The Origins of Goebbels’s Violin

In 1943, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels gifted an 18th-century Stradivarius violin to Japanese musician Nejiko Suwa, who just finished playing to Germans wounded in the war. This much is known. But, as Carla Shapreau writes, the origin of the violin is much less clear:

Was it confiscated property, one of thousands of musical instruments plundered by the Nazis, or otherwise obtained under duress from those persecuted during the Nazi era?

When Ms. Suwa and her violin returned to Japan, the whispers followed. They have trailed the instrument for nearly 70 years.

Suwa, who died in March at age 92, denied the violin was stolen and said Goebbels’s ministry purchased it from a dealer in Silesia. But the possibility that it was confiscated by a victim of Nazi atrocities nevertheless haunted her trail:

During the war musical manuscripts, printed music, books and instruments were confiscated, swept up as war trophies, lost or displaced under circumstances of crisis. A Nazi unit known as the Sonderstab Musik was among those tasked with such looting.

Evidence of seizures and opaque transactions during the Nazi era are scattered in a sea of archival records in the United States and Europe. From the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, where approximately 200,000 Jews were sent during the Holocaust, comes the account of a decree from the authorities that ordered the surrender of all musical instruments.

“Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, will fall silent in the ghetto forever,” a captive resident wrote in 1944. “The street will notice nothing, harsh life will go on; and to the torments of hunger and cold will be added the unappeased craving for music.”

Suwa fled from Paris to Berlin and then to the United States, where she and other members of the Japanese diplomatic corps were placed in a Pennsylvania detention center. After the war, she returned to Japan. When she returned to visit the United States six years later, she brought Goebbels’s Violin with her:

[B]efore an American audience, Ms. Suwa played a piece she had performed in Toyko when she was just 10, the Concerto in E minor by Mendelssohn, a composer whose works had been banned by the Nazis.

Read the rest at the New York Times.