The Man Who Saved The Musicians of Europe

Posted on Saturday, July 31, 2021
by AMAC Newsline

Written by: Herald Boas

He was one of the greatest violinists of all time – at the level of Paganini, Joachim and Heifetz. But his humanitarian and cultural impact was even bigger than his virtuosity: he literally saved an entire generation of European musicians and their families from being murdered in the Holocaust, and in doing so, he created a new leading international orchestra.

Born in old Poland in 1882, Bronislaw Huberman was a musical prodigy before he was ten years old. At that age, he became the student of the most famous classical violinist in the world at the time, Josef Joachim. Huberman soon began performing all over Europe. In 1896, he performed the Brahms violin concerto with the composer in the audience. Brahms said he was dazzled by the brilliance of the young Huberman’s playing.

When he was 11, Huberman gave a concert which the six year-old piano prodigy Artur Rubinstein and his parents attended. Invited to their home, Huberman and Rubinstein became pals and remained lifelong friends.

As he grew into adulthood, Huberman’s reputation swelled as he performed in the world’s leading concert halls, and he was regularly invited to perform privately for Europe’s royal families.

Interestingly, this legendary violinist was the victim of one of the greatest musical thefts of the 20th Century, involving Huberman’s favorite instrument – an exceedingly fine and rare 1713 Stradivarius. In 1936, the instrument was stolen from Huberman’s hotel room in New York City and never recovered during in his lifetime. Lloyd’s of London paid him $30,000 (a large sum in those days) for his loss. Fifty years later, a local New York musician made a deathbed confession that he had taken the violin and played it all those years. His wife returned the violin, and it was recently sold to the violinist Joshua Bell for $4,000,000.

In 1929, Huberman made his first visit to British-occupied Palestine, a trip that would plant the seed of a dream to create an orchestra there. A few years later when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Huberman presciently foresaw that all of Europe’s Jews were in great danger. He was particularly aware that many of Europe’s orchestra musicians were Jewish, so he transformed his earlier dream of creating an orchestra into an extraordinary way to save his fellow musicians and their families.

Huberman began to resettle German musicians and their families in Tel Aviv, organizing the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. While touring as a performer, Huberman tirelessly enlisted Christian and Jewish leaders around the world, including Albert Einstein and others, for their support, even as many politicians, knowing full well about the concentration camps, did nothing to rescue Hitler’s millions of victims until it was too late.

By the mid-1930s, the notorious Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, desperate to try to restore Germany’s plummeting cultural reputation because of the regime’s persecution of Jewish artists, decreed that famous Jewish musicians could perform (although all Jewish orchestra members had been fired). Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler then invited several musicians, including Huberman, to perform in Berlin. None accepted. Huberman not only refused, he wrote an open letter to all German cultural leaders calling on them to resist the growing Nazi oppression.

The first concert of Huberman’s new orchestra took place in Tel Aviv in December of 1936 with Arturo Toscanini, then the most famous conductor in the world and an anti-fascist who had turned down Hitler’s personal invitation to come to Germany, leading the symphony of exiles.

Subsequent performances were broadcast by radio throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the United States as an open rebuke to Nazi anti-Semitism.

As the Nazis overran Europe, Huberman added musicians from Austria, Poland, Hungary, and other countries to his list of exiles.

Living in Vienna during much of the pre-war period, Huberman fled to Switzerland a year before the Nazis marched into Austria. During a tour in Asia, he survived a plane crash in Sumatra, suffered serious damage to his arm and fingers. By intensive and painful effort and retraining, he was able to resume performing.

In 1947, a weary Bronislaw Huberman died. He was only 65. He did not live to see his beloved Promised Land become the State of Israel a year later, but like another rescuer of his people, Moses, he could see it coming. Not only had he saved 1,000 of Europe’s musicians and their families—he is of course indirectly responsible for the existence of the thousands of their children and descendants.

Huberman’s orchestra, renamed the Israel Philharmonic in 1948, is today one of the world’s great orchestras. His violin, lost for half a century, has been found, and now is heard through the playing of one his best successors.

A deeply moving film from 2012, Orchestra of Exiles, written and directed by Josh Aronson, depicts the epic story of Huberman’s rescue of the European musicians and their families.

In all, Bronislaw Huberman lived an extraordinary life through an extraordinary time and left a remarkable legacy that still impacts the musical world today.

Not bad for a fiddler from old Poland.