A stand in the desert

A stand in the desert

Orchestra of Exiles’ depicts pre-war Jewish flight to Palestine and the origins of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

By Jana J. Monji 11/02/2012

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Josh Aronson’s documentary “Orchestra of Exiles” is the story of opportunities lost and found during desperate times, specifically Germany of the 1930s under the Nazis.

Using old photos, black and white newsreel clips, re-enactments filmed in color and current day interviews — mostly with the children of the original musicians — the documentary lovingly recounts how violinist Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish-born child prodigy, used his fame to form the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.

After visiting Palestine in 1929, Huberman, who was 47 and world-renowned at the time, began working toward establishing classical music there. By that time, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were rising to power in Germany.
Come 1933, the Nazis had seized the German government. That year, internationally known Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini canceled an engagement in Germany to protest fascism, which had also long gripped his own country under Benito Mussolini. Although he was a fascist in the 20s, Toscanini abandoned those beliefs and came to despise Mussolini and Hitler.

Hitler wrote a letter to Toscanini, who later came to the United States to head the NBC Symphony Orchestra, to reconsider, but it did not alter the conductor’s decision. Huberman, who was living in Switzerland when he was invited back to preach a “musical peace” with the Nazi government, also refused to perform in Germany, where other Jewish musicians were either being fired or shut out of work.

Determined to form an orchestra in Palestine, Huberman began auditioning musicians, especially Jewish musicians. He toured at a hectic and unhealthy pace in order to raise the necessary funds, but he was unable to come up with it all, eventually asking Albert Einstein for help. Einstein, an amateur violinist who was friends with Huberman and often read music with him, obliged and a benefit dinner raised the necessary funds.

Yet, other political issues still had to be dealt with. Palestine at that time was under British control and the increased immigration of Jews to Arab lands resulted in violent protests. But eventually things worked out and in 1936, a year before his departure for New York City, Toscanini was in Palestine, conducting the new Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1948, three years after World War II and one year after Huberman’s death, the orchestra would become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Aronson provides us with a lot of facts here. The depth of his research is impressive, and even some archival footage of both Hitler and Huberman is included. If only he had trusted the authentic voices of the survivors and their children to carry the film instead of using re-enactment voice actors. Perhaps the most poignant moments are the stories of the people almost saved by Huberman, who, according to the film, rescued about 1,000 Jews from certain death in Germany.

But what about the ensuing issues created as a result of Jewish immigration? Would things have been different if Huberman had shown equal concern for the Arabs under occupation by the British imperialists? One cringes when an interviewee states, “It must have been hard to come to a place where culture was almost nonexistent.” I imagine Arab Palestinians (Muslim or Christian) would disagree vehemently with that statement.

Despite its faults, “Orchestra of Exile” is well worth seeing. Imagine yourself in a similar situation: Would you recognize a life-saving opportunity when it was offered?

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