Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Documentary DVD: Orchestra of Exiles

Orchestra of Exiles recounts the efforts of  violin virtuoso, Bronislaw Huberman, to rescue the best Jewish musicians from prewar Germany and Europe to form a new orchestra in Palestine. It is a story most outside both the music world and the Jewish community do not know. The documentary, which is 85 minutes in length, was written and directed by Josh Aronson, who himself is a renowned musician, a concert pianist, married to violinist Maria Bachmann.

The documentary begins by tracing the early musical formation of Bronislaw Huberman who was born into a poor Jewish family in 1882 in Czestochowa, Poland. Bronislaw's father was known for his bad temper but also for his passion for music. When Huberman was eight, his muscial abilities were very much evident so his father took him to Berlin, Germany to find the best teacher and he began his studies the following year with Joseph Joachim.

In 1894, Huberman was invited to perform at Adelina Patti's farewell party and she gave him an outstanding review. His father stopped his lessons to start Huberman's career and Huberman achieved early fame at the age of 13 when he played the Brahm's Violin Concerto in January of 1896. Brahms attended the concert and was so impressed he was moved to tears. Huberman played all over the world including America, Europe and Russia and he was acknowledged as a virtuoso.

The devastation of World War I changed Huberman, rousing his political consciousness and making him an ardent Pan-European, that is someone who believed in uniting all of Europe. He cancelled all his concerts for two years to study at the Sorbonne. During the interwar years, in 1922, the Pan-European movement which called for the unity of European states for peace was growing. In 1929, Huberman toured Palestine. He found the Jewish immigrants passionate for music but there was little culture. However, this was soon to change and that change was to be led by Huberman.

Huberman was stirred to action by the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933, who began implementing his anti-Semitic views by firing Jewish from the cultural institutions in Germany. This meant that thousands of Jewish musicians were out of work. Many with money and foresight left Europe. While others in the Jewish community felt that they could wait the situation out and that the hatred towards them would pass, Huberman understood what was going to happen in Germany and likely all over Europe.

As a result, Huberman cancelled all his concerts in Germany. In 1934, Joseph Goebels, Minister of Nazi Propaganda enacted a law allowing musicians to play in orchestras regardless of their race. Wilhelm Furtwangler who was conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic asked Huberman to reconsider but he declined as a way of protesting the Nazi regime. By 1935, every Jewish musician in the philharmonic was gone. Huberman left Germany and moved to Vienna, Austria.
"I am a Jew, a Pole, a Pan-European and by each of these characteristics I am a dead enemy of Nazism."
Although Vienna was now his home, Huberman was stunned by the indifference of the Viennese when the Jews were attacked during anti-Semitic violence. Huberman realized that with many fine musicians being fired from world class orchestras, this would be the opportunity to bring them to Palestine to form a new orchestra that would bring culture to a people who hungered for it.

In 1936, the most famous musician in the world, Arturo Toscanini refused to perform in Germany and adamantly refused even a personal invitation from Adolf Hitler. When Huberman learned of this, he met Toscanini who volunteered to conduct the opening concerts of the new orchestra in Palestine. It would be an orchestra composed of exiles.

Huberman through his remarkable foresight, knew that Nazism would spread throughout Europe and so he set began to select the best musicians from European countries. He held auditions and selected the best. The Warsaw Symphony was forty percent Jewish and Huberman knew most of them so he decided to hold blind auditions.

As it would turn out, Huberman's predictions proved correct and Nazism spread throughout Europe. Those who were recruited and emigrated to Palestine were saved. Those who were not, disappeared into the Holocaust never to be seen again. Huberman was responsible for saving the lives of almost 1000 Jews. Interestingly the documentary reveals two musicians who left Palestine after being recruited and who returned to Europe only to die in concentration camps.

Orchestra of Exiles dramatizes Bronislaw Huberman's life through realistic re-enactments. Aronson also portrays, through interviews with the descendents of some of the orchestra's founding musicians, the difficulties Huberman encountered as he worked to select musicians, obtain visas for them, permits to enter Palestine and transportation to their new home. For many it was to be a life or death situation. The documentary also explores the situation in Palestine in the mid 1930's, as strife between the Arab and Jewish nations escalated. There are many interviews with renowned Jewish musicians including Itzhak Perlman,  Pinchas Zukerman and Zubin Mehta. There is also an interesting story involved Huberman's violin and Joshua Bell.

Orchestra of Exiles came out of the suggestion by a friend of Aronson's, Dorit Grunschlag Straus, whose father, David Grunschlag was chosen by Bronislaw Huberman to travel to Palestine as part of the new orchestra. Grunschlag emigrated along with his parents and two sisters, thus saving them from the horrors of the Holocaust.

This documentary is well worth watching and tells a remarkable story about an incredible musician who put his career on hold to fight for what he believed in and to save an important part of his culture.

You can watch the trailer:

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