Friday 7 March 2014

Orchestra of Exiles

"One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism -- a first class orchestra will be that fist."
(Bronislaw Huberman)

Bronislaw Huberman.jpg

Europe's top violinist saved 1000 Jews from Hitler's gas chambers by forming an orchestra of exiles.  In the process, he also saved Europe's music culture.  Here is his story. 

Child prodigy Bronislaw Huberman mastered the violin by the age of 12 when he played for composer Johannes Brahms.  Born in Poland, he later moved to Berlin to continue his study of the violin.  He toured the great halls of Europe and was appointed director of the Vienna State Music Academy.

During World War I, Huberman was arrested as "an enemy of the state" in Germany due to his Jewish heritage.  The political scene, however, settled down in the 1920's.

With the arrival of Hitler in 1933, however, Huberman saw the writing on the wall.  He held a concert in Vienna to benefit victims of an anti-Jewish riot.  The Nuremberg laws took effect by 1935, prohibiting Jews from marrying non-Jews and from voting.  By the year's end, there were no Jews left in the Berlin Philharmonic.

Nuremburg laws courtesy

In 1934, the violinist started to form an orchestra of exiles made up of Jews fired from Europe's finest symphonies.  He travelled for two years throughout Europe, auditioning musicians for his orchestra like Horst Salomon, a French horn player fired from the Berlin Philarmonic.  Albert Einstein held a benefit at New York's Waldorf-Astoria to fundraise the last $80,000 that the orchestra needed to begin touring. 

By 1936, Huberman's orchestra was ready to perform.  Called the Palestine Philharmonic, its members staged their first concert on December 26, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.  Three thousand concert goers listened to the strains of Brahms and Mendolssohn that night including the British High Commissioner and Golda Meier.  The same year, Huberman had an open letter of protest against Nazi aggression and anti-Semitism published in newspapers worldwide.

Arturo Toscanini courtesy

Huberman's successful orchestra soon became a refuge for Europe's Jewish musicians as the violinist drafted a list of prospective members taken from cities like Warsaw, Budapest, Amsterdam and Vienna.  Huberman fundraised in the United States to secure financing for the orchestra.  He also battled Europe's bureaucracies to get work permits for its musicians.  

Huberman moved to the United States from 1941 to 1945 to escape Nazi oppression.  At war's end, Huberman returned to Europe, but died only two years later due to the effects of exhaustion.  Thanks to his orchestra, he saved not only 75 musicians but also hundreds of family members and friends.  Thanks to his foresight, he saved not only Europe's Jews, but Europe's culture.  In 1948, the state of Israel was founded and the Palestine Symphony Orchestra was renamed the Israel Philharmonic.  And the band played on...

Palestine Symphony Orchestra courtesy


  1. I never tire of holocaust stories, not since reading The Diary of Anne Frank when I was 13. Thanks for this.

  2. You're welcome, Rose! I also read The Diary of Anne Frank as a girl. Last month I saw the play at Theatre Burlington. It was excellent!