Remembered by supporters as the Oskar Schindler of Jewish musicians, famed violinist Bronislaw Huberman devoted three years to assembling Jewish instrumentalists fired by the Nazis to form what eventually became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Founded in 1936 as the Palestine Symphony, the orchestra, first conducted by Arturo Toscanini, debuted after a struggle that also involved Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann and a characteristically defiant David Ben-Gurion.
Huberman’s epic quest is the subject of the new documentary “Orchestra of Exiles,” a real-life tale of Jewish musicians in need of a home, and a nascent country in need of an orchestra. Oscar-nominated Josh Aronson directed and produced “Exiles” based on a script he compiled during three years of researching thousands of documents related to Huberman’s life.
Opening Friday in New York and November 2 in LA, the documentary follows Huberman from his years as a child prodigy to the premiere of the Palestine Symphony just before World War II. Deeply influenced by the brutality and radicalism of World War I, Huberman built a career as Europe’s top violinist, a performer favored by royal houses but keenly attuned to anti-Semitism and the gathering storm of fascism.
As the documentary recounts, Huberman’s labor of love was beset by crises from the get-go, ranging from the 1936 Arab riots against Jews in Palestine to securing permission for musicians to leave Europe. Although the Germans had yet to occupy any of Europe in 1936, Nazi racial laws imitated across the continent had already banned Jews from cultural professions.
Despite the tense atmosphere, some Jewish musicians were unconvinced by Huberman’s warnings of imminent catastrophe, and chose to remain in familiar Vienna, Budapest and Amsterdam instead of moving to a Jewish state-in-the-making under siege.
Aronson’s film revisits a number of key moments in the symphony’s early years, including David Ben-Gurion’s initial opposition and later change of heart
For Huberman, the mission to create a Jewish orchestra of “exiles” was in part about the physical rescue of 70 Jewish musicians and more than 900 of their family members; however, the constantly imperiled project also held powerful symbolic meaning for Huberman, a humanist virtuoso committed to taking a stand against the Nazis.
Aronson’s documentary revisits a number of key moments in the symphony’s early years, including Ben-Gurion’s initial opposition and later change of heart; its tours of Egypt and Allied base camps during World War II; and members’ performance of Israel’s national anthem after the declaration of statehood.
Since 1948, the IPO has performed in dozens of countries and partnered with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. Many current IPO musicians are the grandchildren of founding members rescued by Huberman, or students of those musicians.
In a telephone conversation with The Times of Israel, Aronson — an Oscar nominee for the 2000 documentary “Sound and Fury” — discussed Huberman’s underappreciated legacy, whether the Schindler comparisons are accurate, and the famed violinist’s joking relationship with Albert Einstein.
A trimmed, condensed transcript of the interview appears below.
Why is this amazing rescue story not well-known outside musical circles in Israel?
Largely because Huberman was not a man who relished being acknowledged, his efforts are not well-known. When I asked cab drivers in Tel Aviv who Huberman and Toscanini were, the universal response was they are streets near the Mann Auditorium. But Huberman was a man who saved 1,000 Jews from the Nazis, and was the best-known violinist of his day. He stopped performing in Germany the same day Hitler came to power, and spent years trying to convince other musicians to follow his example. Eventually, all the Jewish musicians were kicked out anyway, which is why Huberman was able to assemble them to enact his fantasy of creating a Jewish philharmonic in Palestine.
What was it like making this film, from a Jewish perspective?
All of my family came to the states by 1917, well before [World War II], from Russia. As a Jew, I never had the courage to do deep research about the Holocaust. It was just too painful. But it was important for me to do this as a Jew. It was time. Making this film was a joy for me. I got to meet the “aristocracy” of Israel — all these octogenarians who were around in the ’30s and remember Zionism in its heyday. It was clear to them that the Jews needed a place. This project was a labor of love for me, and also my wife, whose violin playing can be heard in the [re-enacted] scenes with the child Huberman. We’re also excited to be opening the film in partnership with the Israel Philharmonic’s 28th tour in the United States.
You’ve been making documentaries for more than a decade, and this is your first film to make use of archival footage and re-creations. How has your experience with “Exiles” influenced your future projects?
I’m very comfortable in the documentary world. I like telling real stories about real people and developing my own projects from as close to scratch as possible. Each film takes me in new directions I could not have predicted. I’ve made three films about transsexuals, for instance. We went through thousands of documents in many languages to make this film. I need my projects to hold my attention and contain my passion.
As for Einstein’s musical abilities, Huberman used to joke, ‘He can’t count!’
What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
We are hoping the long life of this film will be in schools and educational settings. We want young people to see Huberman and Toscanini as role models who showed it was possible to stand up to intolerance. Huberman is someone who came to his worldview and moral outlook on his own, after a childhood of constant pressure from an abusive father. He became a public symbol for protest, delivering speeches and fundraising for his orchestra in the United States. I hope the message is that this was someone who cared, and dared to raise international attention about the Nazi menace. He was also someone deeply committed to the next generation, and required the orchestra’s founding members to recruit and teach new musicians.
How do you respond to comparisons of Huberman to Oskar Schindler, in that both men experienced personal transformations through rescuing European Jews?
I’ve always seen this as a Schindler-type story, except that Huberman, unlike Schindler, was Jewish. A lot of the [funding] foundations I approached for support on this film connected with this aspect of the story, especially that is was a Jew who led these efforts. To me, this offset the more typical narrative of Jews being sent to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter,” as they said then. But like the Schindler story, Huberman’s life was also filled with humor and relationships and deep connections to people as fellow human beings. Huberman sometimes read music and played violin with Albert Einstein, who also tried to alert the world to Nazism. As for Einstein’s musical abilities, Huberman used to joke, “He can’t count!” Huberman was a man very comfortable in high society who risked everything to make a statement on behalf of art and his fellow Jews.