Playing for life

Many Jews in Europe have favored the violin as their instrument. The choice is rooted in convenience. Escaping from pogroms with the likes of a piano was a lot more cumbersome than just grabbing a violin. 

At the age of four, Bronisław Huberman was given that most Jewish of instruments by his poverty-stricken Polish parents. In 1901, when he was 9, he performed the Violin Concerto in D Major (Opus 77) in front of its’ composer, Johannes Brahms. This work, thought of as impossible to play, did not deter the Wonder Kid. His performance was flawless. Thus, the 9-year old from a poor Jewish family began his career and arguably became the greatest violinist of the 20th century. 

Huberman spent the next three decades performing all over the world with illustrious European musicians which turned him into a major celebrity that paralleled the adoration of movie stars. On his 50th birthday, the starstruck British national paper The Times, even reported he had accidentally scraped his hand!

When the dark clouds of Nazism moved over a Germany that birthed the likes of Johannes Brahms, unlike many other European Jewish intellectuals who hoped Hitler was just a passing fad, Huberman understood that the Jewish emancipation born out of the Enlightenment, had shatteringly come to an end.  To protest against Hitler, he rejected all invitations to play in Germany and moved to Switzerland. In one foul swoop, Hitler removed Jewish musicians from all German orchestras. Huberman knew he had to fight, but his only weapon was his violin. 

Before the outbreak of the war, when countries began to close their borders, Huberman concocted a plan to rescue the European Jewish musicians he had played with. His idea was to rescue Jews and resettle them in British Mandate Palestine. This he wanted to do by forming the “Palestine Symphony Orchestra.”

With the knowledge that places in his orchestra are limited, he traveled around Europe to audition Jewish musicians. He knew exactly what awaited the fate of those who didn’t make it. It was not so much of an audition, but an unthinkable “selection,” that reverberated the Nazi’s policy of selecting people to live or die. One musician who failed the audition is heartbreakingly reported to have said that he was “sentenced to death for musical mediocracy.” 

With no money available, Huberman personally funded the journey for over 70 musicians, their parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. In doing so he rescued over 800 Jews from the hell on European soil. 

Unstoppable, he also brought over the renowned Italian Arturo Toscanini, to conduct the debut performance. Toscanini, who had already defied Mussolini by refusing to play the Italian fascist anthem and walked out of a concert in Germany on the day Hitler came to power, refused payment. He was doing it for humanity. 

On 26th December 1936, Jews came from all over the Land to hear the performance in the new Exhibition Centre in Tel Aviv. Hundreds of people who weren’t one of the lucky 3000 ticket holders, simply sat on the roof. 

And what a performance it was! The orchestra played in defiance of death, as if to say, that they were still alive. 

In 1936, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra debut performance was composed of Europe’s greatest musicians. In 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel and hundreds of concerts later, including performing to Allied troops, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra changed its name to the beloved institution that it is known as today – the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra.