Music: To Kill and To Save
Just how significant a role Wagner's music actually played in the rise of the Third Reich—and the extermination of 6 million Jews—is still debated by scholars and historians. But there is no debate about the role of music in Orchestra of Exiles, which chronicles the amazing story of how one man saved Europe's premier Jewish musicians from obliteration by the Nazis. Think of it as something like Schindler's List meets The Sound of Music.
Through documentary and reenactments, Orchestra of Exiles tells the story of Bronislaw Huberman, a Jew born in Poland in 1882 who became one of the world's finest violinists before Hitler rose to power. Huberman had attracted the attention of Brahms as a child prodigy, and made a small fortune as a teenage whiz kid while touring Europe, the United States, and even Russia.
As World War I raged throughout Europe, Huberman, deeply affected by its horrors, became more politically aware—and politically active, embracing the Pan-European movement after the war. He joined Einstein, Freud, and others in writing and speaking out in support of the movement.
As Hitler came to power in the early 1930s, Huberman saw the writing on the wall, taking the Fuhrer's anti-Semitic rants more seriously than many Jews did. As Hitler fired thousands of professional Jewish artists—including many musicians—from their posts, Huberman, by now an outspoken opponent of Nazism, began to develop an idea.
After playing a series of concerts in Palestine in 1934, his idea was fully formed: He decided to create a world-class orchestra in Palestine, made up primarily of Jews from all over Europe who were losing their jobs with their local symphonies. "One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism," Huberman wrote. "A first-class orchestra will be this fist."
Huberman spent the next two years traveling around Europe, auditioning Jewish musicians for his orchestra. He knew he could only take the best musicians, and steeled himself for what would happen to those he didn't choose. In essence, he put himself into a position of deciding who would ultimately live and who would die. His vision was prescient; he sensed that not only were German Jews in mortal danger, but Jews throughout Europe. But in 1936, many Jews believed that Nazism was just a phase that would eventually blow over, so Huberman had a difficult time convincing many of the coming horrors. Somehow, Huberman sensed the Holocaust long before it came.
When he auditioned musicians in his homeland of Poland, many were among his friends. So, rather than have personal feelings dictate his choices, he held "blind" auditions—turning his back while they played, choosing solely for their music ability.
As the orchestra began to take shape, many musicians asked to bring their families too—and somehow, the deeply connected Huberman, who had many friends in high places, was able to work it out. There were plenty of kinks and bureaucratic roadblocks along the way—including in then British-controlled Palestine, where there were last-minute snags with Arab uprisings and other conflicts, both armed and bureaucratic.
What's most remarkable about Huberman's quest is that so little of it was done in secret. He had recruited Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini, also known for his anti-Nazi views, to conduct the initial concerts in Palestine, and worldwide media picked up on the story. Huberman even played 42 concerts in 60 days in the U.S. to raise money for the venture. (His 1713-vintage Stradivarius was stolen during a 1936 Carnegie Hall show, and would remain missing for 50 years, until the thief confessed on his deathbed that he had stolen it. The violin eventually ended up with American violinist Joshua Bell, who purchased it in 2001 for $4 million. Fitting, then, that Bell is Jewish.)