Playing great-grandfather’s violin at Auschwitz’s gates

Carrying on the family tradition ... Jozef Vissel, with his granddaughter, Ashleigh Vissel, holding his father’s violin.
(c) Henry Benjamin

FOR years, Ashleigh Vissel’s great-grandfather’s violin sat in disrepair on top of her grandfather’s wardrobe.

It hadn’t been played for more than six decades — since Jacob Vissel, its original owner, died in Auschwitz in 1944.

While Ashleigh played the violin herself, starting lessons at aged four, the 16 year-old Masada College student had never approached her grandfather, Jozef Vissel, about restoring or playing the family heirloom — until now.

As she prepared to take part in this year’s March of the Living in Poland next month, she decided she wanted to pay tribute to her great grandfather by playing the theme song from the Schindler’s List soundtrack at Auschwitz’s gates.

And she wanted to play it using her great grandfather’s violin.

“It feels like the right thing to do,” Ashleigh said. She will join others making similar acts of commemoration, including performing songs and readings, when more than 12,000 people from around the world — including 54 students and four survivors from Australia — convene on April 19 to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau to remember the six million Jews who died in Holocaust.

“When I started playing the violin, I didn’t know that my great grandfather did,” she continued. “I didn’t even know my grandfather was a survivor until five or six years ago. This violin has history, and it is a symbol of survival.”

Her grandfather, Jozef Vissel, 77, from Lane Cove, who lost both his parents and survived the war as a young boy hidden by the Dutch underground, said he was more than happy to oblige.

”It was all her idea. It’s incredible that she thought of my parents,” said Jozef. “I’m very proud.”

Jozef managed to get hold of the violin when he visited his hometown, Groningen, in 2004 and his cousin, Rosa, the daughter of his father’s sister who had survived the war, presented him with the instrument.

Though he has vague memories of his father playing the violin, or his wartime experiences in general (“My mind just turns off”), he doesn’t know much more about the violin’s past.

“I was stupid. I didn’t ask any questions. I was just bawled over,” he said about the time when he passed into his hands.

He has since spent about $500 to get it repaired. “Incidentally, the fellow who fixed it said it was built around 1890. It has a tremendous sound now.”

This year marks the 25th anniversary of March of the Living International, and will be themed Survivors and Liberators, with a substantial number of liberators from across the United States, Canada and Europe marching alongside 500 survivors from around the world.

This article originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News.

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