A little more than a hundred years ago a German sailor at the Amherst Internment Camp went to work building a cello, despite scarce supplies and the most rudimentary tools.
Little did he know the care that would be put into bringing that musical instrument back to life so it can be played one more time.
“It’s a very unique instrument. It will have its own distinct sound – almost as if it will tell its story when it’s played. It will talk,” said Charles Long of Atelier VioLong in Dieppe, N.B. “It was built by someone who didn’t have the proper training or the proper tools, it’s like a piece of folk art. He made it from his mind and it’s very different in the wood, the model and the way it was put together. Everything was made by hand and there were a lot of nails in it – some wooden and some steel.”
The cello will figure prominently in a special ceremony in Amherst on July 2 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the closing of the First World War Amherst internment camp that was home to more than 850 prisoners from April 1915 to September 1919.
The camp, located in an old malleable iron works foundry at the corner of Park and Hickman streets, was the largest of its kind in Canada. Among its internees was Leon Trotsky, who spent a month at the camp before being released to return to Russia where he played a role in the rise of the first communist government under Vladamir Lenin.
Following a ceremony at the Amherst cemetery, where 13 prisoners who died at the camp were buried before being reburied in Kitchener, Ont. in 1970, members of the German Luftwaffe band, who will be in Halifax performing at the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo, will hold a concert at the Col. James Layton Ralston Armoury.
It’s during this concert that a member of the band will play at least one piece on the cello that Long has restored.
Long said it took about three weeks to restore the cello to playable condition but considering its age he said it can only be played once because it’s very fragile after spending decades in an attic and on display at the Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum in Amherst.
“It took a lot of gluing, but the problem was as I was gluing it, it changed the pressure points and it began to break so I had to be very careful and very cautious with how I worked on it,” Long said. “It was a long process, but it’s playable…once, maybe twice at most.”
Long said it’s not unusual to restore a violin or cello that 100 or 200 years old because they are made to last. This cello is different because it’s essentially a piece of folk art made with whatever items were available to the artisan – something that would’ve been very difficult in a First World War prisoner of war camp, where not only tools to craft it would’ve been hard to find but also the supplies to make it with.
“When you consider what he had to use and the conditions he would’ve been working in, it’s incredible that he was able to craft something like this,” said Long, who has restored and repaired musical instruments from across North America over more than three decades.
Ray Coulson, curator of the museum, admitted to being excited to hear the cello make music again.
“It’s tremendous that we can get it to the state that it can be played again,” Coulson said. “I can’t wait to hear it and then we’re going to put it back on static display.”
Coulson said the cello has been in the museum’s collection for several years after being donated by renowned New Brunswick fiddler Ivan Hicks.
Cumberland-Colchester MP Bill Casey, who pitched the idea of holding a ceremony to recognize the anniversary of the camp’s closing, is amazed at how things have come together.
“I still can’t believe that something that was made in those conditions has been restored so it can be played,” Casey said. “It will the first time in more than a hundred years that a German musician has played it. It’s very symbolic.”
Ivan Hicks is thrilled to learn a cello he and his wife, Vivian, donated to the North Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum will make music again.
The Hicks’ duo donated the cello to the museum a number of years ago after it sat in display in their home.
“When we lived in Riverview, my wife, Vivian, said it would be nice to have one of those big wooden bases that we could show in a corner of our house or a front room. The question was how would we get one,” he said. “We started asking around and one day we got a call from a woman in Sackville, who said she thought she had something we’d like to have.”
Hicks and his wife went to Sackville to pick it up and learned some of the cello’s history.
“She said it was made by a German prisoner of war during the First World War. Many of the prisoners were musicians and didn’t have their own instruments so they made them,” he said. “It was in her attic for many years and we brought it up to Moncton.”
After sitting in the corner at their Riverview home for several years, he called the museum and said it better belonged there than in their house.
“When we brought it down they showed us pictures of the prisoners on the inside of the fence playing music for people on the outside,” Hicks said. “They had many different kinds of instruments, you name it they had it.”