In January 2015, UNC Charlotte Professor and Chair of the Music Department James Grymes won the 2014 National Jewish Book Award for his first commercialized novel, “Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust–Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour.”
“It’s an important book for me obviously, but it’s an important book for this campus because the book wouldn’t have happened had this campus not made a significant investment. It took a lot of money to bring the violins here and stage all these performances and exhibitions and workshops and lectures,” said Grymes.
The Presentation for the Awards will be held on March 11, 2015 at the Center for Jewish History in New York City.
While Grimes was excited to be a finalist, it never occurred to him that he would actually win the award.
“As proud as I am of “Violins of Hope,” I didn’t anticipate it being that well-received,” said Grymes. “It was completely unexpected and a wonderful surprise that I could not have anticipated to have my work recognized on the same scale of seminal works in literature that I’ve admired so much.”
“Violins of Hope” retraces the accounts of 18 violins all the way back to musicians in both concentration camps and ghettos.
“For them, playing the music that they loved when they were growing up, reminded them of a better time and gave them a sense of normalcy and restored a sense of humanity in Mankind’s darkest hour,” Grymes said.
The College of Arts and Architecture brought the 18 Violins of Hope to the UNC Charlotte campus in 2012.
“We had them on display, we had them during performances and that was the first and thus far the only time that the violins have been in the Western Hemisphere,” said Grymes. “I wasn’t a part of the team; it took about a three or four year process for the college to put the whole thing together, but as a member of this faculty and as a musician and as a historian and just as a human being, I was really fascinated by when I was here, what I was learning as the college was preparing to bring these instruments to Charlotte.”
A year before the instruments were brought over, Grymes took a trip out to Tel Aviv, Israel to meet Amnon Weinstein, a violin maker who assembled the collection for over the last 20 years.
“So the topic of the book is about violins played by Jewish musicians in concentrations camps and ghettos during the holocaust, but what’s holding it together is Amnon and his story and the way he uses the project to reconnect with the 400 family members he lost in the Holocaust who he never met and he never even knew their names and now through this project, it’s him reclaiming his lost heritage,” said Grymes.
Grymes describes the lengthy process that went into researching the book.
“It took about a year to research it and then a year to write it, basically 12 months nonstop, and that was just the nature of the contract,” said Grymes. “I wanted to take longer, but the contract, they wanted me to write it in nine months and I said no way, they said 12 months and that’s it. For 365 days, every day I came in and worked on the book, no holidays, no vacations, no breaks, I just had no choice but to crank.”
The lengthy process of research came with its own challenges for him.
“The stories were sort of all over the world and in different languages. I can handle German, French and Italian, but there were things in Norwegian, there were things in Hebrew, there were things in Yiddish, that I had to get translated and then track down a translator,” said Grymes. “It’s a bit of a challenge to do research in other languages because even before you have to get something translated, you have to find it and you have to figure out that this is important enough to get translated.”
While Grymes would like to write another novel, the possibilities seem less likely given his busy schedule.
“I wrote this book before I became the chairman of the department and when I started the process of writing it and getting an agent and, at that point I wasn’t a father so by the time I finished writing it, I was a father, a professor and a chair,” said Grymes. “I started out as a professor and it was just hard enough to be a professor and a writer, and now being a professor, a father and a chair, frankly I want to write another book, but right now at least, I simply don’t have the time or the day.”