“Joe’s Violin” (2016), opens with a shot of the titular Joseph Feingold, tuning his violin. He hasn’t played in “8-10 years,” and his fingers look unsteady as he holds the instrument’s neck. After tinkering for a bit, Joseph puts down the violin and asks “how long can you live with memories?”
Joseph, one of the two subjects of the documentary, is a nonagenarian Polish Holocaust survivor living in New York. In 1939, just after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Joseph and his father fled Warsaw for the Soviet controlled eastern portion of the country. Upon arriving in Eastern Poland, the two were arrested by the Soviet police and taken by train to a Siberian labor camp (aside from the destination, Joseph’s account of his deportation sounds almost indistinguishable from the stories of Nazi round-ups). When Joseph and his father fled to eastern Poland, they left behind Joseph’s mother and two brothers – only one of Joseph’s brothers, who was sent to Auschwitz, survived the war.
After serving six years in the labor camp, Joseph was moved to a displaced persons’ camp near Frankfurt where he was reunited with his father and brother. It was at this camp that he purchased his violin for a carton of cigarettes. Joseph owned the violin for 70 years, but was recently forced to quit playing the violin by a loss of dexterity in his fingers. Upon hearing about WQXR’s (New York’s local classical music station) instrument drive, he decided to donate his beloved instrument – “I would have never just sold it,” he told the Forward earlier this year.
Joseph’s violin became one of a handful of stories highlighted by WQXR while promoting the instrument drive. Kahane Cooperman, the documentary’s director, heard the broadcast and decided to pursue the story and locate the violin’s donor and recipient.
Which brings us to the other subject of the documentary - Brianna. Brianna, an unusually poised twelve year old (at least, at the time of the documentary), was a student at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, a charter school in America’s poorest congressional district. Every student at the Institute is required to learn the violin as part of the their education. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, a surprised and humbled Brianna is chosen to be the recipient of Joseph’s “very special violin” by her music teacher, Kokoe Tanaka-Suwan, who makes the announcement through barely suppressed tears (her pride and emotion are genuinely infectious).
From the moment of the presentation onward, the documentary is one emotional wallop after another. We see Joseph haltingly sing “Solveig’s Song” by Edvard Grieg – beautifully lugubrious in an Eastern European sort of way – after telling us that one of the few letters that he received from his mother while in Siberia contained a portion of its lyrics. The lyrics are a beautiful expression of longing and reunion touched with even more tragic poignancy because we know how his mother’s story ends.
More tragic still is the scene in which Joseph tells the story of his reunion with his brother in the displaced persons’ camp. Upon reuniting, Joseph’s brother recounted the story of his mother’s and youngest brother’s deportation to Treblinka with details that Joseph does “not care to repeat.” It was the only time Joseph ever heard him talk about the deportation.
I don’t want to ruin the film’s final scene, not that it’s much of a surprise, but it is truly moving and I would hate to spoil the effect. That Cooperman was able to deliver so much emotional weight from such a short film is a testament to her ability as a director and the film’s subjects – both Joseph and Brianna come across as kind, empathetic, and intelligent. This kind of reaction is admirable for a feature length, even more remarkable for a short form documentary.
Cooperman deftly executes the transitions between time and space, from Poland to New York to Siberia to Germany to New York again. Each scene comes alive thanks to the seamlessness of the editing, the film’s subtle score (it can be slightly maudlin, but rarely overwhelmingly so – and even then, it’s well earned), and the depth of archival footage and photography that Cooperman was able to acquire.
In the middle of the documentary, just after she has been gifted the violin, Brianna is seen outside, talking to her friends during recess. While talking about Joseph and the violin, (one exclaims, “I’ve always wanted to meet a Holocaust survivor.”), the girls proceed to mythologize the instrument – “It has so many secrets,” we hear them say. It’s a natural tendency with historical objects, to project human history upon the object itself, as if it, rather than its owner, was the keeper of its stories. In the case of Joseph’s violin, as with all objects, the instrument does not contain any stories, but rather acts as an occasion through which those stories might be told. Joseph’s question, “how long can you live with memories,” is answered in this scene – forever.
Go Watch This Documentary About A Holocaust Survivor’s Violin