The filmmaker, the violinist, and the ‘Orchestra of Exiles’

The filmmaker, the violinist, and the ‘Orchestra of Exiles’

Documentarian reveals how one man saved 1000 musicians and created the Israel Philharmonic

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

“Orchestra of Exiles,” a film by Josh Aronson, tells the story of Bronislaw Huberman.
“Orchestra of Exiles,” a film by Josh Aronson, tells the story of Bronislaw Huberman.

Bronislaw Huberman is one of the most acclaimed — and forgotten — violinists of the 20th century. The child prodigy who won praise from Johannes Brahms, among others, also became a great humanitarian who saved about 1,000 Jewish musicians across Europe during the Holocaust and founded what is now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO). 

“He’s a great character with a wonderful story arc, a person who became deeply altruistic,” said documentary filmmaker  Josh Aronson about Huberman, who died in 1947. He added, “But for whatever reason, it’s hard to know why, he hasn’t kept his fame or stayed in the mainstream.”

Aronson rescued Huberman’s story with his 2012 film, “Orchestra of Exiles.” He followed up the film with an eponymous book, written with Denise George and published by Berkley Books in April 2016. 

On May 21, Temple Beth O’r Beth Torah in Clark will host a screening of “Orchestra of Exiles,” and writer/director/producer Aronson will speak about Huberman and the process of making the film, and answer questions. The event is the 27th annual Edith and Mark Lief Memorial Program. The Liefs, born in Lvov and married in 1938, survived World War II separately. After being reunited, they immigrated to the United States in 1949 and were longtime members of Beth O’r/Beth Torah. The program is free and open to the public.

In a telephone conversation with NJJN on April 30, Aronson, 66, acknowledged that when he first learned about Huberman, he was embarrassed never to have heard of him — Aronson himself is a concert pianist who founded a chamber music festival in Telluride, Colo., with his wife, violinist Maria Bachmann. 

Huberman’s story led Aronson to spend many hours doing primary research, focusing on “the deep reading” necessary “to understand the Holocaust deeply,” he said, acknowledging that it was the first time he’d ventured beyond what he calls “a basic understanding” of the Holocaust. 

Aronson grew up culturally Jewish in suburban St. Louis, though he said he never considered himself assimilated. In fact, the experience of researching Huberman’s life, working in the Yad Vashem archives, and crafting the film deepened his ties to his faith. As a result, “I identify more deeply in my soul, what it is to be connected to Jewish tradition.” (Although not a member of a synagogue, the New York City resident said he sometimes joins friends at a chasidic shul in Queens and for High Holy Days tries “different places” with friends.) He added, “A lot of what connects Jews to each other is the Holocaust, so that wherever we go, wherever we are in society, there’s a recognition of other Jews. I think that connection is the connection of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. It’s an unspoken connection, but it’s there, and it’s visceral.”

Aronson has struggled to bring his film to young audiences. Through grants, he has given blocks of tickets for screenings to music schools, he said, but “the kids don’t show up.” Instead, he finds, “It’s always older, culturally-educated Jews and very few young people. It’s very frustrating.” He pointed out that making matters worse is that Holocaust education is mandatory in only a few states. (Genocide education is currently mandated in eight states: New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, California, Indiana, New York, and Rhode Island.) So when he was approached by Denise George, who’d already written books for Penguin, to write a book closely following the film but targeting youth, he agreed. 

The film has been criticized for some of its dramatizations of events in Huberman’s life and the book reads like historical fiction with made-up dialogue and creative emotional leaps. For example, in one chapter, Huberman forgives his father for making his childhood so difficult and joyless. “Bronislaw sits up in bed and wipes away his tears. He swallows hard,” reads the book, and, “In the darkness of his bedroom, he whispers: ‘Oh, Papa, I forgive you.’” The father’s actions as “a merciless disciplinarian and a harsh teacher” are documented; the forgiveness is pure fiction. 

Aronson secured interviews for the film with classical music giants like Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Joshua Bell (who plays a Stradivarius famously stolen from Huberman in Carnegie Hall in 1936 and returned in 1987 after a deathbed confession by its then owner), but he was unable to attract conductor Daniel Barenboim. After two years of attempts, Barenboim passed on the offer, with a note Aronson paraphrased this way. “Maestro Barenboim feels he really has nothing to offer in terms of information about Huberman.” Aronson believes the refusal boils down to politics — Barenboim, renowned Israeli pianist and conductor and co-founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (comprised of Jewish Israelis and Arabs), took Palestinian citizenship in 2008, and is often critical of the Israeli government and military. “That obviously is not a true statement,” Aronson said of the note. “He chose not to be in the film. I don’t know why but I can guess…Barenboim obviously is a very, very liberal person in terms of the Middle East conflict…and the IPO is a more conservative organization…I can say, and I think it was just a conflict in terms of his politics.”

Aronson remains passionate about Huberman’s story, but his music has not made it into Aronson’s list of favorites. “The recordings are not very good quality,” Aronson said. “The last recording was in 1944 and it’s scratchy. We are so spoiled — it’s hard to listen to old recordings. I’m not enough of a music scholar to listen in that scholarly way.”

A major theme of both the film and the book is the transformation of Huberman from an artist who is all about art for art’s sake, into one who becomes focused on art for the sake of humanity.  Aronson can relate to. “Documentary filmmaking should certainly be in the service of humanity,” he said. While many of his films focus on music, including his 2015 “Talent has Hunger,” for which he followed for seven years at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, he takes the most pride in the films that have had the greatest effect on audiences. He named in particular “The Opposite Sex,” from 2002-2003; and “Beautiful Daughters,” 2006, both about transsexuals; as well as “Sound and the Fury,” 2000, the Academy Award nominated film focusing on the debate over cochlear implants. 

“My greatest joy and satisfaction in the documentaries I’ve made is that they have impacted and changed people’s lives,” he said.

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