On the brink of World War II and the rise of Nazi-occupation, one man’s remarkable four-year odyssey helped rescue Europe’s premier Jewish musicians and their families from persecution, while preserving the musical heritage of Europe. Orchestra of Exiles, a 90-minute documentary film by Academy Award-nominated Josh Aronson, airing Sunday, April 14 at 10 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), tells the dramatic story of celebrated Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947). With courage, resourcefulness, and an entourage of allies including Arturo Toscanini and Albert Einstein, Huberman bravely stood up to racial intolerance, ultimately saving almost 1,000 Jews from 1933–1936 while forming the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.
Music and politics mesh in this film about saving lives and classical music history itself. Receiving high praise after playing in front of Johannes Brahms at age 12, violinist Bronsilaw Huberman quickly rose to fame as a young violin prodigy. Pressured by his father, the teenager supported his family by touring Europe and playing concerts for society’s elite. After the death of his father and desiring the broader education that his father had denied him, Huberman canceled all his scheduled concerts and enrolled at the Sorbonne, sacrificing his own professional and financial security. It was studying there, as well as witnessing the devastation of World War I, that triggered an intense interest in humanity and politics. After university, Huberman regained his place among the elite musicians of the world but with a new perspective, now astutely aware of the realities of world politics.
In the early 1930s, as part of his anti-Semitic agenda, Adolph Hitler began forcing Jewish musicians out of the great German orchestras. Sensing the ominous danger looming and seeing an opportunity, Huberman set out to create an orchestra in Palestine made of these top-tier Jewish musicians. He aspired to form a world-class orchestra that would build the prestige of Jews everywhere while serving as a powerful tool to protest the Nazi regime on a global stage.
“I had to descend into the furthest depths of my soul to find the hidden link between my impulse towards art and my impulse towards politics, and then I made a huge discovery. The true artist does not create art as an end in itself. He creates art for human beings. Humanity is the goal,” Huberman noted about his political consciousness in a letter.
Over a course of three years, Huberman conducted auditions with the top Jewish musicians in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Palestine, and Poland. He lobbied for hundreds of certificates of entry into Palestine and turned his own concerts into fundraisers to raise the substantial money needed for the creation of the orchestra. By December 1936, Huberman had safely brought hundreds of Jews to Palestine—including 56 musicians to play in the inaugural concerts conducted by the world-renowned Arturo Toscanini, who agreed to conduct as a public protest of the Nazi regime. The rehearsals and inaugural concerts were seen by 15,000 people and were heard on radio around the world, changing the landscape of cultural history. In 1948, with 44 of its founding members, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra was renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra by the first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben Gurion, and still carries on today under the artistic direction of Zubin Mehta as a leading force in the world of music.
Orchestra of Exiles features interviews with acclaimed musicians Joshua Bell, Leon Botstein, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and others, and draws from archival footage, photographs, and re-creations shot in Germany, New York, Poland, and Israel.
Orchestra of Exiles is an Aronson Film Associates Production in association with THIRTEEN for WNET, one of America’s most prolific and respected public media providers. For 50 years, WNET has been producing and broadcasting national and local arts programming to the New York community. Orchestra of Exiles is produced, written and directed by Josh Aronson. Julie Anderson is executive producer for THIRTEEN.
Bronislaw Huberman was a man who performed a unique and extraordinary feat of sustained heroism between 1933 and 1936—an action that ultimately saved 1,000 Jews and re-defined the cultural world forever. And yet, when his story was told to me four years ago by the daughter of one of the men he saved, I had never heard of Huberman or his powerful journey. I was instantly intrigued and soon learned that little had been written about this great man and a film had never been made of this story. I never looked back and spent the next three years making Orchestra of Exiles.
The research necessitated the translation of thousands of letters, interviews and articles in libraries from Berlin to Tel Aviv. That process would take two years and in reviewing the material and writing the script I came to realize that the film would be structurally complex and would touch on many themes. But at root it was clear the film must present the story of a man with burning moral fiber who saw intolerance and, with his response, truly changed the world.
