First a violinist, second a Pole and lastly a Jew

Bronislaw Huberman. Public domain
Bronislaw Huberman. Public domain

Orchestra of Exiles: The Story of Bronislaw Huberman, the Israel Philharmonic, and the One Thousand Jews He Saved From Nazi Horrors by Josh Aronson and Denise George. New York: Berkley Books, 2016. 319 pages. $28.

Bronislaw Huberman was a very unlikely creator of what was to become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. And yet, in the late 1930s, during some of the darkest days for the Jewish people, that Polish-born Jew and musical genius created the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, saving the lives of scores of the best European Jewish musicians and their families in the process.
Orchestra of Exiles tells his remarkable story.

As a world-class violinist who performed on stages throughout Europe, the United States and Asia during the first half of the 20th century, Huberman certainly had the musical bona fides to found the orchestra.
He also was Jewish, although his ties to Judaism were apparently tenuous.

But it was his early hostility toward Zionism, well documented in the book, that would seem to have made creating anything for the Jewish people in the land of Israel unlikely.

He is quoted as explaining to his longtime companion, Ida Ibbeken, that he opposed Theodor Herzl and the World Zionist Organization when they encouraged Jews to immigrate to Palestine. “The Jews will lose far too much if they leave Europe,” he told her shortly after World War I ended. Sometime later, he is quoted as saying to her that he thinks of himself “first [as] a violinist, second a Pole — then a European and lastly a Jew.”

In 1929, speaking to a Jewish audience in Vienna about the Pan-Europa movement of which he was a member, he said: “I have great reserve about Zionism. Jews need to stay and assimilate even more deeply within European society.”

In that same year, he made his first visit to British Mandatory Palestine and was impressed by its Jewish inhabitants and their love for music. Nonetheless, he told Ibbeken that he was “an internationalist, more European than Jewish, and rather anti-Zionist.”

Two years later, he returned to Palestine, and again in 1934 for four more concerts. That latter experience began to change his ideas. He told his son Johannes who accompanied him and Ibbeken on the trip, that he felt “a special bond, a kinship with the people here. A kind of mysticism unites us, and seems to turn the individual into a national collective. I sense this happening here in Palestine.” And he conceded to Ibbeken that “I believe I am finally won over — I am becoming a true, and even an enthusiastic Zionist!”

It was during that trip, with Hitler in power in Germany and many German Jewish musicians sacked by the Nazis, that Huberman decided to found the orchestra.

However, the obstacles he would confront during the next four years were formidable. First, many of the German Jewish musicians, whom he was trying to recruit, were unenthusiastic. Some believed that Hitler’s regime would be gone shortly. Others were reluctant to leave their “civilized” European surroundings for the “barbaric” Middle East. And, of course, they weren’t anxious to leave their families.

So, Huberman widened his search for Jewish musicians to include Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria.

In addition, he needed permanent certificates for them to immigrate to Palestine with their families.

He also required a venue for orchestra performances with good acoustics and seating for several thousand audience members. And he needed to secure housing for the musicians.

Most of all, he had to come up with the money to pay for it all.

It took him some four years to raise the money, get the certificates and the auditorium, and bring the musicians and their families to the land of Israel.

The orchestra, with maestro Arturo Toscanini conducting, made its debut in December 1938, less than one year before the outbreak of World War II.

I thought the book started slowly and only became worth reading as the authors concentrated on Huberman’s efforts on behalf of the orchestra. It’s possible that the authors honed their writing skills while working on the book.

But I must concede that’s it’s more likely that my interest was piqued by my own Zionist passions, which were fired by Huberman’s perseverance to build such an important cultural institution that’s still going strong almost 80 years later — and in the resurrected state of the Jewish people.

Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at and in Kindle format.

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