National Symphony Orchestra violist Jennifer Mondie poses with instruments made by her grandfather Clair Cline, who made his first violin in a German prison camp during World War II. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Jennifer Mondie, as many other professional musicians have done, invested a lot for an instrument that gives her just the tone she wants.

But once a year, usually on Memorial Day, she pulls out a special family heirloom, a viola her grandfather made especially for her. 

“It’s heavier,” she says, “and it hasn’t been played a lot.”

But it’s of sufficient quality to allow her to use it as part of the National Symphony Orchestra, where she’s been part of the viola section for 20 years.

No professional luthier, her grandfather Clair Cline was a carpenter and cabinet maker whose first musical instrument was built under impossible conditions. 

Claire Cline, a member of the 8th Air Force or “The mighty eighth,” with the violin he made from the slats of a bed while he was at a German WWII camp. (National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, Pooler, GA)

How impossible? 

It was in a World War II German prison camp where the shot-down pilot was being held, a place with no tools and no materials to make a violin.

Nonetheless, he obtained wood from the slats under the beds. Its glue was secondhand: scraped from chairs at camp, boiled down and used again. He carved and shaped the boards into the contours of a violin using a penknife, a table knife ground into a chisel, and shards of glass. 

“He had plenty of time to be patient,” Mondie says.

He acquired catgut for the strings and eventually traded cigarettes from Red Cross provisions to a guard for a bow. 

Following weeks of practice on his newly finished violin, he could bring forth something precious for his fellow inmates at Stalag Luft 1: music.

“I don’t think he was playing the Mendelssohn violin concerto,” Mondie says. “I think he was playing country tunes and ‘Silent Night.’ Things like that would be easy to play.”

Cline, who died in 2010 in Tacoma, Wash., at age 92, was just 24 when his B-24 was shot down over Germany in February 1944. 

Battling boredom at the camp, where officers were not put to work because of Geneva Conventions rules, he first took up sewing and then carving model airplanes. 

Then one day, he heard someone whistling “Red Wing,” an old fiddle tune he remembered growing up in Minnesota.

His uncle had given him a violin as a child, Mondie says, and he learned enough about it to play a bit and make repairs. But he had never built a full instrument before, especially under such conditions. Soon, he was peering beneath bunks looking for beech slats for the back of the instrument, pine slats for the front. 

“I grew up on a farm during the Depression,” Cline recalled in a 1997 article he wrote for Guideposts magazine, “and had learned about resourcefulness.” 

“I remembered my father doggedly repairing hopelessly broken farm equipment,” he wrote. “ ‘You can make something out of nothing, son,’ he said. . . . ‘All you’ve got to do is find a way . . . and there always is one.’ ”

That was his mantra as Cline continued his work. 

“Other men watched with interest, and some helped scrape glue from chairs for me,” Cline wrote. “I shaped the curved sides of the body by bending water-soaked thin wood and heating it over the stove. 

“In three months the body was finished, including the delicate f-shaped holes on the violin’s front,” he wrote.

When the camp was liberated in spring 1945, Cline took his violin back home, where it became part of family lore, and perhaps encouraged the Cline family’s further musical legacy. In addition to Mondie’s position as violist for the National Symphony, her father, Roger Cline, is a bassist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and her brother Daniel Cline is a cellist in the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

The prison camp violin was kept in a case in Cline’s home in Tacoma for more than 50 years, though it was brought out from time to time to be played. 

And while its origin was well known within the family, it was not widely known outside of it.

“He never ever wanted to talk about the prison camp,” Mondie says. 

Accordingly, “it wasn’t something I mentioned,” she says. “It’s like a second-tier story, like if somebody knows me, they can expect the weird story.

“But it’s our thing,” she says. “He was a very private person. It didn’t seem to be the right thing to go around bragging about something he was very private about.” 

So it was a bit of a surprise recently at the Kennedy Center when a Belgian film crew came around recently to ask her about the story for a documentary marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. 

“It was always a big deal. But it seemed like something grandpa would do. He’s very hard working, and he’s very exacting. My father has gained a lot of those quirks from him as well. 

“I have a deeper appreciation of what it must look like to other people,” she says, “but it just seems like something a Cline would do.”

In 1995, Cline donated the camp violin to the World War II museum aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid docked in New York. At a concert marking the event, violinist Glenn Dicterow, then-concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, played the instrument. 

“I was expecting a jalopy of a violin,” Dicterow told him afterward, “and instead it was something looking very good and sounding quite wonderful. It was an amazing achievement.”

“I remember Dicterow telling me he thought it would be a box,” Mondie says. “It  looks slightly more rough-hewn” than any other violin, she says. “But not that much.” 

After the war, Cline made about a dozen more violins, three basses, a cello and two violas as part of a hobby apart from his regular carpentry work, or, as Mondie put it, “when he needed an excuse to go out in the shop and not be bothered by kids.”

Of her own instruments made by him is a violin made in 1971, the year before she was born; and the viola, begun in 1990 when she was just going off to college. 

“I’m pretty sure he started making it then, knowing his eyesight was going,” Mondie says. 

“It’s a heavy instrument, and I don’t want to damage it,” she says of his viola. “But I tend to play it when it’s outside and the conditions are such that I don’t want to bring my 300-year-old French instrument outside.”

Because it hasn’t been played as much, it hasn’t been fully worn in either, she says.

“But that’s fine, because when I play it on Memorial Day, and it’s 125 degrees under the stage lights, it will be just fine. It won’t crack.”

She’ll be playing with the National Symphony Orchestra with her blond hair dyed red and blue for the occasion, rain or shine. But not with either her François Médard viola, nor the one by William Whedbee she bought in 1989.

“We’re going to play under pretty big television lights. They’re hot. It’s gross,” she says. “I don’t want to bring either of the instruments out that are a little more delicate than that. This one is made to last.

“The Cline is made to last.”

Catlin is a freelance writer.