Violin’s incredible life-saving journey

Natalie Cumming has finally fulfilled her life’s mission at the age of 80 – to publish her family’s story.

The stories of three of Natalie’s family, connected by a precious violin, are told in The Fiddle (Michael Terence Publishing).

Natalie’s grandfather, Abraham Levinsky, was violin tutor to the children of tsar Nicholas II when the revolution broke out in 1917.

Because of his tsarist connections, as well as the antisemitism which straddled both sides of the Russian divide, Abraham fled with his extended family from St Petersburg, taking with him his precious violin, which was manufactured in Dresden in 1883.

Little did he realise that the violin would save not only his life, but also that of his daughter, Rosa, in Auschwitz.

In true Fiddler on the Roof style, the Levinskys piled all their possessions, including the violin, onto a cart, which the men pulled as they proceeded to cross snow-covered Russia, originally making for Minsk.

But when they neared that city, they realised that the Bolsheviks had already caused a massacre there and so they proceeded to Lvov, where a similar situation was taking place.

Throughout the long and hazardous journey, Abraham was able to entertain country folk who gave them temporary sanctuary and teach violin to children.

After trekking for almost a year, during which Abraham’s sister-in-law nearly died, they reached Odessa, from where they sailed for Leeds.

Abraham gained free passage for his family by entertaining the ship’s captain and his friends.

In England, Abraham’s two eldest children, Rosa and Israel, Natalie’s father, also became talented violinists.

Employed with the London Philharmonic, Rosa wanted to gain experience abroad and joined the Berlin Philharmonic in 1936.

She was arrested on Kristallnacht and taken first to Mauthausen, then to Auschwitz and finally Belsen, miraculously taking with the violin which saved her life.

She played in concentration camp orchestras, in between sorting out the belongings of those gassed in the crematoria, being forced to sleep with the concentration camp commandant and having her breasts removed by notorious Dr Josef Mengele.

But her survival came at a heavy price. She returned to England with tuberculosis.

Yet, ill as she was, Rosa was determined to tell her story and was a witness at the Nuremberg Trials, before she died in 1947.

Natalie was just 10 when her aunt told her about her concentration camp experiences.

“I remembered everything, although I didn’t write anything down,” Natalie said. “My head was like a sponge.

“Even now that I’m 80, I still have a very good memory.

“When I was in my 20s and 30s, my father and I used to chat about what my aunt had told him and also about their walk through Russia.

“He told me to write it down and I made lots of notes.”

But, by that time, Natalie was building her own career and her family’s history was put to one side.

She said: “I always had a nanny to look after my two children, as I worked full-time. Things like writing a book went on the back-burner.”

Natalie’s father, Israel, who was raised in the Roundhay area of Leeds, won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London just after his barmitzvah.

He lodged in London with a Jewish family named Cohen.

After the Academy, he gained a prestigious position as second violinist to the Manchester-based Halle Orchestra, touring the UK and Europe.

He met wife Julie Wood in 1935 in Paris, where she was dancing with the Bluebell Girls.

Julie converted to Orthodox Judaism soon after their marriage. Natalie was their first child.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Israel was enlisted, but failed his medical because of his flat feet, caused by walking across Russia when he was seven.

He joined the Entertainments National Service Association, together with famous names like Vera Lynn and Ann Shelton.

Israel formed a Hungarian gypsy-style band, called Sonnelli, with which he entertained the troops on his family violin.

With both her parents entertaining the troops, then four-year-old Natalie was sent to Queenswood School, Potters Bar, where she boarded till the age of 15.

She spent most of her holidays with her extended Jewish family in Leeds.

After school, Natalie worked in the City of London, first as a typist to Gillette Industries and then as a secretary.

She moved to the Beecham Group and then worked for Lord Kissin, the Royal Bank of Canada and finally Jacob Rothschild.

She became a Freeman of the City of London when she worked for the Royal Bank of Canada.

When she retired from working for Baron Rothschild, she ran a coach inn hotel near the south coast for three years with husband David.

They have now retired to a Shropshire village called Pant, near the Welsh border, where Natalie sometimes hosts a prayer group for the Welshpool Jewish Group.

Natalie inherited her grandfather’s violin from her father, who received it from his sister.

But, as she never played the violin, she and her sister, Debbie Rees, have donated it to the Yehudi Menuhin School.

The violin was restored to full working condition by specialist violin restorer John Dilworth, who found it to have undergone “crude repairs under the oppressive regime of Auschwitz”.

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