In 1930, in the stetl of Karsnovka (then Byelorussia; now Belarus,) a boy named Mordechai “Motele” Schlein was born. At that time, there were only two Jewish families living in Karsnovka; the Schleins were flour grinders and eked out a relatively poor living, while the Gersteins had become wealthy by processing and selling beet sugar. As he grew older, Motele showed a remarkable aptitude for music.
At the age of eight, the Gersteins invited Motele to live in their home to teach him to play musical instruments. Motele not only showed an interest in the violin, he also showed a lot of promise. Mrs. Gersteins brother offered Motele free violin lessons, which Motele was more than happy to accept.
Skip forward to 1941—Nazi troops entered Karsnovka, and naturally, the first thing they did was to round up and kill as many Jews as they could find.
Motele’s parents and his little sister, Bashiale, were sent to Auschwitz, where they died, and shortly afterward the Nazis kicked down the door to the Gerstein’s house. Motele hid in the attic, where he could hear the cries of the Gerstein’s as they were murdered. Fortunately for our story, they didn’t find Motele.
During that night, Motele took his violin and escaped into the forest. While hiding from the Nazis, he met a man named Misha, (in reality Moshe Gildenman) who commanded a Jewish partisan unit known as “Uncle Misha’s Jewish Group.” Misha took Motele under his wing and provided permanent refuge for the boy in the partisans’camp. Misha soon realized that Motele, by now an accomplished violinist, could be very helpful to the partisans.
Armed with false papers in case he was questioned, Schlein was instructed to join a crowd of beggars in front of the church and to play Ukrainian folk tunes on his violin.
But Motele had talent. Soon a crowd gathered to hear the melodies he remembered from his neighbors back home. Among the spectators was a German officer, who plucked him from his spot and took him to a restaurant favored by the occupiers. He was told to perform with an elderly piano player, who spread out sheet music for Paderewski’s Minuet, a popular but difficult piece written by the Polish composer. Schlein played so well that he was offered a job to perform there every day.
While playing his violin, he would overhear discussions about the various Nazi troop movements, then report back to Misha who would then pass on to the other partisan groups just what and where the Nazis were going to attack next. He would also eavesdrop on those soldiers returnig from the Eastern Front, thereby amassing a mountain of useful intelligence.
One day, he noticed large cracks in one of the restaurant’s storage rooms, and he hatched a plan to place explosives in the fissures. Since it was now harvest time, and there was frequent traffic between village and countryside, Schlein was able to sneak into the woods and, using his violin case, gradually transport 18 kilograms of incendiary material into the building, shoving the explosives into the cellar walls during breaks in his playing schedule. After each performance, Motele would hide his violin in the building and walk out with an empty case. He would return with the violin case full of explosives, stuffing them into cracks in the walls.
Then he waited for the opportune moment to strike. It came when members of an SS division visited on their way to the front. After playing deep into the evening with his accompanist, Schlein adjourned to the basement as the drunken Germans took over the piano. “In the dark he found the end of the bomb wick and ignited it,” Gildenman wrote. “When he came to the exit, he slowed down and approached the German guard and allowed himself a small joke. He held up his right arm and called out, ‘Heil Hitler!’”
Schlein was 200 yards away when the bombs detonated. Upon reaching his fellow partisans, Schlein raised a clenched fist to the sky and said, “This is for my parents and little Bashiale.” The explosions killed over 200 Nazi officers.
Schlein would not survive the war. He was just 14 when he was killed during a German bombardment in 1944. Gildenman took possession of his violin, carrying it with him to Berlin, then Paris and finally Israel, where he died in 1958.
The violin was forgotten for many decades until it was restored by a master instrument maker in Israel and donated to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, with the stipulation that it be available for performances. Now known as “Motele’s Violin,” it continues to be played in concerts several times a year.