Violins and Nazis with David Schoenbaum

David Schoenbaum
David Schoenbaum (Photo by David Stuck)

Nazi Germany, U.S.-Israel relations and violins. Three topics with at least two things in common. All involve Jews. And all have been the subject of historian and amateur violinist David Schoenbaum’s books. His latest book, “The Lives of Isaac Stern,” is a deep dive into the life of the famed violinist.

This latest project saw the 85-year-old retired history professor digging through 42 document-filled boxes at the Library of Congress.

“I don’t know what that is in the linear feet, but it was enough to keep me going for nine months, five days a week,” said Schoenbaum, a Rockville resident.

Among the Stern artifacts that Schoenbaum discovered were 18 invitations to the White House, a reflection of the violinist’s fame. The historian also found a calendar on which Stern logged his daily calorie intake. That effort ended after only two days.

Schoenbaum said he’s motivated by a need to make sense of the world and fill in gaps he finds in the historical record. It’s this drive that led him into a career of journalism and historical scholarship.

“Journalism and history, interchangeably, are the most effective media I know for understanding how the world works. Everything comes from somewhere. And it is often of interest to know where and why,” Schoenbaum said. “Also it was just an excuse to go out and talk to people I wouldn’t otherwise have talked to.”

Schoenbaum is a Milwaukee native and was a history professor at the University of Iowa until he retired in 2008. Three years later, he and his wife moved to Rockville to live closer to their children and grandchildren.

His primary focus was 19th- and 20th-century Germany. “For any American Jew of my generation, German history was an obvious subject.”

His first book, published in 1966, was “Hitler’s Social Revolution.” (Schoenbaum said he wanted to call it “Hitler’s New Deal,” but his editor said no.) In the book, Schoenbaum shows how Hitler amassed power by the various promises he made to industrialists, junkers, farmers, workers and other German classes.

His desire to write of the world events he’s lived through led to 1993’s “The United States and The State of Israel,” which detailed their diplomatic history. Schoenbaum said he later discovered that his book had been pirated and translated into Farsi, which he took as a good sign. He also joked that he’s still waiting on royalties from the theft.

Schoenbaum’s work since retirement is largely about the violin, an instrument he’s played since the fourth grade. In 2012, after two decades of on-again, off-again work, he published “The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument.” In The Washington Post, reviewer Tim Page wrote that the book was “necessary reading for anybody who plays (or tries to play) the violin.”

It also led to Schoenbaum’s first-ever fan letter, “from a very good, young-ish, British violinist” who praised the book. “And I was very flattered.”

For Schoenbaum, Stern, who died in 2001, personified “The American Century,” the years of American dominance in the 1900s.

“Context was the issue of what I was after. Where does this guy come from? What does he represent?” Schoenbaum said. “And he’s an interesting figure because he is so specific to a certain time and place.

“Stern is the American Century in the improbable person of a Jewish violinist,” Schoenbaum continued. “Because the guy’s career is only explicable at a certain place in time. And that’s to say, as an immigrant kid in San Francisco who grew up in an age of American global power to represent, I mean literally represent, the United States. And this guy was the go-to guy for virtually anything from ice breaking in the Soviet Union or China to the salvation of Carnegie Hall.”

Schoenbaum plans to talk about his Isaac Stern book at a Zoom event on Nov. 1, organized by B’nai Israel Congregation’s men’s club and library.

Schoenbaum is undecided about his next project. His immediate focus is living through the pandemic so that he can play his violin with others again. He and a piano-playing neighbor were going through the works of Beethoven together, but haven’t played since March.

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