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The Musical Fist Against Anti-Semitism

12/05/2013 12:33 EST | Updated 02/04/2014 05:59 EST

One year after the Nazis seized power in Germany, Bronislaw Huberman decided he could no longer stand by without acting. His story, and its cultural legacy, are etched in a riveting film by Josh Aronson called Orchestra of Exiles, now on DVD.

Huberman (1882-1947), a Polish Jew, was one of the world's leading violinists. A former child prodigy, he had been taken by his parents to Berlin to study at the age of 8. At 13, Huberman played the Brahms Violin Concerto in Vienna, in the presence of the composer, who was moved by his performance and gave him a photograph signed "from his grateful listener."

Huberman's career flourished. After years of touring Europe, Russia and the U.S., the onset of World War I had a profound effect on the violinist, and sparked his political awakening. He became a supporter of "pan-Europa," the concept of European political integration.

Meanwhile, in 1929, Huberman had performed for the first time in Palestine and had embraced the Zionist ideal. Four years later, he saw and heard Hitler vow the annihilation of the Jewish people. Huberman cancelled all his German concerts, despite pleas from luminaries such as esteemed German conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler. Furtwaengler had obtained a special exemption from Joseph Goebbels to enable Huberman to open the Fall 1934 season as soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic, but Huberman declined the offer, explaining his viewpoint in an open letter to the conductor.

As he watched the dire events unfold, Huberman in 1934 had the idea to establish a first-class symphony orchestra in Palestine from the ranks of persecuted Jewish musicians in Europe. It would be a "musical fist against anti-Semitism."

Huberman put his own performing career on hold, and turned himself into a leader and fund-raiser, devoting his energies to the formation of the new orchestra. He approached Arturo Toscanini, the most celebrated conductor in the world and a staunch anti-fascist, who volunteered to conduct the first concert of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.

To build the orchestra, Huberman spent two years traveling across Europe, auditioning musicians who had been forced from their employment. (One of these was the Hungarian violinist, Lorand Fenyves [1918 - 2004], who came to Canada in the 1960s and helped train an entire generation of violinists as a distinguished professor at the University of Toronto.)

As he auditioned musicians in several countries, Huberman understood the gravity of his task. He was, in effect, deciding who would live and who would likely be killed. Yet he remained determined to rescue as many colleagues as possible: not only Germans, but also Polish, Czech, and Hungarian Jews. He knew that few countries allowed Jews to immigrate. Numerous interviews in Orchestra of Exiles with the pioneering musicians, their children and family members attest to Huberman's idealism and effectiveness. In the end, Huberman saved the lives of nearly 1,000 Jews.

The crucial fund-raising event for the nascent orchestra occurred in March 1936 in New York, where the honored speaker was Albert Einstein. The event was a success: the orchestra became fully-funded, and immigration certificates were eventually secured for the musicians.

To help prepare the new orchestra for its debut, the German conductor, Wilhelm (William) Steinberg arrived to ready the ensemble for its work with Toscanini, a fierce disciplinarian. The first performance in December 1936, conducted by Toscanini, was a triumph. The orchestra of exiled European Jews performed symphonic music at a high international level with the most celebrated conductor in the world.

Bronislaw Huberman's legacy endures in the orchestra, which was re-named the Israel Philharmonic by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion after the declaration of statehood in 1948.

Aronson's film has convincing dramatic re-enactments as well as a trove of historic footage of Huberman, Toscanini, Steinberg, and the orchestra's early days. It is a compelling story, and invaluable to have it documented on film.

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