The Orchestra of Exiles: Bronislaw Huberman

He rescued hundreds of Jewish musicians and their families.

Bronislaw Huberman was a violin prodigy who saved thousands of European Jews by creating an “Orchestra of Exiles.”

Born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1882, Bronislaw’s musical ability was apparent from an early age. His father recognized his talent, and took him out of school to focus full-time on music lessons. He started performing publicly at the age of 7.

As an adult, Bronislaw toured extensively, playing sold-out shows throughout Europe. In 1929, he visited Palestine, then under British rule, and was received with great enthusiasm. There was little “high culture” in the Holy Land at that time, and Bronislaw dreamed of one day creating a Palestine orchestra.

By 1933, anti-Semitism was spreading rapidly in Europe. Jewish musicians were being fired from major orchestras and blacklisted so they couldn’t work again. Bronislaw was one of the few Jews who wasn’t fired – Hitler felt it would look bad for Germany to fire the most famous violinist in Europe. Disgusted by the Nazi regime, Bronislaw quit his job with the Berlin Philharmonic and wrote a public letter denouncing Nazism.

Although many people were still in denial, Bronislaw saw clearly that there was no future for Jews in Europe. He came up with a plan to save Jewish musicians: he would create the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. “One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism,” Bronislaw said. “A first class orchestra would be that fist.”

The British let very few Jews into Palestine, and refugees had to prove they could earn a living. The orchestra would be a way to guarantee employment for the greatest Jewish musicians in Europe.

Bronislaw went to extraordinary lengths to get visas for Jewish musicians, and in many cases their families as well. He raised money from music lovers such as Albert Einstein, and recruited non-Jewish celebrity musicians to help the cause. Famed Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini traveled to Palestine with Bronislaw in 1936 to train the orchestra.

The Palestine Symphony Orchestra’s first concert was on December 26, 1936 in Tel Aviv, conducted by Toscanini. The show was sold out, and people who couldn’t get tickets surrounded the building, even climbing on the roof, so they could hear the beautiful music. At the end of the concert, the audience gave the musicians a thirty minute standing ovation.

If it hadn’t been for Bronislaw Huberman, approximately 1000 people – musicians and their families – would have been stuck in Europe during the Holocaust, facing likely extermination. Instead, a world-class orchestra was born.

The Palestine Symphony Orchestra is now known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. They have performed internationally under some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta.

Sadly, anti-Semitism still pervades Europe, and the orchestra’s performance in London in 2011 was shut down by screeching anti-Israel protestors. The British government declined to prosecute the disruptors, and the Israel Philharmonic announced they are unlikely to ever perform in the UK again.

For saving the lives of hundreds of Jewish musicians and their families, and brightening the world with his violin-playing, we honor Bronislaw Huberman as this week’s Thursday Hero at Accidental Talmudist.

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