Huberman was not born to fulfill such a high purpose—he came to it through personal struggle and heightened sensitivity that came after long years of sacrifice. By all reports he was a highly complex man—hard to know, eccentric, driven. Huberman was not given to self analysis or personal revelation in his letters or writings, and this made his personal story all the more difficult to get hold of.
Born in Poland in 1882, he was a true violin prodigy who played for Brahms at 12. Huberman’s father soon saw gold in his son’s violin and presented his gifted boy all over the world to make money. Young Huberman was denied a childhood, education and his family. It took his father’s sudden death, and bearing witness to the human disaster of WWI, for Huberman to begin to re-create himself. He canceled all of his concerts at the height of his career and enrolled at the Sorbonne to educate himself. In two years he would return to a monumental career, humanized and politicized.
The artist who emerged from university re-took his place among the elite musicians of the world but he had a different perspective on life than before. Within a decade he was confronted by the realities of the political world between the Wars—Hitler, anti- Semitism, Palestine, Zionism—and by then Huberman had the power, imagination and moral fortitude to envision the remarkable goals that he would accomplish between 1933 and 1939.
Orchestra of Exiles depicts the grueling story of the birth of the Palestine Symphony. But at its core, this is a deeply human story of Huberman’s personal transformation from a career-driven eccentric into a politically aware humanist who dedicated himself to his political and humanist goals.
I have made documentary films on a wide range of subjects and have learned that the ones I’ve been most proud of, and that made a difference in the world, are the films in which the basic human story grabbed me viscerally from the start and whose subjects engaged me for the thrilling extended ride of exploration and research. Orchestra of Exiles was one of these projects.
Josh Aronson, Director
After starting his career as a still photographer for Time Life, Aronson began directing television films and commercials. Through Aronson Films he directed MTV videos, television pilots and specials and over 500 commercials before turning to documentaries in 1999. Since then Aronson has made award-winning documentaries on a fascinating variety of topics. He is also a concert pianist and regularly plays chamber music in New York and at the Telluride Musicfest, the chamber music festival he founded in 2002 with his wife, violinist Maria Bachmann. From 1985-1993 Aronson was president of Gilson/Aronson Films, a commercial and MTV production company based in New York. Gilson/Aronson Films produced scores of commercials and MTV videos for agencies and record companies worldwide.
Awards: Academy Award nomination, Time Life Freddy Award, Best Film Heartland Film Festival, Best Documentary St. Louis Film Festival, Golden Spire – San Francisco Film Festival, National Board of Review Freedom of Expression Award, Independent Spirit Award nomination, Best Documentary LA Outfest, Best Documentary NY Visionquest, The Japan Prize, Grand Prize, Clio Award, Addy Award, Bronze Prize, Columbus Film Festival.
Nancy Kennedy, Editor
Nancy Kennedy is an award-winning editor based in New York whose many credits include Why We Fight (Sundance Grand Jury prize winner), For the Bible Tells Me So, When the Drum is Beating, Thank You and Goodnight, Einstein’s Letter, and many more. She has also co-directed and edited several independent documentaries including Who Does She Think She Is?, Bluegrass Journey, and Who’s on First? She has worked for all the major networks on such series as American Masters, Great Performances, National Geographic Specials, and American Experience among others. She has recently completed Gregory Crewdson: Dreams in Twilight.
Funding for Orchestra of Exiles is provided by Aronson Foundation, Michael E. Marks Family Foundation, Victor Elmaleh Foundation, Vincent and Anne Mai, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judith and Burton Resnick, Barbara H. Zuckerberg, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Klarman Family Foundation, Righteous Persons Foundation, Chubb and Son, Leslie and Roslyn Goldstein Foundation, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, Jody and John Arnhold, Rochelle and David Hirsch, Penny and Claudio Pincus, Carol Schussler and Family.
Additional funding by James Aronson, Charles Shanok, EFA Foundation, Carol Hill Albert, Sara and Charles Fabrikant, Adolph and Ruth Schnurmacher Foundation, Karma Foundation, Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Charitable Trust, Andrew and Phyllis Herz, Paul & Elissa Cahn Foundation, Susan Dickman/Jewish Communal Fund, Michael Kay, Wolf Kahn & Emily Mason Foundation, Victor Wiener and Frans H. Pijnenburg, and Annaliese Soros.