One of the most important yet forgotten heroes of the Holocaust was Bronislaw Huberman, the violinist who helped get a number of persecuted Jewish musicians out of a Europe on the verge of total Nazi occupation and into Palestine, where they would become the members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Huberman’s story is told for the first time in the documentary Orchestra of Exiles, which will screen at Spertus Institute’s Feinberg Theater on Thursday, June 20 at 7 p.m. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joshua Aronson will be present for a post-film discussion.
Huberman was born in Poland and became a child prodigy on violin at age 12. He moved to Palestine in the early 1930s and found there a strong appetite for Jewish culture. With Hitler firing thousands of the best musicians in Germany and the threat against Jews rising, he endeavored to create an orchestra in Palestine, effectively saving hundreds of Jews and their families from the Holocaust.
The film features interviews with Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta, Pinchas Zukerman and more, including the children of many of the musicians Huberman saved. Aronson unearthed rare photos and footage and had countless letters translated between Huberman and other notorious personalities of the day, including Arturo Toscanini and David Ben-Gurion, to tell this story. He spoke with JUF News about his film and its little-known hero.
JUF News: What draws you to a subject and when does it reach the point that you have to make a film about it?
Joshua Aronson: I’m only doing films that completely grab me. I wait until it really is vibrating and really is staying with me before I really proceed and dive in [full-throttle] because it’s so difficult to make these films that you want to make sure a year and a half out you’re still engaged. The other element in terms of choosing a project is what’s the world I’m going to be living in? And do I want to live in the world awhile? Being a Jew and never having worked on the literature of the Holocaust I thought it was time I did that.
With so many fascinating sub-stories that emerge out of the Holocaust narrative, what makes this one unique and important?
Here’s a story of a Jew who saved a thousand Jews, which is a very vital piece of history because he was forgotten and he had no interest in accolades. And then this is a man who saw a way to—while he’s saving a thousand Jews—bring the seeds of culture to a Palestine that had only Arab culture there. There was no other existing culture that was going to inform what Israel was going to become. When Huberman brought European music to Palestine in 1936, he demanded that all his musicians teach, to pass it on, to move it along. In interviewing the violinists, I asked them all, “do you think that Huberman was the reason we have this vast Israeli culture today?” and they basically all agreed with me.
What was it like talking to so many incredible musicians?
I’m a musician, so for me it’s great to hang out with the music gods of the world. People always say, “how did you get those people?” If you’re doing a story like this and you’ve already interviewed Pinchas Zukerman and Zubin Mehta, how can Itzhak turn me down?
In addition to his mission, what will viewers learn about Huberman as a person?
In his letters to Wilhelm Furtwangler [conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic], Huberman demonstrates his character as a man in standing up against intolerance and walking away from a lucrative career move in Germany and basically sacrificing himself physically and financially for his mission. He had such a resistance to fascism and these racial policies that were getting worse and worse every month that he stood out against it. The quality of the man comes out so clearly in the film in standing up against intolerance publically and vocally in that way that that certainly is the educational message and the takeaway for students.
What has the reaction been of audiences so far? What are the more interesting responses you’ve gotten?
I’ve screened it all over the world now, and what I get that I’ve never gotten before, is a consistent comment to me, that I must be so proud to have made this film. It’s true. The reason for it is because they recognize that it’s a piece of history that was missed. People talk to me about the importance of this story and having it out in the world forever and having his name brought back as a heroic character of the Jewish people.
Tickets to see “Orchestra of Exiles” are $18 for the public, $10 for Spertus members and $8 for students with a valid student ID. They can be purchased online at spertus.edu or by calling (312) 322-1773.