Why a Holocaust survivor's violin has taken on a life of its own

The Takeaway
Brianna plays on Joe's violin

Brianna plays on Joe's violin for the first time.

Joseph Feingold was walking through a German flea market with his brother in 1947 when he first laid eyes on it: A sleek, shiny violin. Then just 23 years old, he knew he had to own it.

“We got the violin for a carton of cigarettes,” he says. “I walked the streets and I played the violin. It reminded me of my young years before the war.”

Joe is a Holocaust survivor who spent World War II in a Nazi concentration camp. Though the violin he purchased at that Frankfurt market became his companion over the next 70 years, the instrument is now in the hands of Brianna — a 13-year-old schoolgirl from the South Bronx.

At the age of 91, Joe knew that there had to be someone out there who could make his treasured violin sing again, which was why he donated it to WQXR’s instrument drive. He realized that this program would allow him to find someone who would actually play the instrument — something that he's cherished ever since he was a young man.

Joe’s violin has changed Brianna’s life in more ways than one. It’s a story that director Kahane Cooperman is telling in her new documentary, "Joe's Violin," which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Though this tale has its roots in postwar Europe, it began for Cooperman two years ago when she was driving through Midtown Manhattan listening to the radio. She heard Joe’s voice coming through her speakers while she was listening to updates about the WQXR instrument irive.

Cooperman was fascinated by the elderly man she heard, so she contacted the classical radio station looking for Joe’s information. From there, they arranged a meeting.

“I knocked on his door, and I wanted to see what he was like, and what his story actually was,” she says. “I walked out an hour later knowing that I had to follow this violin and I had to tell this story.”

Cooperman learned that Joe’s early years in Warsaw were filled with music.

“His mom, especially, was incredibly influential in his life in handing down this love of music,” she says. “He was one of three sons — they all played the violin and they all sang together. Unfortunately, as history took control of things, the family was separated and some people survived and some didn’t. So that sound, and it’s a testament to the power of music, just brought him back to when life was normal and beautiful.”

Joe parted with his violin after taking a bus to New York City’s Lincoln Center on the first day of the instrument drive. Brianna’s school, The Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, received the instrument from WQXR and her teachers personally selected her to receive Joe’s instrument after noticing that she had a “unique ability to show her emotion through her violin.”

“[Brianna’s school] is in the nation’s poorest congressional district,” says Cooperman. “The school is spectacular. In addition to the academic curriculum, they believe in arts in education, so every girl who attends from kindergarten on up learns string instruments, particularly the violin. That’s how they start out, and it’s every single day.”

When Brianna was first selected to receive Joe’s instrument, she was 12 and in 7th grade. It was at least her second dance with good fortune — Brianna attends The Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls because she won an educational lottery.

“She literally won the lottery going to this school that’s filled with so many caring teachers and administrators,” Cooperman says. “She had stood out to the teachers as someone who was especially passionate about the violin, and they thought that she might be someone who could appreciate the history. And, as it turned out, she more than appreciates — it’s like she feels it.”

Brianna has said that she was “speechless” when the teachers revealed that she would be the one get Joe’s violin. Those that have come into contact with Brianna say her love of music runs deep, something she articulated while filming Cooperman’s documentary.

“Everyone has those days where it’s, like, dark for them, but most people find their light,” she said. “And my light was playing the violin.”

Brianna and Joe were eventually able to connect. She wrote him a letter inviting him to spend an afternoon at her school. Brianna told Joe that music had changed her life — just as it did for Joe.

“I am thankful every day that I have the opportunity to play on your beautiful violin,” she wrote to Joe, who’s now 93.

As a filmmaker, Cooperman says she was also able to see the kinship between them.

“The connection was profound and deep,” says Cooperman. “You see that it’s not just him giving her something, she’s giving him something as well, and it’s incredibly touching.”

And Joe feels that too — he hoped that his violin would bring happiness and comfort to a young life, and it has.

“I think what makes Joseph’s story so special was that this was the exact idea that we were going for,” says Graham Parker, WQXR's general manager. “[It’s] the idea of passing a legacy from one person to the next — passing memories, passing stories, and passing opportunities. I think that’s what Joseph’s violin represents so perfectly.”

This story was first published by PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.