Bronisław Huberman (1882-1947)
A Polish violinist who has been nicknamed the ‘Oskar Schindler of musicians,’ Bronisław Huberman helped to save an estimated one thousand lives during the Holocaust through the foundation of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic).
Born to a Jewish family in Częstochowa, Poland, Huberman showed musical promise at a young age and began studying the violin with his father at the age of four. He attended the Warsaw Conservatory from the age of seven, shortly thereafter beginning lessons with Joseph Joachim in Berlin. By the time he was twelve he had toured Europe and the United States as a child prodigy. Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary, gave the young Huberman the Stradivarius ‘Gibson’ violin after attending his concert in Paris in 1895. The following year, Huberman performed the Brahms violin concerto to an audience that included Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss and Brahms himself, impressing the composer who congratulated the young prodigy after the concert.
Huberman suffered from depression and insomnia throughout his life, possibly a result of the relentless performing schedule that he undertook as a child. He was married to the actress Elsa Galafrés in 1909. They had a son, Johannes, before she left him for the composer Ernő Dohnányi; Huberman met his partner, German nurse Ida Ibbeken, at a Viennese health clinic in 1916. In 1920, he took time away from performing to study social and political sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he joined the Pan-Europa (now the International Paneuropean Union), a political group that advocated for the political, economic and military union of European countries. He met Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein through the organisation.
Huberman performed in Palestine in 1929 and 1931. Having previously taken an anti-Zionist stance, he began to formulate the idea of improving the national Palestinian Orchestra, though he reasoned that Jewish musicians would not give up their roles in prominent European orchestras to move to Palestine, as it did not enjoy a prestigious cultural reputation. After 1933 however, Jewish musicians began to lose their places in prominent German orchestras (despite conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler’s efforts to ensure their safety), and Huberman’s idea began to seem like a realistic possibility.
Huberman moved to Vienna in 1934 to become director of the Akademie für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, and though he continued to tour Europe and further afield, he refused to perform in Germany, turning down a prestigious invitation from Furtwängler to perform as a soloist in the Berlin Philharmonic’s 1934 opening season. As the situation in Germany become more precarious for Jewish musicians following the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, Huberman put his plans for a Palestinian orchestra into action, approaching wealthy Jews in America and Britain to ask for financial assistance. Jewish community leader (and future first Prime Minister of Israel) David Ben-Gurion agreed to provide permanent residence certificates for seventy Jewish musicians and their families, to be chosen by Huberman through a series of auditions in Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria during 1935.
The task was not an easy one, and Huberman initially struggled to convince the musicians that they would be better off in Palestine; some chose to stay and work for the Kulturbund. He also had difficulty raising sufficient funds to support the musicians’ travel, wages, and the renovation of a fairground complex in Tel Aviv which would be used as a rehearsal space and concert venue. On a fund-raising concert tour across the US in early 1936, Huberman’s Stradivarius was stolen from his dressing room whilst he was onstage at Carnegie Hall performing on another instrument. The violin had previously been stolen in Vienna – for a few hours before it was found – but this time Huberman would not be so lucky; he was never reunited with his beloved violin. Further complications arose when political unrest in Palestine forced Ben-Gurion to withdraw the offer of permanent residence certificates to members of the orchestra and their families.
Nevertheless, Huberman continued his American tour, securing the remaining funds to pay for the orchestra through a benefit dinner hosted by Albert Einstein in New York. Huberman also engaged celebrated Italian conductor and outspoken anti-fascist Arturo Toscanini to conduct the first season of concerts in Palestine. Toscanini elected to perform works by the Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn, whose music was banned in Germany. Huberman appealed to Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organisation, who agreed to provide the necessary visas for the musicians to emigrate to Palestine.
The first concert by the new Palestine Symphony Orchestra took place on the 26 December 1936, and included performances of Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon Overture, Rossini’s Overture to La Scala di Seta, Brahms’ Second Symphony, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and the Nocturne and Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The concert was broadcast live across the world on the radio. The orchestra performed with Toscanini in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa in December-January 1936-37, and performed for the Allied Forces during the war. The name was changed to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1948 when Israel became an independent state, and has since been conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta.
Huberman became a US citizen in 1941 and moved to Switzerland after the war. He passed away on 16 June 1947. It is estimated that he saved the lives of 1000 Jewish musicians and their families from Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, France, Georgia, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland, Croatia and the Ukraine, including the violinist David Grunschlag and the flautist Uri Toeplitz.
The Gibson Stradivarius was discovered in 1986 after Julian Altman made a deathbed confession. It is now played by Joshua Bell, who has performed numerous times with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
by Abaigh McKee
Aronson, J. and George, D. (2016) Orchestra of Exiles (New York: Berkley Books)
Aronson, J. (2012) (dir.) Orchestra of Exiles (Aronson Film Associates, United Channel Movies)
Bronislaw Huberman website (2017) available at www.bronislawhuberman.com; accessed 22/5/2017.
Groth, L. (2013) (ed.) It Runs in the Family (Ya Ya Ya…Vater Productions in association with Thrice Cooked Chicken Films and Svee-Tart Productions)