Outplaying Hitler: The Creation of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra

September 4, 2017

by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer

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(Lukas Gojda/shutterstock.com)

As anti-Semitism cast a dark shadow over Europe in the 1930s, a Polish Jew named Bronislaw Huberman chose to fight it with the only weapon he had—his music.

Finding Sanctuary

In Germany, Hitler had begun to crack down on the Jewish population, banning them from employment in German companies. Even cultural institutions were not exempt—in 1933, he ordered all Jewish musicians, artists and singers fired from their positions, with further persecution eerily imminent. Huberman, a concert violinist now living in Mandate Palestine, had a premonition of what was about to happen in Europe and acted to save as many Jews as he could, as quickly as he could—on his own initiative and with his own money.

Huberman envisioned an orchestra in Palestine called the Palestine Symphony Orchestra; and his dream became a reality in 1936, hastened by the urgent need to provide a safe haven for Jewish musicians trapped in Europe. “One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism,” Huberman said, “and a first-class orchestra will be this fist.”

An Orchestra of Olim

 His musical recruits came from top symphony orchestras across Europe. Eighteen musicians from Germany alone immigrated to Palestine. Other musicians came from countries that stretched from France to Greece and from Latvia to Italy. Over 80 musicians, accompanied by their families, emigrated from Europe. With his brilliant plan, Huberman saved over 1,000 people from the looming Holocaust.

Bronislaw Huberman (Public domain/wikipedia.org)

It wasn’t easy for Huberman to get immigration certificates for the musicians. In April of 1936, just as they were planning to come, the British severely limited Jewish immigration to Palestine, caving in to pressure from the Arab League. The largest Arab uprisings in a decade made the British nervous and they feared more rioting if Jews immigrated in high numbers. Huberman negotiated with the Jewish Agency to try to get his musicians into the country, but ran into a roadblock when David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, decided that musicians weren’t necessarily the kind of people they needed in Palestine.

In frustration, Huberman wrote to Chaim Weizmann and said, “If we don’t get these musicians into Palestine in order to start the Palestine Symphony, it will be a black eye on Zionism.” Weizmann finally agreed to the importance of the symphony and managed to secure 50 immigration certificates for Huberman.

The orchestra’s first principal conductor was William Steinberg. As Steinberg was auditioning musicians for the Palestine orchestra in Germany, Huberman was holding auditions in Warsaw, Prague, Krakow and Budapest, searching for the best musicians possible for his orchestra.

A Powerful Weapon

 Huberman invited his friend, Arturo Toscanini, the world-renowned Italian conductor, to conduct the first concert in December 1936. Throughout the rise of Nazism, Toscanini was actively involved in opposing the regime. He spoke openly against fascism, and refused to perform in Nazi Germany, declining an invitation to participate in the 1934 Bayreuth Festival, an annual German music festival that featured works by Richard Wagner, a rabid anti-Semite. Toscanini was reportedly beaten by fascist hooligans in Italy when he refused to play the Fascist national anthem, specially requested by Mussolini.

Huberman told Toscanini that his willingness to conduct the first performance of the Palestine orchestra would “constitute a historical landmark both in the struggle against Nazism and in the building of Palestine.” Toscanini accepted the invitation and decided to take the orchestra on tour to Haifa, Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria as well. The concerts were all sold out.

Toscanini chose the program for the concert in Tel Aviv himself, purposely including Felix Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In doing so, Toscanini thumbed his nose at Hitler’s policy of banning all music by Jewish composers.

In the audience at this first performance were such luminaries of the future Jewish state as Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff.

Time magazine reported: “As a full Palestine moon rode over Tel Aviv…the Hebrew Sabbath ended and thousands of Jews began to move toward the Levant Fair Grounds. There they packed the Italian Pavilion to hear great Arturo Toscanini lead Palestine’s first civic orchestra through its first performance.”–Jan. 4, 1937

Though Time waxed lyrical about the setting of the first concert, it was performed amid widespread Arab rioting. The concert represented to both Huberman and Toscanini their personal struggle against anti-Semitism. In Mandate Palestine, where weapons to Jews were strictly forbidden by the British, they knew their most powerful weapon was music.

Sowing Seeds, Reaping Rewards

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (Yeugene/wikipedia.org)

After establishing and funding the orchestra, and leaving the company in the capable hands of William Steinberg, Huberman left Palestine and found refuge in Switzerland, performing all over the world as a concert violinist.

In 1948, after the State of Israel was established, the name of the orchestra was changed to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Like its predecessor and the state of Israel itself, the Israel Philharmonic is composed of immigrants from other parts of the world, including the Ukraine, Turkey, Romania and Russia.

Anti-Semitism is once again casting a giant shadow over Europe, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has had to endure disruptions by anti-Israel factions at some of their concerts; yet it has performed to worldwide acclaim and is recognized as “one of the top virtuoso orchestras” in the world.

Zubin Mehta, the music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, spoke about the foundation laid by Bronislaw Huberman and his orchestra of immigrants: “The seeds of culture that Huberman planted here, that he brought from Central Europe—we are reaping its rewards today.”

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