MAESTRO, the story of conductor Arturo Toscanini opened off-Broadway in New York this week. Author Eve Wolf’s play covers his fight against fascism in the 1930s and 40s and his support for Jewish musicians. Rachel Kovacs profiles a Jewish musician who linked up with Toscanini and became known as the ‘Oskar Schindler of Music’
ON December 26, 1936, Arturo Toscanini, indisputably the greatest maestro of that time, working under less than ideal conditions and in an area under tight British control, conducted a mostly pan-European group of musicians in Tel Aviv.
Toscanini charged neither a fee nor expenses for his services. It was not the last time he would honour this fledgling group of refugees.
It has been 82 years since that inaugural concert, and as defiant and courageous an anti-fascist as Toscanini was, he is not the main protagonist of this story. Bronislaw Huberman is.
Relatively few students of the Holocaust have become acquainted with the story of the ‘Oskar Schindler of music’ — who singlehandedly darted in and out of Germany and Europe to rescue virtuosi and their families.
Huberman faced formidable obstacles, not the least of which was deciding whom to select for the “orchestra of exiles” he meticulously planned. He knew that in selecting some musicians over others, he may well have sealed the fates of those he rejected — and their families.
Huberman, born in 1882, came from a poor family in Czestochowa, Poland.
His father, Jacob, left his job as a clerk to accompany his son to Warsaw for violin lessons.
At the Warsaw Conservatory, he was a pupil of Mieczyslaw Michalowicz and Maurycy Rosen, followed by Isidor Lotto in Paris.
In 1892, Jacob took the 10-year-old to Berlin to study with Joseph Joachim. The pair didn’t get on too well, but Huberman studied with him for four years.
In 1893, he toured the Netherlands and Belgium as a virtuoso performer.
The six-year-old Arthur Rubinstein attended one of Huberman’s concerts and his parents invited Huberman back to their house and the boys struck up a lifelong friendship.
Adelina Patti invited Huberman to participate in her farewell gala in 1894 in London and two years later, he performed the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms in the presence of the stunned composer.
The young violinist was lauded in 1896 by The New York Times for his performances.
After his father’s untimely death in 1902, and the Great War, the boy wonder did something quite unprecedented in the world of music.
At the peak of his success, acutely aware of politics and humanism, he suspended his concerts and went to study for two years at the Sorbonne.
There Huberman became an advocate of Pan-Europeanism, like many intellectuals of the time, including Albert Einstein. He joined the movement for peace that was brewing in Europe. In taking this “recess,” Huberman, unlike most musical geniuses, interrupted a flourishing concert circuit.
The Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 and the ensuing Nuremberg laws disabused Huberman of his hopes that peace in Europe would come to fruition.
Jewish musicians were no longer permitted to play in German orchestras and Jewish performers of all persuasions were out of work.
Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler had received from Goebbels a rather tenuous concession that Jewish musicians in the Philharmonic would be able to perform in the orchestra despite the anti-Jewish decrees.
Furtwangler, a non-Jew, had wrestled with the idea of leaving Germany, but ultimately remained to conduct the Philharmonic throughout the Second World War.
As for Huberman, he had by no means been a Zionist. His hopes had been for a united, peace-driven Europe. Yet, given growing antisemitism and a looming spectre of Nazi occupation elsewhere, he not only realised that there was no future for Jews in Germany, but that the only hope was in Palestine.
Securing papers for the musicians was a far more difficult task. In addition to those musicians who auditioned for Huberman, there were written requests from others.
Huberman had to personally appeal on their behalf to authorities in England and elsewhere for the documents permitting them to emigrate.
Toscanini’s experiences in the music world paralleled those of Huberman. The latter’s cognisance of the Nazi threat had catalysed his rescue mission, but both men refused offers to work in an environment of harassment, persecution, and death.
Toscanini had already fled Italy, after the authorities there had twice confiscated his passport. Clearly opposed to the Nazi measures to ostracise Jews, Toscanini empathised with the plight of the musical virtuosi who had been fired.
Huberman approached Toscanini to conduct the first concert of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. The maestro agreed to do so, and subsequently conducted additional performances.
Despite harsh physical and environmental conditions, political struggles to accommodate a growing post-Holocaust refugee population, and war, the orchestra flourished. Other esteemed artists, such as Leonard Bernstein, came to conduct it during those birth pang years.
The orchestra struggled, but in time, and with additional resources, it was transformed into the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
As for Huberman, the years and the hardships took a toll on his health and his relationships. His first marriage, to actress and singer Elsa Galafres, which produced his son Johannes, failed.
He later found love and companionship with Ida Ibbeken, who had nursed him during a major illness. She became his companion and devoted assistant, often travelling with him on tours, fundraising trips, auditions and rescue missions.
Before 1936, Huberman’s principal instrument was a 1713-vintage Stradivarius Gibson, but he had it stolen twice.
In 1919, it was taken from Huberman’s Vienna hotel room, but recovered by the police within three days.
The second time was in New York City, on February 28, 1936, where it was stolen either by Julian Altman or one of his friends.
Altman, who became violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, performed with the stolen Stradivarius for many years.
He made a deathbed confession to his wife in 1985 and it was given to insurers Lloyds.
Three years later, the violin — now known as the Gibson-Huberman — sold for the equivalent of £1.6m in today’s money.
Huberman survived a 1937 plane crash near Sumatra in which he broke his wrist and two fingers. After a period of rehabilitation, he went on to tour and play benefits for various causes worldwide.
After the war, he continued his performances, but spent six months in Italy restoring his health.
On June 16, 1947, though, he passed away quietly in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, aged 64, with Ida at his side.
Although there is no exact count of how many people were saved through his efforts, the likelihood is that Huberman’s interventions saved close to 1,000 lives, not counting the generations of musicians’ families who owe their existence to his bravery, persistence and, of course, brilliant artistry.
Josh Aronson’s 2012 documentary, Orchestra of Exiles, brought Huberman’s story to broader audiences.
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