The Christmas violin

By Pat Centner, AFAJ staff writer

November-December 2002 – It seemed an odd place to hear the rich, golden tone of a violin. As the sound resonated in the night, moonlight glinted on the sharp barbed wire fence. Huge icicles hung from the guard tower, and the gray walls of the prison barracks concealed the gaunt men with lonely eyes languishing inside. The sweet strands of music continued, and the men recognized the tune – it was "Silent Night."

Christmas Eve, 1944, was a heartsick day for United States Army 1st Lieutenant Clair W. Cline. He and 15 other kriegies (prisoners of war) whiled away the hours locked inside Room 6, Block 6, of Stalag Luft I in the Barth Prison Camp in Northern Germany. In spite of their homesickness, the men attempted to be cheerful and to lift each other's spirits as they reminisced about Christmases in years gone by.

Cline and his buddies also discussed with anticipation their plans for a "sumptuous Christmas dinner" the next day. In reality, they knew their prison meal would be less than meager, but they had gone to great lengths to prepare for a make-believe Christmas celebration. For some time, the captives had been saving pieces of red and green crepe paper and ribbon they scrounged from the Red Cross. And many hours had been devoted to making each prisoner a decorative Christmas menu to set beside his plate.

Each menu's outside cover was gaily adorned, and inside, the chosen dinner fare was typed in French. Among other dishes, the imaginary meal would include fricassee of beef, baked potatoes au gratin and a chocolate tart. Later in the evening, coffee, bon-bons, and cigars would be enjoyed.

Concentrating on the "festivities" kept the men occupied most of the day. However, as reality set in, and the day before Christmas turned into evening, the attempts at laughter and good cheer began to falter, and a quietness settled over the group. The men's thoughts turned to home and the loved ones they feared they might never see again. It was then, in the silence of those moments, that Cline picked up his violin and began to play "Silent Night." One by one, the men began to sing softly, each voice adding to the others, until the night was filled with their song.

After a few moments, Cline realized that one voice sounded different from the others. The words "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" drifted back to him. Peering into the shadows, he observed an old, white-haired German guard, his eyes moist with tears, singing the song of the Christ child.

Later that evening as he lay on his bunk, Cline thought about the events that had brought him to that sad place and how he had come to make the violin that provided Christmas music for his friends.

The prison camp
It had all begun ten months earlier when Cline, a U.S. Air Corps pilot, was shot down in his B-24 bomber. He and his crewmen bailed out and landed in a field in occupied Holland, near the German border. They were captured, taken to an interrogation center and sent to Stalag Luft I. ("Luft" is German for "air;" this particular camp was for Allied airmen.)

Life in Stalag Luft I was difficult. The "block" (barracks), originally intended for Hitler Youth and meant to house six, was occupied by 16 men. It was devastatingly cold during the winter because of a fuel shortage. Worse, hunger was a constant – there was barely enough food to stay alive. The occasional packages that arrived from the Red Cross containing rations and cigarettes were a hot commodity, and prisoners traded them to the guards for various items.

His officers rank prevented him from working in the camp, so boredom was Clines constant companion. Uncertainty over the future also lurked nearby. To occupy himself, Cline wrote letters to Anne, his wife of five months, and carved wooden B-24s with a penknife.

Spring and summer dragged by, and the leaves of autumn turned red and gold and brown. After months of carving planes and floundering in despair, Cline begged God for something constructive to do. No word came. Then, one day, a fellow prisoner whistled the song "Red Wing."

Immediately, Cline was transported back in time to his boyhood in Minnesota and a special dance where the familiar tune had been played. He remembered the big smile on his uncle's face that night when he handed his personal violin to seven-year-old Cline and told him he could have it for his own. In disbelief, the youngster thanked his uncle, and immediately set to work learning to play the beloved gift.

In his reverie, Cline smiled to himself as he remembered the kindness of the old musicians who had helped him master the art of violin-playing. A natural music talent, he soon joined their group, happily playing "Red Wing" himself.

The violin
"That's it!" Cline exclaimed, as he returned to the present. He would make a violin! But the more he thought about it, the more foolish he felt. Where would he get materials for a violin in this place? Then the words came to him, clearly and distinctly. You can do it. It was as though the Lord, Himself, had spoken to him. Then, a phrase from his childhood crowded into his mind. These were his father's words: "You can make something out of nothing, Son. All you have to do is find a way..." 

With that encouragement, Cline began to look around the barracks for materials. Wood was needed, of course, and he hit on the idea of using the beechwood slats from the prisoners' bunks for the body of the violin – and he could carve the wood with the penknife he'd used for his airplanes. As he kept looking, Cline found a sharp piece of glass for carving the instrument's more delicate areas. He was stumped when it came to something for holding the instrument together, but Cline's solution was to remove tiny balls of glue from around chair legs, grind them up, add water, and heat, and – voila! Instant glue!

Cline worked feverishly and with great ingenuity. For the violin's curvature, he soaked thin pieces of wood in water and then heated them. Through additional bartering, he secured the sand paper, varnish, pumice and paraffin oil he needed to smooth and protect the wood, as well as to bring out its natural beauty.

The violin's creation became a community project, with both prisoners and guards providing help. Some prisoners scraped glue off the chair rungs, and one of the guards supplied catgut for the violin's strings. Amazingly, a bow for the violin came from yet another trade.

After three months of hard work, the violin was finished – just in time for Christmas. The prisoners were deeply grateful for the beauty and inspiration it brought into that cold, depressing place.

The war soon ended, and Cline returned home. The story of the violin became widely known, and it was taken on tour to cities all across America. In 1995, Cline contributed the instrument to the World War II museum on the aircraft carrier, Intrepid in New York. He was surprised to learn that New York Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow played it at the opening ceremonies. He called Cline to commend him on its fine workmanship and beautiful tone.

Lessons learned
Today, Clair Cline is 85 years old. He lives in Tacoma, Washington, with his wife, Anne. Across the years, he continued to use his woodworking skills by working as a cabinet maker and custom builder. He still gives himself unselfishly so that others might be blessed.

He and Anne offer love and encouragement to the residents of a local senior citizens' center where they frequently serve meals and wash dishes. In addition, many of the vegetables from their garden go to feed the needy at a local food bank.

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 the children grew up, the violin rested in a display case in the Clines' home. Each child was told the violins story as a lesson in resourcefulness. But its value goes far beyond that.

The man who lived the story is a reflection of the Scripture, Luke 12:48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required."

God obviously blessed Cline with "much" leadership skills, ingenuity, persistence, faith, and love for others. At a time when he had succumbed to despair, God gave Cline the desire and strength to create the violin whose music had blessed his prison mates that Christmas Eve long ago. It proved a beautiful source of hope for the prisoners of Stalag Luft I.  undefined