By: Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
One of the many remarkable heroes who helped the Jewish people during World War II is also hardly known. Mordechai Schlein, known as “Motele”, was just a 12-year-old child when he became a hero of the resistance, fighting Nazis with incredible courage and resolve.
In the 1930s Belarus was home to many vibrant Jewish communities. A heavily wooded country in Eastern Europe, Belarus today is a prosperous nation of nearly 10 million. Even today, Yiddish is one of the country’s recognized minority languages.
Motele Schlein was born in 1930 in a small Belarussian town called Karmanovka. There were only two Jewish families living in the hamlet: the Schleins and the Gernsteins. The Schleins worked as flour millers and struggled financially, while the Gersteins traded beet sugar and were more prosperous. Motele Schlein always showed an amazing aptitude for music and when he was eight he moved in with the Gernsteins so one of their sons, who himself was an accomplished violinist, could teach Motele violin.
On June 22, 1941, Nazi forces invaded Belarus and immediately began rounding up Jews. When Nazis arrived in Karmanovka, local families told them where to find the Schleins and the Gernsteins. Nazis entered the Schleins’ home and arrested everyone they found there – Motele’s mother, father and his little sister Bashiale. The family was sent to Auschwitz. When the Nazis reached the Gernsteins’ house, a terrified Motele hid cowering in the attic. Motele heard the Nazis murder all the members of the Gernstein family downstairs; their screams reverberated in his attic hiding place.
Later that night, Motele crept out of the house, carrying only his beloved violin. He made his way into the forest nearby and lived in hiding, fending for himself as well as a traumatized 12-year-old boy possibly could. Motele wasn’t the only Jew hiding in the forest. Several partisan groups hid in the Belarussian woods during World War II, actively working to attack Nazi units and aid the Allied forces from within Nazi-occupied Belarus.
Moshe Gildenman led one of these units. Before the war, Moshe and his son Simcha were part of a 6,000-strong Jewish community in the town of Korets, in neighboring Ukraine. When the Nazis invaded Korets, they built a ghetto surrounded with barbed wire in the town and forced all the Jews in. Many died from disease; the Nazis deported about 2,000 Jews from Korets to death camps and killed many more in mass executions.
Realizing that staying meant certain death, Moshe and Simcha planned a daring escape. In 1942, they led 16 Jews out of the ghetto; the desperate group had only two guns and a butcher knife to defend themselves. They ran into the woods, eventually crossing the border into neighboring Belarus. There, they managed to attack a small group of Nazi police officers, claiming their six rifles, two handguns and some hand grenades. Using their new firepower, they attacked small Nazi outposts in the area, amassing more weapons. Word began to spread that a group of brave Jewish fighters were operating in the woods along the Ukrainian-Belarussian border, and some other Jews who’d escaped the Nazis’ clutches began to join the group. Moshe Gildenman was affectionately known as “Dyadya” Misha, or “Uncle” Misha to his followers. Together they attacked Nazi outposts and their Ukrainian allies.
Motele Schlein heard of Uncle Misha and managed to locate and join his partisan group. Misha took Motele under his wing and in 1943 asked him to go out on a mission to help his fellow partisans. Motele was blonde and didn’t look stereotypically Jewish. Misha asked him to travel to the nearby Ukrainian town of Ovruch, where a crowd of beggars – including children – regularly gathered in front of a church. Would Motele join them, playing his violin for alms, and use this location as a lookout to keep an eye on partisans in the area?
Motele agreed and started playing Ukrainian folk tunes on his violin in front of the church. But the mission didn’t quite go according to plan: Motele was no ordinary amateur violinist. Even though he was only twelve, his playing was superb. Within a short time, a crowd of people had gathered to hear him play. One of the people who stopped to listen was a Nazi officer who demanded that Motele come with him to a local restaurant favored by Nazi soldiers and officers to play for them.
At the restaurant, Motele faced an interview; the restaurant already had a musician, an elderly pianist. This pianist took out a particularly difficult piece of music, Paderewski’s Minuet, by the popular 1930s Polish composer Ignac Jan Paderewski, and demanded that Motele play.
Motele performed the piece beautifully and on the spot he was offered a regular job playing in the restaurant. It was a wonderful stroke of luck for the Jewish partisans, who now had a young spy able to listen to Nazis talking and relaxing with one another. But it was incredibly dangerous for Motele. If his Jewish identity was uncovered, he faced certain torture and death, and the entire partisan community hiding in the nearby woods could be hunted down and liquidated.
Day after day, Motele would set out each morning for the restaurant with his violin to play. One day, taking a break in the restaurant’s storage cellar, Motele noticed deep cracks in the building’s foundations. He relayed this information to Uncle Misha, and together they hatched a daring plan.
