September 16, 2019

Holocaust survivor makes surprising connection with young musician in ‘Joe’s Violin’

By 2014, Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold hadn’t played his beloved violin for years, having become dissatisfied with the sounds produced by his aging hands.

“I never thought of selling it,” Feingold, 93, said in a telephone interview from his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “But I realized I can’t take it with me to the grave.”

[Watch the full documentary at the bottom of this article]

The retired architect then happened to hear an advertisement for a donation drive on the classical music radio station WQXR. The station was collecting used musical instruments to be loaned to underprivileged students at schools throughout New York City.

The short documentary film “Joe’s Violin” describes how Feingold’s treasured instrument ends up in the hands of Brianna Perez, a 12-year-old girl from the South Bronx, and how a mutual love of music creates an unlikely bond between the two violinists. The 24-minute film has made the list of 10 short documentaries that will be considered for Academy Award nominations in January. The Hollywood Reporter declared it a front-runner among those films.

The documentary began two years ago, when Kahane Cooperman, then a co-executive producer for “The Daily Show,” heard another WQXR promotion about the instrument drive during her morning commute. The ad mentioned that Holocaust survivor Feingold had donated his violin to the charity.

“It was just a 15-second spot, but I immediately wondered if that violin had a story,” Cooperman said during a recent interview at The Grafton on Sunset hotel in West Hollywood. “And then as I drove each block … I wondered whether the young kid who would get the violin would understand what that history was. By the time I got to the parking lot [at work], the idea that these two strangers … were going to be connected by this one instrument was just very moving to me.

“And when I finally found myself knocking on Joseph’s door and spent an hour with him, I knew that, indeed, the violin did have a very profound story.”

Music had been a crucial part of Feingold’s life since he was a boy in Poland. He began playing the violin when he was 3 years old, and he went on to accompany his mother, a talented singer, as she performed arias or Jewish folk songs.

But after the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Feingold’s father, a Jewish socialist, was interrogated and learned that he risked arrest. He escaped with Joseph, then 16, to Eastern Poland, where officials under Russian dictator Joseph Stalin promptly sent the father and son to a labor camp in Siberia. There, they suffered from hunger and extreme cold for six years, while back in Poland Feingold’s mother and youngest brother died in Treblinka and another brother survived Auschwitz.

After the war, Feingold returned to his town of Kielce to learn what had happened to his family. He was attacked during the infamous 1946 pogrom in that village, which claimed the lives of 42 Jews. Feingold suffered a severe head injury during the pogrom but was able to flee to a displaced persons camp in Germany the next day.

Sometime later, he was wandering through a flea market in Frankfurt when he saw a modest violin for sale. He hadn’t played music since leaving behind his childhood violin in Poland.

Feingold promptly traded a pack of American cigarettes for the violin, rather than exchanging the valuable smokes for necessities such as food or a winter coat. 

“He was still wrapping his head around the death of his mother and youngest brother, and his surviving family was so displaced,” Cooperman said. “So when he saw this object that was so emblematic of everything he held dear, and of what he had lost, he felt like, ‘That’s what I need right now.’ ”

After speaking with Feingold, Cooperman teamed up with her friend Raphaela Neihausen, a former director of the Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey, to produce “Joe’s Violin.” Both women had strong personal and familial connections to the survivor’s story: Cooperman’s father fled Nazi Berlin as a boy in 1934, and more than 40 members of Neihausen’s Latvian family died in the Holocaust.

“We also had other relatives in Siberian labor camps,” Neihausen said during the interview alongside Cooperman at the Grafton. Her surviving family secretly lit Shabbat candles, behind shuttered windows, in the Soviet Union. After moving to Toronto, Neihausen’s mother, a professional singer, often performed Yiddish songs for Holocaust survivors. 

“I’m the first person in my whole family who was born in the [West], so the film’s story of immigration is very moving to me,” Neihausen said. “On every level, it intersects with my own life and interests.”

The filmmakers’ crew was on hand when Brianna received Feingold’s violin in a ceremony at her school, the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, located in the poorest congressional district in the United States. 

“We wanted to choose a student who would understand and embrace playing on such a special instrument that carried so much history, and we just knew that Brianna would,” her teacher, Kokoe Tanaka-Suwan, said during the interview at the Grafton. “She lives and breathes music.”

Brianna, the daughter of a single mother from the Dominican Republic, said the violin has allowed her to overcome her own demons, stemming from the time her father left the family when she was 10 years old. Playing the instrument “helped me understand that I have a positive outlet for my feelings, instead of just torturing myself with dark thoughts,” she said.

In the film, Brianna cries when she meets Feingold in person for the first time, at her school, where she performs for him a song he had once played with his mother. The clearly moved Feingold tells Brianna he never expected his violin “to go to someone like you.”

Feingold later says on camera that he had assumed his instrument was “just a violin.” “It’s not just a violin,” Perez responds. 

 “I feel like it’s important to bring up the fact that there are still [living] Holocaust survivors,” Brianna told the Journal. “Joe’s story is extremely sad, but then it is incredible at the same time. Joseph never gave up, and that inspires me during my own difficult times.”

Over the past two years, the student and the survivor have kept in touch through letters, and when they’re together at film festivals they often can be seen walking arm in arm. 

This year, Brianna has moved on to Talented Unlimited High School, where she is preparing to become a music teacher. She had to leave Feingold’s violin behind at her middle school, where it has been passed on to another student. 

“It was really sad to give it up,” Brianna told the Journal. “But I knew it was time to give it to someone else — someone who will continue on Joseph’s legacy, and my own legacy, on the violin.”