workbench.

    “Why don’t you play it?” he asked.

    “Well, I switched to classical guitar,” I said, quickly trying to dig my way out.

    “But do you play classical guitar, now?”

    It was like he could see both into my soul and into my apartment where dust continues to cover my handmade Spanish guitar.

    I was struck by doubt. Was I wrong to sell this? I took a deep breath and finally decided. I would not spend my career in my father’s business, and I would not spend my life playing my grandfather’s instrument.

    Instead, I refocused my research efforts. I wrote a book about the Jewish deportations in Europe during World War II—specifically, the role of the French National Railways in the deportations and the company’s contemporary struggle to make amends in the United States. During this research, I brought my grandfather’s birth certificate and the little I knew about his family in Poland to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Through the museum’s tracing service, I was able to track some of his siblings. They were murdered at Auschwitz. Their story ended there.

    The ninety Holocaust survivors I interviewed for my research became my own way of honoring my grandfather and the family he left behind. The knowledge they imparted to me, expressed now through my writing and teaching, has become my instrument. While something is lost in not following in our family’s footsteps exactly as they imprinted them, there is something precious about making our own. Now I can pass along this piece of my heritage for someone else to cherish.

    For the next few weeks, I completely forgot about the violin. Then one day, I found myself thinking about it obsessively. The next day, I called Diane for any updates.

     “We just finished it yesterday and it sounds amazing!” she said.

    I must have felt it. “Oh, I wish I could hear you play it,” I told her.

     “You don’t want to hear me. You want to hear Sage,” referring to a young man who works in the shop.

    We both put our phones on speaker, and I listened to Sage tune up and then play a haunting Jewish melody. My eyes welled up. This was the instrument’s first song in about thirty years. A small portal had opened and my grandfather and the Poland he had left behind had spoken again.

    Sarah Federman is a professor within the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore and founder of The Language of Conflict.

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