November 15, 2019

Rescuing Jewish Musicians

When Zubin Mehta takes the stage at the Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 30 to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), most in the audience will know that they’re hearing a world-class orchestra. Very few will realize, however, that the IPO’s founding was integral to the origins of the modern Jewish state. That beginning not only inaugurated the arts in Israel, but it was coupled with the saving of untold numbers of Jews from the Holocaust. Now that story is being told on the big screen in director Josh Aronson’s “Orchestra of Exiles,” in first-run screenings at selected Laemmle theaters beginning Nov. 2.

It’s the story of Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947), a poor Polish Jew who rose to become one of Europe’s leading concert violinists of the early 20th century. As German orchestras began expelling their Jewish members, he had the vision to see the coming Holocaust. He fought the rampant European Jew hatred of the 1930s and ’40s with his greatest weapon: his violin. Huberman then leveraged his rock-star status to attract star Jewish soloists to join him in building a great symphony orchestra in Palestine. In so doing, he arranged for the safe exit of at least 1,000 Jews.

While Aronson has directed fictional screenplays, the 60-year-old filmmaker’s medium of choice is documentary filmmaking. His resume includes “Sound and Fury” (2000), “Beautiful Daughters” (2006) and “Bullrider” (2006). And as a documentarian, he’s used to being buttonholed about a subject.

“Everybody comes to you with the greatest story that’s never been told,” he says with a degree of weariness from his home in New York City. “But a friend of mine was going to Vienna to play with violinist Joshua Bell, to honor this long-dead violinist, Huberman. I’ve been a pianist since I was 5 years old, and my wife, Maria Bachmann, is a concert violinist, so I know classical music. But I didn’t know about Bronislaw Huberman.”

“When I heard who Huberman was and what he did,” Aronson enthuses, clearly energized by the memory, “I got it: one of the most renowned concert violinists of his time, who saved the essence of Jewish European culture from the Nazis and brought it to Palestine. I immediately knew I had to make this movie. How could I not tell this story?”

Aronson grew up in St. Louis. “My family came from Vilnius and Romania,” he says, “before World War I. So there are no Holocaust stories in my family. I’d never much looked into it before I started this project, but because of Huberman’s story, I knew it was time.”

“Orchestra of Exiles” features vibrant on-screen testimony from Mehta (whose history with the IPO stretches 50 years), violinists Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Bell. There is no film of Huberman, so historic photographs, newspapers and artifacts supply a sense of the time. Aronson also staged scenes with actors, shot in muted colors and soft-focus. He uses written passages — from Huberman, Adolf Hitler and Arturo Toscanini — to provide effective voice-overs.

Alongside Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Huberman was part of the post-World War I Pan-European movement. A utopian precursor to the European Union that was rendered irrelevant by World War II, its adherents thought it would inoculate Europe from war.

“Huberman was not a religious Jew,” Aronson surmises, “that I know of.” Does he make anything of the fact that all three were nonreligious Jews? “I don’t know,” Aronson ponders, “except to say that Jews have hearts; Jews care, and Jews have often known the horrors of war in ways that other people haven’t. I know Huberman spoke very passionately for Pan-Europeanism at his concerts.”

The movie contains some picturesque on-camera descriptions by Perlman, Zukerman and Bell of Huberman’s violin playing. Aronson clarifies: “Heifetz and Paganini were known for their very precise work; Huberman’s style was very different. He was much rougher — very emotional, very passionate and given to playing wrong notes now and then. But he didn’t care. There are recordings of him from the 1930s, but they’re not of good quality, so we really can’t know what the experience of hearing him was like. I suppose Nigel Kennedy would be the closest present-day violinist to Huberman.”

When Hitler assumed power in 1933, German Jews saw their freedom and work activities slowly constricting. German symphonies began to pink slip Jewish musicians, despite the fact that they were often their prize soloists. Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels knew the value of showing a benign treatment of Jews to the larger world. When a group of unemployed Jewish actors formed their own theater company, Goebbels loudly trumpeted it as an example of Nazi benevolence. Huberman wasn’t fooled, and he turned down offers to perform in Germany, including a personal plea from Hitler.

The Zionist movement was taking hold in Palestine, and it resonated with Huberman. Like Einstein, Huberman saw the gathering dark clouds in Europe and realized the need for a Jewish homeland. He began putting out a call to out-of-work Jewish musicians and held blind auditions in order to attract the absolute best players. Huberman was able to arrange for many safe passages to Palestine for musicians and even their family members. He moved Jews out of Europe up until 1939.

“There are no records,” Aronson says, “so we don’t know how many people Huberman was personally responsible for. At the very least it was 300, but it may have been as many as 3,000.”

Helgard Field (whose husband, Irwin Field, is a former publisher of the Jewish Journal and serves on the board) is on the national board of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (AFIPO) and is a member of the West Coast Chairmen’s Council of AFIPO. The AFIPO officially began in the 1980s as a support organization. “I heard that Zubin Mehta was conducting the orchestra in Buckingham Palace about 18 years ago, and I thought it was ironic that the concert was taking place right down the hall from where so many people who wanted to destroy Israel so many years ago had gathered,” Helgard Field says.

“This orchestra,” she points out, “was made up of specialists and soloists. It rose like a phoenix up out of the ashes of Europe. It now has musicians who are third-generation IPO members. And this documentary is a fascinating and vital document of what happened in Europe. It’s extremely important that young people everywhere see it.”

Making documentaries is a long-distance runner’s job. It’s not uncommon for biographers and documentarians to so thoroughly dissect their subjects that they lose all affection they once had for them. So, after completing the movie, how does Aronson ultimately feel about Huberman, the man? Pausing a moment to consider, he replies: “He had a lot of eccentricities, the way great artists do. And I already knew a fair amount of negatives about him; he didn’t really father his own son. But that’s a common theme with famous men. I ended up liking him for his dedication. He gave up half of his income when Hitler came to power by refusing to perform in Germany; a lot of great musicians stayed where they were, earning comfortable livings. For a while, anyway. …

“He’d seen real pogroms in Poland as a boy. And out of the anti-Semitism all around him, he saw an opportunity to build something great with, apparently, no interest in any personal accolades or publicity whatsoever. He was so famous by his 40s that I don’t think he cared at all about fame anymore. It’s just impossible that he didn’t see what he was doing as a mission of mercy.”


The film will screen locally at four Laemmle theaters: Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Town Center 5 in Encino, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, and Claremont 5 in Claremont.