Nearly 60 years ago, Israeli violin maker Amnon Weinstein was at work restoring an old violin given to him by a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Inside the body of the instrument, he discovered what looked like ashes. But, he quickly realized, these were not ashes—they were the incinerated remains of human bodies, which had clung to the instrument like dust to old bookcases.
Weinstein stopped the work. He had lost many family members to the gas chambers and concentration camps of Nazi Germany. He couldn't finish the job.
By 1996, however, his view had changed. He began searching for violins played by Holocaust survivors. Once they were his, he put them on display as part of a collection, which he now takes around the world.
In January 2019, I got the chance to write about Weinstein's exhibition, Violins of Hope when his son Avshi was in Knoxville. Roughly 30 of the violins were on display at a local gallery, and Kevork Esmeryan, a Bulgarian violinist and University of Tennessee student, had been traveling with Avshi to schools in the area to play the violins while Avshi shared their histories.
On the surface, the violins were unremarkable. They were ordinary. But that changed when Avshi told the stories that came with them.
One of the violins had first belonged to a member of the main orchestra in Auschwitz. In some concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Nazi officials organized orchestras of musicians and forced them to perform for their entertainment. The violinist had survived the camps, but his family didn't. His possessions were destroyed. In search of money to start his life over, he sold his violin to a man working for an organization dedicated to helping Jewish Holocaust survivors. Years later, the buyer's son learned about Violins of Hope, contacted the Weinsteins, and donated the instrument, which Esmeryan played at the schools.
Avshi told me one of the challenges he faced when speaking with people about the Holocaust was getting them to understand the gravity of the number of deaths—6 million Jews, gone. And, once they understood this, to have his listeners see beyond the number to the individuals.
"...you are talking about numbers that people cannot imagine: six million people. Have you ever seen six million people? But to talk about individual human stories—this is something that people can understand.”
I've been thinking about this a lot recently. I didn't set out to become a writer in order to document the lives of regular people. I wanted to dissect the lives of famous and influential people. I wanted to share a mate with Leo Messi and talk about how hard it was to leave his mother behind in Argentina when he moved to Barcelona. To interview Kevin Durant about the meditative philosophy that got him through rough beginnings, injuries, controversy, and to NBA championships (instead Sam Anderson wrote that story this week for New York Times Magazine, and I highly recommend you read it).
Reflecting back on the hundreds of profiles I've written, I realize that some of the greatest stories emerge from the otherwise ordinary: an Ecuadorian amputee who worked desperately to bring Paralympic sport to rural communities devastated by earthquakes; an Indian woman who gave up a successful business career to teach girls in a violently chauvinistic society self esteem through basketball; a teacher from The Middle of Nowhere, Tennessee, who would cold call Dolly Parton if it meant getting her kids to fall in love with music and see the world beyond their tiny community.
There are lessons to be learned from anyone—just look at the remarkable success of Humans of New York, the greatest person-centered storytelling project around today.
I recently learned about The Museum of Trash, a collection of 40,000 items found in the trash by a New York City sanitation worker who saw something in them their owners didn't. The garbage man, Nelson Molina, found old signed baseballs, collectible action figures, a Star of David sculpted out of metal found at the 9/11 Ground Zero site. Like the violins, these were otherwise ordinary items. But they came with incredible stories. Molina saw it. And now, because of his vision, the world gets to see it, too.
The writer Austin Kleon, writing about the museum for his blog, quoted the French essayist Michele de Montaigne, who said:
“In my opinion, the most ordinary things, the most common and familiar, if we could see them in their true light, would turn out to be the grandest miracles . . . and the most marvelous examples.”
I'm making myself listen more closely to the world around me. I'm paying better attention to the minutiae of life. And as I do that everyday, I'm learning Montaigne is right. There is wonder in the ordinary.
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