Motele continued to carry his violin case into work with him each morning, but it no longer contained his violin; he was smuggling in dynamite. At the beginning of every shift in the restaurant, Motele would make an excuse to go into the storage room, where he’d retrieve his violin from a hiding spot. At the end of each shift, he’d find a way to once again hide his violin inside the restaurant. He realized that if he was ever observed – or if his violin was ever discovered – he’d be arrested immediately. It was an enormous responsibility for a boy who was only thirteen.
Somehow Motele managed to empty his case, hide the explosives in the restaurant, and retrieve and play his violin, day after day, without being caught.
Eventually, after six of these death-defying trips, Motele managed to amass 18 kilograms (nearly 40 lbs.) of bomb-making material in the restaurant. During breaks in his playing, he’d sneak down to the restaurant’s storeroom and pack the incendiary material into the cracks.
After collecting enough dynamite and other bomb making components, Motele bided his time, hoping that no one would notice the explosive materials in the storeroom’s walls. His opportunity came one evening when an SS division passed through Ovruch on their way to the front. They stopped in the restaurant and about 200 senior Nazi officers spent the evening drinking while Motele and the pianist played. Late at night, Motele was told he could go home. Motele went down to the storeroom, which was pitch dark.
Moshe Gildenman later recalled what Motele told him: “In the dark he found the end of the bomb wick and ignited it.” Motele then calmly picked up his violin, walked upstairs, and slowly made his way to the restaurant’s front door. “When he came to the exit, he slowed down and approached the German guard and allowed himself a joke. He held up his right arm and called out, ‘Heil Hitler!’”
As the drunken SS soldiers bid him goodbye, Motele walked out into the night. He was 200 meters away when the bomb went off, causing an enormous roar.
Simcha Gildenman was waiting for Motele, and together they escaped from the scene of the explosion on horseback and rode back to the Jewish partisans. When Motele saw them, he raised a fist into the sky and said, “This is for my parents and little Bashiale.”
Motele continued to fight for the partisans. In time, Uncle Misha’s group joined other partisan fighters under the umbrella of the Soviet army and embarked on more ambitious fighting. In 1944, a unit of partisans Motele was fighting with came under intense fire from Nazi forces. At the age of 14, Motele Schlein, along with an unknown number of Jewish partisan fighters, was killed.
Misha Gildenman survived the onslaught and continued fighting with the Soviets. He took Motele’s violin with him, carrying it even in huge battles and the midst of intense firefights. He took Motele’s violin to Berlin where he helped capture Berlin for Allied forces. After the war, he took Motele’s violin to Paris, where he and Simcha stayed for a time, then to Israel where they moved and settled in the city of Rehovot. They were determined to tell the world about Motele and his bravery, and wrote about him in a book of memoirs.
Uncle Misha died in 1958. His grandson Sefi HaNegbi worked as a tour guide in the southern Israeli town of Arad, and continued the family tradition of treasuring Motele Schlein’s violin and telling the story of his remarkable bravery. One day, he heard about a remarkable luthier (maker of musical instruments) in Tel Aviv named Amnon Weinstein, who restored and showcased musical instruments that were used in the Holocaust.
Like so many Jewish families, the Weinsteins have their own remarkable Holocaust story. Amnon’s parents Moshe and Golda were violinists who met in a music conservatory in Lithuania before the Holocaust. Realizing the grave danger for European Jews, they moved to Tel Aviv in 1938 and opened a violin store. After the Holocaust, Moshe found out that his entire family – 400 people – had been murdered by the Nazis. The shock gave Moshe a heart attack. He never spoke about his family again. When Amnon would ask his parents about their family, his mother Golda would take out a book about the Holocaust, open it and point to a picture of dead bodies piled up. “This is our family,” she’d say before bursting into tears.
Amnon became one of the world’s leading violin makers and restorers, and founded an organization called Violins of Hope to restore and teach people about violins that had a connection to the Holocaust. (Amnon’s wife, the Israeli journalist Assaela Weinstein, is the daughter of Asael Bielski, who led another celebrated group of Jewish partisans in the Belorussian forests during World War II. His story was told in the bestselling book and movie Defiance.) After reading about his work, Sefi HaNegbi knew he’d found a home for Motele Schlein’s remarkable violin.
Amnon remembers the day Sefi HaNegbi walked into his store. He showed him the violin. “It was a common instrument for all the Jewish people… Simple, not expensive, nothing special.” After hearing its remarkable story and learning about Motele Schlein, Amnon agreed to restore the violin. Afterwards, he donated it to Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial for Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. He made one request: that Yad Vashem allow it to be used for performances so it can educate future generations.
In 2008, Motele’s violin was played at the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem. An Israeli teenager named David Strongin played Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem. Motele’s bravery and actions deserve to be widely remembered and inspire us all.