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Timeline: A Violin's Journey - Part 5

Sergei Palchikoff's beloved violin was his constant companion over a lifetime of conflict and change.
U.S. Public Domain
Sergei Palchikoff's beloved violin was his constant companion over a lifetime of conflict and change.

We’ve been telling the story of Sergei Palchikoff, his family and his beloved violin that survived the bombing of Hiroshima 75 years ago. I’ve spent the better part of a year piecing this tale together from newspaper articles, old recordings and online resources. After the first episode aired on VPR Classical something remarkable happened. I got a phone call from Carmel, California; it was Anthony Drago, Sergei’s grandson.


Anthony grew up with this story. His mother was Kaleria, Sergei’s oldest child. We heard her voice in the last episode. Anthony recalled memories of his mother and spending time with his grandfather, listening to him play the very violin that we’ve been discovering episode by episode. Anthony and author Douglas Wellman have co-written a new book, telling the story of the Palchikoffs in much more detail than we ever could in this podcast. The book is the entitled Surviving Hiroshima: A Young Woman’s Story.

Anthony and I had a chance to talk in detail about the Palchikoff family, their history in the Russian empire, Sergei’s involvement in the Russian civil war after the 1917 revolutions, their boat trip to Japan, settling in the city of Hiroshima and their experiences during and after World War II. He also helped me fill in a few gaps in the story that I couldn’t find on my own. For instance, I couldn’t find any information on who made the violin that we’ve been discussing. All I knew was that it came with Sergei from Russia and that it was restored and repaired in Italy.

Anthony blew my mind when he told me that inside the body of the violin there is a name and date.

Zoom Recording

Anthony Drago: 1920, Yuri Palchikoff

James (recording): What?

Anthony: Yes!

James: Here’s why that’s so interesting. First, we don’t have a clue who Yuri is. Genealogical records in Russia are difficult to find and incomplete at best. Yuri must have been a family member, a cousin, an uncle, we’re not sure, and he must have been a fine violin maker. The instrument is of a high quality, probably not made by an amateur. Second, the date, 1920, means that I was wrong about when Sergei got the violin. He wasn’t a child. He must have received the instrument while fighting the Russian civil war for the “White Russians.” The instrument would have been created in the middle of the conflict, while the Palchikoffs were being pushed further and further across Siberia.

It was this violin, made by a family member, that Sergei brought to Japan. He played it to accompany silent movies at a theater in Hiroshima. He played it on the radio and eventually used it to instruct his students at the Jogakuin School for Girls.

In our last episode we learned that immediately after the bombing, the Palchikoff family dug themselves out of the rubble and headed for the mountains. Over the course of the next few weeks, Sergei made several trips back to the suburb where their house once stood. One of the reasons he went back was to retrieve his violin. He knew exactly where to find it.

Sergei’s violin was his constant companion over the next couple of decades of change. After the war, the entire Palchikoff family immigrated to the United States and settled in California. Sergei was eventually hired to start a Russian language program with the U.S. military and intelligence just as the cold war was heating up. This one individual worked in an intense military capacity for three different governments over the course of his life.

Even after Sergei retired in the early 1960s, he still continued to give violin lessons to children in his neighborhood, playing and teaching on this very special instrument. After his death in 1969, the violin went to his wife and then later their eldest child, their daughter Kaleria.

In our next episode, we’ll follow Sergei Palchikoff’s violin back to Japan. Listen for the rest of the story and follow the Timeline.

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