The Junior Mendelssohn Choir’s Special Connection to Violins of Hope

On Nov. 12, the Junior Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh (JMCP) will begin the 2023-24 season with Journeys of the Heart, a concert about hope, reaching out toward the infinite, and finding our place in the world. We are delighted to present this concert in partnership with Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh — a collaboration of the arts, religious and community organizations, educators, and musicians that promotes unity and celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. The performance will feature members of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, who will perform on string instruments played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. Each instrument has a unique emotional history that tells a story of perseverance and hope. 

A Special Connection to Our Choral Community

This partnership with Violins of Hope is serendipitous for Kathleen Ujhazy, mother of high school senior Luke Ujhazy, who is in his third year singing with JMCP. In 1992, Kathleen became the unsuspecting guardian of one of the historic violins that now, in 2023, will be played during Journeys of the Heart. Of Slovak descent, Kathleen performed as a singer, dancer, and musician with the Duquesne University Tamburitzans when she was a university student. After graduating, she continued her musicianship by joining the Sewickley Community Symphony, where she performed as a violinist. In rehearsals, Kathleen was seated next to another violinist who would give her an extraordinary gift. 

Left: The Ujhazy family, left to right: Christopher, Kathleen, Clare (JMCP alumna), Luke, and Jacob

“This elderly gentleman was one of the best violin players in the orchestra, and in our conversations, I shared with him that I had been a Tamburitzan,” Kathleen recalls. “One week, he brought a violin to rehearsal and handed it to me. He said it was very special because it was made in a concentration camp, and he wanted me to have it. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, he trusts me to have this instrument, what a beautiful gesture.’” Kathleen took the handmade instrument into her care, giving it new pegs, a new chinrest, and a new case. She played with the Sewickley Community Symphony for one more season after receiving the violin. Even when work and life pulled her away from performing, she carried the violin with her through every new chapter of life. 

“When I got a full-time job in TV production, I was too busy to play regularly, but I didn’t feel right selling such an important instrument. I eventually sold my primary violin, but I held onto this one,” she says. The violin traveled with Kathleen and her husband, Christopher, when they moved to Washington, D.C. for six years. It remained with their family when they came back to Pittsburgh, and Kathleen continued to care for it in the hopes that one of her three children would learn to play it. “Naturally, they all became musicians, but none of them took to the violin,” Kathleen says with a laugh. “My eldest, Jacob, started on a tiny child violin at age 3, but ended up quickly embracing the piano instead. My middle child, Clare, preferred dancing and singing. And my youngest, Luke, plays the saxophone, in addition to singing with JMCP.”

In 2017, with the long-unplayed violin safely in storage, Kathleen was watching the nightly news when she saw a story on Violins of Hope. It seemed meant to be: finally, a permanent hope for this piece of history. She reached out to Avshalom “Avshi” Weinstein, one of the violin-makers who — alongside his father, Amnon — cares for these instruments to honor all those who passed during the Holocaust, as well as all those who survived. The Weinstein family invited Kathleen to ship the violin to Israel, where they authenticated it and accepted it into the Violins of Hope collection. 

Left: Amnon Weinstein with Kathleen’s violin upon its arrival in Israel

“When Violins of Hope came to Cincinnati the following year in 2018, Avshi reached out and invited us to come see the instrument we’d cared for all those years. The performance was during the week and with the kids in school, it wasn’t feasible to travel all the way to Cincinnati,” Kathleen says. “So when I learned they were coming to Pittsburgh this year, let alone performing with JMCP, I was so excited to see it again! It’s amazing to be reunited with this instrument, and to have my son Luke singing in this performance.” 

Kathleen hopes to one day reconnect with the family of the violinist who gifted her the instrument. “The Sewickley Symphony disbanded a long time ago. I was in my early 20s, and honestly, I never thought about tracking down the name of the man who gifted it to me, until now.” In the meantime, she says she becomes awestruck just thinking about how many miles the violin has traveled in its lifetime, and how many lives it has touched along the way. 

“How incredible that it was created in a concentration camp in Europe, survived, was brought to the United States, then sent back to Israel to become part of this collection… and now, it travels the world, and we’ll get to see it again, right here in Pittsburgh,” Kathleen says. “I’m so honored to have cared for it for those 25 years.”

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