How the Israel Philharmonic Saved Jews From the Nazis

— by Hannah Lee
I did not hear of this in time to write about it for Yom HaShoah or Yom Ha’Atzmaut, but I didn’t want to sit on it for a whole year.  It was aired on Israel’s Channel 2 in April.  My husband’s maternal uncle, Yaacov Mishori, emeritus principal horn player of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and a former member of the orchestra management team, appears on-camera as one of the commentators.  The two video clips together total one hour of viewing; they are in Hebrew with Hebrew subtitles, but some of the people interviewed speak in English.

When you search the origins of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), you get a brief paragraph on Wikipedia:

The IPO was founded by violinist Bronisław Huberman in 1936, at a time when many Jewish musicians were being fired from European orchestras. Its inaugural concert took place in Tel Aviv on December 26, 1936, and was conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

However, the full story is much more heartbreaking.  

More after the jump.

Bronislaw Huberman, born in Częstochowa, Poland in 1882, was a child prodigy on the violin.  At the tender age of 14, he performed the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms in the presence of the composer, who cried and was “stunned by the quality of his playing.”  [“Around this time the six-year- old Arthur Rubinstein saw one of Huberman’s concerts.  Rubinstein’s parents invited Huberman back to their house and the two boys struck up what would become a lifetime friendship.”]  

During the ’30s, Huberman sought a way to help his fellow musicians who were facing persecution and murder at the hands of the Nazis.  He devised a plan that used the guise of recruiting musicians for a newly created Palestine Orchestra, funding the effort with his own money.  There were only 72 spots in the orchestra.  He auditioned his musicians, standing with his back to the musicians, because he knew that anyone he did not select would most likely perish during wartime Europe.  The chosen ones were all excellent musicians of high-standing.  Some even defected to the kibbutzim shortly after arriving, allowing Huberman the opportunity to recruit additional Jews.  The languages spoken by the early members of the orchestra were German, Polish, Hungarian, and Russian.  The orchestra later changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and it played “Hatikvah” at the Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948 at the Tel Aviv Museum.

In a similar manner was the welcome offered in American academia, including the creation of the Committee on Social Thought in 1941 at the University of Chicago by the historian John U. Nef, the economist Frank Knight, the anthropologist Robert Redfield, and Robert M. Hutchins, then President of the university.   Lore passed down by the students say that the new department was created to provide a convenient haven for refugees fleeing from wartime Europe.  Over the years, temporary and permanent refugee members of the Committee have included Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Allan Bloom, Friederich Hayek, Leszek Kolakowski, Edward Levi, Paul Ricoeur, and Karl J. Weintraub.

The video clips are bracketed by the playing of Brahms in Częstochowa’s synagogue (now a concert hall) by Joshua Bell, an American with Jewish maternal ancestry.  There were dual historical and personal connections, because Bell now plays on a Stradivarius violin called the Gibson ex Huberman (the names of its first two owners), which was made in 1713.  It had been stolen twice in its lifetime: once for three days in 1919 and the second time on February 28, 1936 from the dressing room of Carnegie Hall.  Huberman never saw it again in his lifetime.  The violin only re-surfaced in 1985 with the deathbed confession of the thief, a former nightclub musician named Julian Altman.  Bell was able to buy the violin for just under $4 million dollars, right before it was to be sold to a German industrialist to become part of a collection.   Bell’s maternal grandmother was from Minsk and his maternal grandfather was born in Israel, so Bell mused on the video that “he might have listened to Huberman play.”

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