When the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra takes the stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on March 29, audience members will thrill to an ensemble that represents all that Israel has attained in its 66 years.
Meanwhile viewers can turn to Netflix or their favorite DVD seller for a documentary that remembers a darker time in the orchestra’s history, steeped in the pain of the Holocaust and the uncertainty surrounding Israel’s birth.
Orchestra of Exiles, released in 2012 and directed by New York filmmaker Josh Aronson, recalls the story of a child prodigy violinist named Bronislaw Huberman who later helped transplant some of the greatest musicians of Europe from Nazi Germany and other occupied countries to the Palestine of the 1930s.
In doing so, he managed to save some 1,000 Jews, with the aid of such influential supporters as Albert Einstein and Arturo Toscanini.
Aronson, whose diverse filmography includes commercials, music videos, and a pilot for a comedy show, told NJ Jewish News he is “always looking for good stories.”
The life of Huberman, who in 1936 founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra — renamed the Israel Philharmonic after statehood — piqued his interest.
Huberman was born in Czestochowa, Poland, in 1882. “By the time he was eight or nine he had gone beyond the skills of his teachers. So his father carted him off to Berlin to study with the renowned violin instructor Josef Joachim, a close friend of composer Johann Brahms,” said Aronson.
After performing to acclaim a Brahms concerto at the age of 12 — with Brahms himself as an approving audience member — Huberman made influential contacts in the musical world of Europe. For the next 10 years, he toured Europe and the United States as a guest soloist with prominent orchestras. “But when his father took him on the road he had no other family, and he had no friends. It was a very sad life for this boy,” the Aronson said.
When Huberman first visited Palestine in the 1930s, “he was so overwhelmed by the response to his music by the audiences that he told officials, ‘You should have an orchestra here.’ There were only 450,000 Jews there, but he thought they could support an orchestra. Every one of his concerts was sold out.”
In 1933, his idea received an unexpected boost from a very unlikely source, Adolf Hitler. When the Nazis began depriving Jews of their livelihoods and civil rights, many of the best musicians in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich were put out of work. No one knew what lay ahead for the Jewish people, but by 1936 Huberman had a premonition that things were going to get a lot more dangerous. “He had already seen the nastiness of pogroms in Poland, and so he decided to make a great orchestra in Palestine as well as a political statement,” said the documentarian.
The violinist recruited Toscanini, a Catholic, to conduct the fledgling orchestra’s debut concert “so they could send a message to the world to condemn Nazism, and their intention was to make an ‘orchestra of exiles.’ Like Huberman, Toscanini hated fascism and refused to play in Germany after 1933 when Hitler came into office,” Aronson said.
Huberman was able to help hundreds of musicians and their families immigrate to Palestine, others to England, and still others to Shanghai. He was not a religious Jew and not a Zionist until he met Einstein, who was a strong supporter of the Zionist mission and himself an amateur violinist. The scientist lent his support to efforts to get the Jewish musicians out of Europe and in the formation of the orchestra.
The Palestine Symphony Orchestra debuted in December 1936 at Levant Fair Hall in Tel Aviv under Toscanini’s baton. Huberman died of a heart attack in Switzerland in 1947, without living to see Israel achieve statehood.
In 2001, Huberman’s name was back in the news. Sixty-five years earlier, he had undertaken a 60-concert fund-raising tour across America. During a performance at Carnegie Hall, his valuable Stradivarius violin was stolen from his dressing room. Its whereabouts remained a mystery until it resurfaced some 50 years later. It was acquired in 2001 by contemporary violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who appears in Orchestra of Exiles.
Aronson said he faced several difficulties in making the film. Although there are many audio recordings, there was never any sound-on-film footage of Huberman’s playing. So he used archival photographs and recreations using actors to play Huberman and other characters in his story.
“I could have done it the way Ken Burns makes films, with a lot of still photos and interviews. But that didn’t interest me. I make films in a way that seems appropriate,” said Aronson.