Culture imported and a WW II haven built in ‘Orchestra of Exiles’

Josh Aronson’s documentary “Orchestra of Exiles” is about opportunities found and lost during desperate times: Europe under the Nazis. “Orchestra of Exiles” opens at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 on Friday, Nov. 2, 2012.

Using old photos, black and white news reel clips, re-enactments filmed in color and current day interviews–mostly with the children of the original musicians, the documentary lovingly recounts how world famous violinist Bronislaw Huberman used his fame to form the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. The Polish-born Huberman had been a child prodigy, impressive enough to gain the respect of Johannes Brahms while playing one of the composer’s piece in concert. The main problems are the re-enactments and different voices used to read letters and narrate detract from this story about how one man strove to create an orchestra while saving the lives of many Jews.

After visiting Palestine in 1929, Huberman began to work toward establishing classical music there. Hitler and the Nazi party was already rising into power. In 1933, the internationally known Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini canceled an engagement in German to protest fascism; Hitler wrote Toscanini a personal letter which did not change Toscanini’s decision. Huberman also refused to perform in Germany.

Determined to form an orchestra, Huberman began auditioning musicians, especially Jewish musicians. Because of the Nazis, Jewish musicians were being fired or shut out of European orchestras. Huberman toured at a hectic and unhealthy pace in order to raise funds, but he was unable to raise it all, forcing him to ask Albert Einstein for help. Einstein obliged and the benefit dinner raised the additional funds.

Yet political problems also had to be dealt with. Palestine was under British control and the increased immigration of Jews to Arab lands, resulted in violent protests. Immigrants needed visas and musicians leaving their homes wanted permanent instead of temporary visas.

Obviously, things worked out and  in 1936, Toscanini was in Palestine, conducting the new Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra.  In 1948, two years after Huberman’s death, the orchestra would become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Aronson provides us with a lot of facts here–the depth of his research is impressive, and even some archival footage of both Hitler and Huberman is included. If only he had trusted the authentic voices of the children of the survivors and the survivors to carry the film instead of the re-enactment voice actors. Perhaps the most poignant moments are the stories of the people Huberman almost saved.

One musician returned to finish his Ph.D. Another, Dora Loeb, couldn’t take the hardship of life in the desert within an institute that was just forming with all the attendant organizational problems on top of the culture shock. She returned and disappeared in the concentration camps.

Huberman saved about 1,000 Jews the movie estimates, but what about the problems resulting from the Jewish immigration? Would things have been different if Huberman had shown equal concern for the Arabs under occupation by the British imperialists?  One cringes when one interviewee states, “It must have been hard to come to a place where culture was almost non-existent.” I imagine  Arab Palestineans (Muslim or Christian) would disagree vehemently with that statement.

Despite its faults, this documentary is well worth seeing. Imagine yourself in a similar situation: Would you realize life-changing opportunities when they’re offered to you?

This review was also published in the Pasadena Weekly. 

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