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Huberman the Humanitarian

30 Mar, 2013 By: Ashley Ratcliff

‘Orchestra of Exiles’ recognizes Jewish musician’s 1930s rescue mission

Chances are you didn’t learn about Bronislaw Huberman in high school history. Still, the Polish violinist’s unwavering stance against Nazism led to him saving almost 1,000 Jews from the grasp of Adolph Hitler’s regime.

Documentarian Josh Aronson places the courageous, unsung musician at the center of his latest project, Orchestra of Exiles, due out on DVD ($27.95) from First Run Features April 9.

“It just seemed remarkable that this story had never been told, either in book form or in a film,” Aronson said. “And I thought this was just an opportunity that I had to grab. I’m a Jew who had never done the in-depth research on the Holocaust. I owed it to myself and my father, and my history, that I, at one point in my life, should do that research.”

Aronson, also a musician, said the name Huberman was vaguely familiar prior to beginning the project. However, his friend, amateur pianist Dorit Straus (daughter of David Grunschlag, who was Huberman’s student), approached him about making a film about her family being spared, and that’s what sparked his interest in bringing Huberman’s story to the masses.

“They’re all here because of the efforts of one man,” Aronson said.

Huberman went through a laborious three-year process of choosing the greatest musicians of the day to be a part of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra — now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. By relocating them to Palestine, they were shielded from the Nazis’ extermination of Jews.

Similarly, Aronson underwent a three-year journey to make Orchestra of Exiles. He said it was a rewarding journey, but a challenging one nonetheless, including the painstaking process of improving the quality of the archival photographs.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle Aronson had to tackle was crafting a script based on letters, articles and interviews written in German, which meant spending a lot of money, time and energy working with translators.

“I had to become an expert of that era, so it drew me personally,” he said. “I saw that Huberman and [acclaimed musician Arturo] Toscanini were two men who stood up against intolerance in a time when a lot of people weren’t, and a lot of nations were not taking a stand publicly about the racial policies in Germany. People were looking the other way. Even Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt didn’t want to get in the middle of it.”

While researching for the film, Aronson said he learned a great deal, and found “amazing characters” such as Albert Einstein, an ally of Huberman’s, to enrich the story. There were many surprises along the way, as well— for example, Huberman’s battle with Israeli statesman David Ben-Gurion.

Ben-Gurion was thought of as a great hero of Israel, but upon further research the writer-director learned that he “couldn’t care less about music and culture.”

Orchestra of Exiles also chronicles the little-known Jewish Kulturbund, a cultural society of artists, actors and musicians fired from German institutions because of their heritage. The organization was led by director Kurt Singer, a man Aronson calls “perhaps delusional” for thinking that he could manage the relationship with the Nazis so that he could protect his Jewish performers and stay in Germany.

“What a story. Of course, he was completely wrong and many died in the Holocaust,” Aronson said. “And he was fighting to keep them in Germany because he couldn’t replace them with musicians who were leaving. That story was fascinating. Who knew? It was thrilling, actually, to find this information.”

Throughout the various screenings for the documentary, Aronson has met many Huberman descendants. The Jewish violinist died in 1947, but his brothers moved to the United States and raised families.

If Aronson had the chance to speak with Huberman, he said he would ask the musician this question: Was your primary motivation to start an orchestra in Palestine or was your primary motivation to rescue Jews from a coming Holocaust?

“Everybody had a different perspective on that, and the consensus was … it was both,” Aronson said. “Huberman scholars would say, he really was not trying to rescue people; he was trying to start an orchestra. He was only taking the best he could get. It was 1936, before there were concentration camps or extermination camps. No one knew what was coming.”

“There are others who will say, that can’t be the case because he had a timeline that was increasingly taut,” he continued. “As it moved toward 1936, he stopped doing everything else in order to get this done faster. He started writing letters to the effect that this was becoming a mission of rescue, as well as a mission of making his orchestra.”

Renowned musicians such as Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta, Pinchas Zukerman and Joshua Bell give commentary in the documentary. For the most part, Aronson said he was able to speak with everyone he hoped to, except Daniel Barenboim, a prominent Israeli pianist and conductor.

Bonus material includes a filmmaker interview and bonus shorts, including “Music Education: The Legacy of the IPO,” “Huberman’s Dream,” “Why Jews Stayed in Europe” and “The Power of Music,” a personal favorite of Aronson’s.

Aronson also counts Orchestra of Exiles as one of his favorite projects, alongside 2000’s Sound and Fury.

“It was just sort of a real love affair for me, to have lived it and molded it … and have the freedom to tell the story as I saw it,” he said. “Both of these stories touched me in a way that few other projects ever have. It was a great piece of good fortune for me that for the past three years I could spend it learning all that I did and meeting the people in Poland, Germany and Israel who remembered those years — the ’30s — and could tell me stories that would just make the hair on the back of your head stand on end. It was thrilling. It’s why we are documentary filmmakers.”

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