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Violin recital features hidden instrument of Holocaust victim

Bram Rodrigues was 18 years old in 1943 when he died at the murderous hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz, Poland.

The young Jewish man and his father had tried to flee the city of Amsterdam before being caught in a roundup of Jews and sent to the notorious concentration camp, where both father and son were among the 1.1 million people who were killed there.

Given that number, most of us might not ever hear of the young man by name, a teen who loved jazz and played violin in a band with his friends.

However, before he left Amsterdam, he entrusted his precious violin to his bandmate Johnny de Haan. Johnny and his family safeguarded the instrument for more than seven decades, until March of this year when Johnny’s son Wim reached out through Facebook to the Groen family, Bram’s cousins, in coastal Palm Beach, Florida.

David Groen had written a book, “Jew Face,” that De Haan had seen on the internet, leading to the inquiry about Bram to the Groens.

Bram’s older sister Sipora Rodrigues Groen had survived in hiding during the Holocaust and immigrated to the U.S., where she and her husband raised their family.

This past summer, the Groen descendants traveled to Amsterdam for a ceremony in which the violin was returned to them.

The violin has been restored and will be played for the first time in 75 years today in Florida by Dr. Kenneth Sarch, a violinist, conductor and composer. Sarch is on the music faculty at Lycoming College, where he teaches violin, and has taught at Mansfield University. Sarch also served as concertmaster for the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra for 14 years.

The Vanished Voice Recital will be presented this afternoon, just ahead of the Sabbath at Chabad of South Palm Beach, Manalapan, Florida. Chabad is an orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement.

As a Jew, Sarch said he has always had sensitivity to the Holocaust. “It brings up emotions,” he said of those persecuted — Jews and others — by the Nazis under Adolph Hitler. Playing the violin has always been a way for Sarch to express himself emotionally, he said.

Having the rare privilege of playing Bram’s violin “almost seems preordained,” he said, noting the number of conditions that had to come together for it to happen..

First, he just happened to be visiting someone who was speaking with a rabbi who needed a violinist. “I know one,” Sarch’s friend said, and the arrangements were made.

Then there was a change in the pianist, which also spoke to the honor of the occasion.

When the first pianist declined to accompany the violinist “because the music was too difficult,” the replacement was an award-winning, world renowned musician, Feruza Dadabaeva, who will accompany Sarch.

Sarch, who is in his 70s, even feels something of a kinship with Bram Rodrigues. “He looks a little like me,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, with the two violinists wearing similar glasses.

With the violin last played 75 years ago, it’s as if the instrument “has been sitting there my whole lifetime,” he said.

Sarch also reflected on symbolically bringing Bram back to life for his family as he plays the violin for the first time in so many years.

For the recital, Sarch will play multiple pieces, the first being the Theme from “Schindler’s List” for which he will use his own violin. He also plans to play Remembrances by John Williams, also from “Schindler’s List,” and “Nigun” by Ernest Bloch. “Nigun” is Hebrew for tune, or melody. “The piece is dramatic and powerful,” Sarch said.

In a special nod to Bram and his love of jazz, he will play Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.”

The recital will be a different experience for Sarch.

Usually, as a performer he is playing “forward,” but this performance is about providing a service to the community, he said.

When he switches to Bram’s instrument, several members of the Groen family will ceremonially pass the violin hand over hand to him. “It’s a blessing to find myself in this position,” he said of the privilege he has been given. While there is sadness in the story of Bram and his violin, the program will be uplifting, Sarch said, “because it gives meaning to his life.”

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