Remembering Motele Schlein – Jewish Violin Prodigy and WWII Partisan Hero
August 21, 2020
In a recent article in aish.com, Dr. Yvette Alt Miller discusses the little-known story of how 12-year-old violin prodigy Motele Schlein attacked a Nazi SS unit in eastern Europe.
Miller describes, in one of the lesser-known moments of Nazi resistance, the incredible story of Modechai “Motele” Schlein who was barely a teenager, when he became a symbol of partisan resolve against the Nazis. Born in 1930 in a small town in Belarus, Schlein came from a family of Jewish flour producers but showed prodigious skill for the violin by the age of 8 after learning to play from a local family.
In 1941, the Nazis invaded Belarus and began rounding up Jews and deporting them to concentration camps. The Nazis entered the Schlein family home, arrested Motele’s father, mother, and sister ultimately sending them to Auschwitz. Schlein hid in a neighbor’s attic and in the night escaped with his violin into the nearby forest. Soon after, he managed to locate a partisan group in the forest led by Moshe Gildenman who had been actively working to attack Nazi units in occupied-Belarus and Ukraine with the help of allied forces.
Moshe welcome Schlein into the partisans and in 1943, he began undertaking missions to support the partisans activities. As a blonde-haired boy, Schlein didn’t look “stereotypically” Jewish and travelled to local towns to play the violin in squares while serving as a lookout for the partisans.
Schlein’s talent as a violinist meant that crowds soon came to hear him play and one day, a Nazi officer ordered him to play at a local restaurant popular with Nazi soldiers. At the restaurant, Schlein’s talents led to a full-time offer to play regularly. The partisans rejoiced that they now had a young spy who could listen to Nazi conversations and report on them. Yet, a tremendous amount of danger remained – should the Nazis have discovered his Jewish identity he would have been killed immediately and the partisans in the nearby forest would be hunted down.
Every day, Schlein would go to the restaurant to play looking for weaknesses in the building the partisans could utilize. One morning, he noticed a deep crack in the foundation of the restaurant’s cellar. The partisans began hatching a plan. Each day Schlein would hide dynamite in his violin case, taking breaks from playing to sneak into the cellar and pack the explosives into the cracks.
One evening, when over 100 senior Nazi officers were eating and drinking, Schlein entered the cellar and ignited the wick to the explosives. Walking out of the building he bid goodbye to the Nazi officers before the bomb went off causing an immense roar throughout the town. Schlein escaped with his violin back to the forest on horseback with other partisans who were waiting for him.
Schlein continued fighting for the partisans and Moshe Gildenman’s resistance fighters ultimately joined other partisan groups under the flag of the Soviet Army. In 1944, a unit Schlein was fighting with was attacked by Nazi forces and he was killed at the age of 14.
Moshe Gildenman survived the attack and saved Schlein’s violin, taking it with him as he continued fighting the Nazis. Ultimately, Gildenman survived and moved to Israel where the instrument was restored by Violins of Hope – an organization dedicated to teaching people about violins and their connection to the Holocaust.
After its restoration, the violin was donated to Yad Vashem where it has been used to educate younger generations about the Holocaust and the bravery of Motele Schlein. In 2008, Schlein’s violin was heard at the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time, when an Israeli teenager played Hatikva (Israel’s national anthem) in tribute.