This Day in Jewish History

1947: Music Prodigy Who Saved Jewish Musicians From the Nazis Dies

Bronislaw Huberman read the writing on the German wall, urged Europe's musicians to move – creating the Palestine Symphony orchestra.

Bronislaw Huberman, shown playing the violin.
Portrait of Bronislaw Huberman, from the Library of Congress's George Grantham Bain Collection

On June 16, 1947, the virtuoso violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who had the inspiration after the rise of Nazism to bring the unemployed – and endangered – Jewish musicians of Nazi Europe to Palestine to play in what became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, died, at age 64.

Huberman, like many world-class musicians, was a child prodigy. He was born in the Polish town of Czestochowa on December 19, 1882. His parents were Jacob and Alexandra Huberman.

Starting lessons at the age of 6, he had his first public performance when he was 7, playing with the orchestra of the Warsaw Institute of Music.

In 1892, when he was still 9, Bronislaw moved with his father to Berlin, where he had been invited to study with the great violinist Joseph Joachim.

Brahms frowns, changes mind

In 1896, Huberman famously announced that he would be playing Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major. The composer, who was present, reportedly commented that it was presumptuous of a 14-year-old to be playing publicly such a piece. Yet it is said that he was so moved by the performance that he approached him afterwards to compliment him.

That same year, Huberman had his debut in New York, at Carnegie Hall, of course.

By then, he was probably already in possession of the “Gibson” Stradivarius, a vintage 1713 instrument made by the great violinmaker.

There are several different versions regarding how Huberman came into possession of the fiddle, which is named for an earlier owner, George Gibson; what is not in dispute is that the violin was stolen from him twice, once in 1919, when it was recovered after three days, and again in 1936, from his dressing room in Carnegie Hall. The second time, 51 years would pass before it resurfaced, by which time Huberman was long dead. (Today, the Gibson is owned by Joshua Bell, who paid $4 million for it in 2001.)

Following World War I, Huberman was a believer in Pan-Europeanism, thinking that a united Europe would be the best way to prevent similar future cataclysms. He even wrote a book on the idea of such a union, in which he imagined an important role for the Jews. But he was ahead of his time, and after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Huberman left his home in Berlin, and settled in Vienna. 

Blaming the non-Nazis

His first visit to Palestine had been in 1929. He was sympathetic to the Zionist cause, and wanted to be involved in the music scene in the rapidly developing Jewish society there. But at the time, he still believed there was a place for the Jews in Europe.

By 1933, however, he could see there was a need for different solutions.

That year, he turned down, in an open letter, an invitation by Wilhelm Furtwangler, director of the Berlin Philharmonic, to perform with the orchestra. Three years later, in an “Open Letter to German Intellectuals,” published in the Manchester Guardian, Huberman wrote that it was “you, German intellectuals, you non-Nazis” – who apparently included Maestro Furtwangler, of being “those truly guilty of all these Nazi crimes,” by virtue of simply remaining silent and passive as their society was being destroyed.

During a rousingly successful tour of pre-state Israel in January 1934, giving 12 sold-out concerts in 18 days, Huberman began thinking that the Jews’ future might lay in Palestine, and that his mission was be to establish an orchestra here. By the spring, he was already talking with potential donors and with potential conductors.

Additionally, as the spread of Nazism led to the firing of Jewish musicians in Europe and the threat of far worse, Huberman understood that bringing them to Palestine was also an urgent humanitarian mission.

By the time the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, as the new ensemble was called (today it is the Israeli Philharmonic), had its first concert, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, on December 26, 1936, Huberman’s efforts had resulted in the immigration to Eretz Israel of hundreds of musicians and their family members – a total of more than 1,000 people.  

Huberman himself spent most of World War II in the United States, and resettled in Switzerland after the war. He died there, in Corsier-sur-Vevey, on this day in 1947.