The Prison Camp Violin
Guidepost Magazine - January 1997
by Clair Cline, Tacoma, Washington
Stalag Luft I Prisoner of War
He carved it of rough-hewn bed slats with a penknife
traded for Red Cross rations. But would it play?
In February 1944 I was a U.S. Air Corps pilot
flying a B-24 bomber over Germany when antiaircraft fire hit our tail
section and we lost all controls. We bailed out and on landing I
found myself in a field in occupied Holland, just across the border from
Germany. We were surrounded by villagers asking for chocolate and
cigarettes. Then an elderly uniformed German with a pistol in an
unsteady hand marched me to an interrogation center. From there I and
other prisoners were shipped to Stalag Luft I, a prison camp for
captured Allied airmen.
The camp was a dismal place. We lived in rough
wooden barracks, sleeping on bunks with straw-filled burlap sacks on
wooden slats. Rations were meager; if it hadn't been for the Red
Cross care packages, we would have starved. But the worst affliction
was our uncertainty. Not knowing when the war would end or what
would happen (we had heard rumors of prisoners being killed) left us
with a constant gnawing worry. And since the Geneva Convention ruled
that officers were not allowed to be used for labor, we had little
to keep us occupied. What resulted was a wearying combination of
apprehension and boredom. Men coped in various ways: Some played
bridge all day, others dug escape tunnels (to no avail), some read
tattered paperbacks. I wrote letters to my wife and carved models of
The long dreary months dragged on. One day
early in the fall of 1944, I found myself unable to stand airplane
carving any longer. I tossed aside a half-finished model, looked out
a barracks window at a leaden sky and prayed in desperation,
"Oh, Lord, please help me find something constructive
There seemed to be no answer as I slumped amid
the dull slap of playing cards and the mutter of conversation. Then
someone started whistling "Red Wing" and my heart lifted.
Once again I was seven years old in rural Minnesota listening to a
fiddler sweep out the old melody. As a child I loved the violin and
when a grizzled uncle handed his to me I couldn't believe
it. "It's yours, Red," he said, smiling. "I never
could play the thing, but maybe you can make music with it."
There were no music teachers around our parts, but some of the
old-timers who played at local dances in homes and barns patiently
gave me tips. Soon I accompanied them while heavy-booted farmers and
their long-gowned wives whirled and stomped to schottisches and
I thought how wonderful it would be to hold a
violin again. But finding one in this place would be impossible. Just
then I glanced at my cast-aside model, and a thought came to me: I
can make one! Why not? I had done a little woodworking before I was in the
service. But with what? And how? Where could I find the wood? The
tools? I shook my head. I was about to forget the whole preposterous
idea when something caught me. You can do it. The words hung
there, almost as if Someone had challenged me. I grew up on a farm
during the Depression, and had learned about resourcefulness. I remembered
my father doggedly repairing hopelessly broken farm
equipment. "You can make something out of nothing, Son," he
said, looking up from the frayed harness he was riveting. "All
you've got to do is find a way . . . and there always is one."
I looked around our barracks. The bunks. They
had slats! Each was about four inches wide, three-quarters of an inch
thick and 30 inches long. A few wouldn't be missed. Just maybe, I
thought, just maybe I could. I already had a penknife gained by
trading care-package tobacco rations with camp guards who delighted
in amerikanische Zigaretten. Glue? It was essential. But glue was
practically nonexistent in a war-ravaged country. "There's
always a way," echoed Dad's words.
One day I happened to feel small, hard droplets
around the rungs of my chair. Dried carpenter's glue! I carefully
scraped off the brown residue from a few chairs, ground it to powder,
mixed it with water and heated it on a stove. It would work. I
cut the beech bed slats to the length of a violin body and glued them
together. Then I began shaping the back panel. A sharp piece of broken
glass came in handy for carving. Other men watched with interest, and
some helped scrape glue from chairs for me.
Weeks went by in a flash. I shaped the curved
sides of the body by bending water-soaked thin wood and heating it
over the stove. My humdrum existence became exciting. I woke up every
morning and could hardly wait to get back to work. When I needed
tools, I improvised, even grinding an old kitchen knife on a rock to
form a chisel. Slowly the instrument took shape. I glued several bed
slats together to form the instrument's neck.
In three months the body was finished,
including the delicate f-shaped holes on the violin's front. After
carefully sanding the wood, I varnished the instrument (that cost me
more cigarettes) and polished it with pumice and paraffin oil until
it shone with a golden glow.
A guard came up with some catgut for the
strings, and one day I was astonished to be handed a real violin bow.
American cigarettes were valuable currency, and I was glad I hadn't
Finally there came the day I lifted the
finished instrument to my chin. Would it really play? Or would it be
a croaking catastrophe? I drew the bow across the strings and my
heart leaped as a pure resonant sound echoed through the air.
My fellow prisoners banished me to the latrine
until I had regained my old skills. But from then on they clapped,
sang, and even danced as I played "Red Wing," "Home on
the Range" and "Red River Valley."
My most memorable moment was Christmas Eve. As
my buddies brooded about home and families, I began playing
"Silent Night." As the notes drifted through the barracks a
voice chimed in, then others. Amid the harmony I heard a different
language. "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, alles schläft, Einsam
wacht . . . " An elderly white-haired guard stood in the
shadows, his eyes wet with tears.
The following May we were liberated by U.S.
troops. Through the years, the violin hung proudly in a display
cabinet at home. As my four children and six grandchildren grew, it
became an object lesson for escaping the narcosis of boredom.
"Find something you love to do," I
urged, "and you'll find your work a gift from God." I'm
happy to say all of them did. In the fall of 1995 I was invited to
contribute the violin to the World War II museum aboard the aircraft
carrier Intrepid in New York. I sent it hoping it would become an
object lesson for others. But I was not prepared for the surprise
that followed. I was told the concertmaster of the New
York Philharmonic would play it at the museum's opening. Afterward he
called me. "I expected a jalopy of a violin," said maestro
Dicterow, "and instead it was something looking very good and
sounding quite wonderful. It was an amazing achievement."
Not really, I thought. More like a gift from
Since CLAIR CLINE returned from World War II, The
Prison Camp Violin he made has been heard in concert halls across the
United States. Most recently it was played by Glenn Dicterow of the
New York Philharmonic during a ceremony at the Intrepid
Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City. "Violins have to be used
if they are going to remain effective," says Clair. "I
believe I need to stay active too." Now that he has retired
from cabinetmaking and construction work, Clair and his wife, Anne,
stay busy growing fruit, flowers and vegetables in their garden. The
couple recently celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary, and their
four children and six grandchildren are the joy of their lives. Music
has remained important, and oldest son Roger, granddaughter Jennifer,
and grandson Daniel, play in the Chicago, National, and Arkansas
symphony orchestras, respectively.
As their children grew up, the violin rested in a display case in the
Clines’ home. Each child was told the violin’s story as a lesson in
resourcefulness. But its value goes far beyond that.