The Arty Semite

The Orchestra That Saved Hundreds

By Allen Ellenzweig

  • Print
  • Share Share

The Nazi era and the Holocaust are such monumental subjects that any documentary filmmaker dealing with them is bound to feel daunted by the challenge. At the same time, we would be foolish to think that even the most serious moviegoer is breathlessly waiting for the next cinematic inquiry into Hitler’s perverse universe.

Courtesy Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

All the more reason to pay attention to a film which finds its way into this period through the experience of a single person — in this case, an extraordinary musician. The documentary “Orchestra of Exiles” implicitly proposes that through the drama of one life the larger moral landscape can be illuminated. Yet if Branislaw Huberman had only been one of the 20th century’s great violinists, I’m not at all sure Josh Aaronson would have made a film as humane and inspiring as this one.

Here is the story of a child prodigy from Poland, born in 1882, prodded by an ambitious father to assure the family’s fortunes, and who became a savior and visionary in the service of his Jewish brethren. That Huberman may well have been a more flawed human being than the film has time to capture hardly diminishes Aaronson’s accomplishment as screenwriter and director.

Aaronson has done something difficult in his documentary, integrating dramatic sequences from Huberman’s life into archival newsreel footage, historical photographs and talking head interviews. These scenes are played by actors who appear as characters in the violinist’s life. Several actors, including two children, play Huberman at different stages, while others embody historical figures well known to us. These sequences are impressed with period detail, humanize the main characters, and are never played for histrionics.

What gives the film narrative shape is Aaronson’s decision to use the premiere concert of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (PSO) in 1936 as the starting point for a biographical “flashback” and then, finally, as Huberman’s personal and professional triumph and the film’s denouement. Bookended in this way, Huberman’s life unfurls as a classic tale of the Jewish violin prodigy encouraged to early excellence by a devoted teacher and pushed into the commercial spotlight by a demanding father. At a farewell appearance for the fading diva Adelina Patti, the boy’s performance eclipses hers. By age 12, Huberman is playing Brahms in concert before the skeptical composer, and gains a convert. Young Huberman proceeds to take European capitals by storm, yet the child is emotionally and intellectually sheltered.

Only after his father’s death, as a witness to the continental scourge that was the Great War, does the now mature prodigy begin to question his place in the world. He cancels his concerts and spends two years studying at the Sorbonne, returning to the concert stage as a more developed human being — his ethics and political sense more keenly attuned to a world in social and political flux.

The ascent of Hitler in Germany, followed by the banishment of Jewish musicians from all the Reich’s orchestras, hastens Huberman’s activism. Having already traveled to Palestine, Huberman foresees and seizes an opportunity. He determines to assemble the best Jewish musicians, now scrounging for work, and to create a permanent orchestra to settle in the Promised Land. He enlists Arturo Toscanini, doubtless the most famous conductor of the era, to lead the first concert of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.

In order to secure funds, Huberman performs a grueling series of fundraising concerts in the United States. But securing exit visas and permanent entry into Palestine for musicians creates nearly insurmountable administrative obstacles. Arab protests against increasing Jewish immigration to Palestine further postpone Huberman’s plans, while personally auditioning a broad cross-section of Jewish orchestra musicians desperate to find a way out of Germany leaves him in the uncomfortable position of playing God. Already by 1935 Huberman understands that the fate of those he does not invite into the orchestra can only be a dark one. Meanwhile, Huberman is uncompromising in his opposition to Nazi “spin”; he refuses Wilhelm Furtwangler’s invitation to perform at the Berlin Olympics opening concert and deplores the creation of separate Jewish orchestras for Jewish-only audiences as a collaborationist sop to Nazi anti-Semitism.

Aaronson intersperses voice-over narration and period newsreel footage and photography with a sometimes delightful, always thoughtful, occasionally humorous series of talking heads consisting of the cream of the concert world. We are in the privileged company of Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, Zubin Mehta and Leon Botstein, several highly articulate children of PSO musicians, and even a couple of original musicians themselves, who justly feel they owe their lives to Huberman. The commentary provided by these witnesses amplifies our sense of Huberman’s place in the classical firmament while also placing his work of cultural rescue in its moral and political dimension. In all, he certainly saved hundreds of lives. All this, and a rich array of great music deployed as soundtrack, including excerpts from a number of Violin Concerti originally recorded by Huberman.

In the end, the PSO manages a glamorous evening debut in late 1936 with the demanding Toscanini at the podium. Huberman himself does not perform, insisting that the spotlight remain on the orchestra. In a brief epilogue, we learn that Huberman died in 1947, having created the orchestra that would become, at the birth of the State of Israel, the brilliant Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. A nearly forgotten figure has been resurrected, his humanitarian and professional achievements given proper due. I defy you to leave with a dry eye.

’Orchestra of Exiles’ opens at the Quad Cinema in New York on October 26. Check here for more upcoming screenings.

Watch the trailer for ‘Orchestra of Exiles’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Orchestra of Exiles, Josh Aaronson, Film, Documentaries, Branislaw Humberman, Allen Ellenzweig

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.