Violin Music and Memories From the Gulag
by Bob Couchman
Springs Magazine – November 1994
Siberia Somewhere near Vladivostok Winter, 1917.
Ferenc Molnar is in his second year of captivity. He doesn’t know he has three more to go. Molnar, a 21 year old Austro-Hungarian army officer, has been captured by the Russians early on in WW I; he doesn’t know about the Bolshevik Revolution. Molnar just knows that it’s 30, 40, 50 degrees below zero. He knows there’s precious little to eat, and men are dying. More than 100 prisoners are crowded into a gymnasium-sized building, and tempers are on edge.
At night, Molner lies in his bunk in the frigid gymnasium and listens to the sounds of men trying to sleep. He tries to think of something that will keep him alive. There’s no sound from the bunk below him- that man has died. But this has given Molnar an idea. Maybe he can make a violin from the slats of the dead man’s bunk. He clutches the violin scroll he found the other day and thinks about how he might go about it. He can use the slats for the top and back. He’ll need something to hold them together; maybe a meter stick. There’s electrical wire he can use for the E-string, and he can get animal gut for the others. The neck is a problem, as are the fingerboard, nut and pegs. He’s got a scroll though, and if he found it he can find the others, the more he thinks about it, the more he can see it– a violin. He goes to sleep dreaming of music.
“My father,” explains Ava Heinrichsdorff, Ferenc Molnar’s daughter, “made the first instrument at the camp. he made other instruments too, then other prisoners made instruments, and they created music. Those are the ones who kept their sanity.”
1921 and the war is finally over. Molnar has survived the camp, but now he has to survive again. Molnar has 7,000 miles to go to reach Budapest. So he plays his violin on street corners and in a concert hall in Vladivostok. He begins to play his way across eastern Russia. Two years later he reaches Budapest.
Today, Molnar’s violin hangs in the west side home of his daughter, Ava Heinrichsdorff and her husband, Gernot. Around the corner in the living room, across from the couch is the violin. To the casual observer the violin offers no clue that it’s sides, or ribs, were shaped from a meter stick, nor that the top and back were carved from a bed frame.
“It has a sweet sound,” says Anna Weiland a local luthier who restored the violin to playing condition this summer. Apparently, Molnar copied the traditional makers as much as possible. He even included purfling, a very thin, inlaid piece of hardwood that traces the hour glass pattern of the violin. “He had double purfling on the back,” explains Anna, “and none on the top which is very unusual.”
When Anna took the top off to glue and cleat some cracks, she found it to be very thin in places; “He probably carved it by feel,” she says.” I was surprised, I expected it to be more crude. There were some unconventional techniques and measurements used in the making of the instrument but overall it was a good job.”
With it lying on her workbench, she called Ava to come look. ‘Anna let me take pictures of the violin with the top off.” says Ava. “Inside is some writing I can’t read, but there’s also the year-1917- the word Siberia, and my father’s name- Ferenc Molnar.”
On September 8th, one week after what would have been her parents 65th anniversary, Ava picked up the violin. She remembers that Anna had done a beautiful repair job. That she had put new strings on it and said” I would like to play it for you,” but she doesn’t remember what Anna played, just that they were both surprised at how good it sounded.’She was surprise and I was too, and my eyes filled with tears- of course- because here’s this thing I love so much, and I have never heard it played before. Anna’s the only one I’ve ever heard play it, because my father was afraid it would shatter if he tightened the strings, so I never heard him play it.”
Today, Ferenc Molnar’s violin still hangs in his daughters living room, The violin arrests your attention, You want to look at it, touch it, ask questions about it, and when you do, you hear the story of Ferenc Molnar- a man with the most amazing talent and will power, a man who created his own destiny.