“How many of you had tears in your eyes?”
This question was proposed to a full house at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Lotte Lehmann Hall on April 7, following the screening of “Orchestra of Exiles.” The film chronicled the story of Bronislaw Hubermann, an acclaimed Polish violinist who rescued some of the world’s greatest musicians and close to 1,000 Jews from the clutches of Nazi Germany during World War II.
The feature-length documentary by filmmaker Josh Aronson, who also made an appearance at the event, shared a little known piece of musical history that had been lost in obscurity, giving true recognition to the Hubermann’s accomplishments while highlighting his role in upholding the musical heritage of Europe. Through a colorful mix of orchestrated music, film, and commentary, the film captivated the audience and ushered in a standing ovation at its culmination.
“Orchestra of Exiles” documents Bronislaw Hubermann’s musical achievements, which resulted in his establishment of the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra. The story is at times lost in the halting style of Aronson’s filmmaking, but shines with a wonderful characterization of Hubermann, painting him as a powerful figure within musical history.
The documentary opens with Hubermann’s early days as a child prodigy, showing how he was meticulously molded under the hands of his father and the musical elite of Berlin. His life started with privileged access to the upper echelons of society, playing before the heads of governments and renowned artists. Yet once he witnessed the tragedies of a world war, Hubermann was quickly humbled and humanized. He acted at once, feeling the pain of fellow Jewish musicians who were forced to renounce their titles under Hitler’s regime. The themes of humanitarianism and bravery come to the forefront immediately under Aronson’s skillful direction, paving the way for a journey that has now found a place amongst Holocaust literature.
The film unfolded with Hubermann’s staunch dedication to the salvation of Europe’s musical elite, as he recruited many to an orchestra in the Tel Aviv desert. His struggle to establish this Palestine Philharmonic was fashioned into a multi-layered story, fraught with much struggle and pain. He touched shoulders with some of the time’s most influential figures, among them Albert Einstein and conductor Arturo Toscanini. Despite his connections, it was an upward battle that Aronson conveyed with deliberate detail.
What Aronson most successfully depicted was the broader implications of the formation of this orchestra and its musical contextualization. Hubermann’s recruitment of exiles fought against the anti-Semitism of the new Europe, while propelling a marginalized minority into prestige. His trail became fashioned into a humane and inspiring story, as Aronson sought to launch a “fantastic story that hadn’t [yet] been told.” He brought Hubermann out of the ashes of obscurity, breathing new life into a figure that was almost lost in time.
The production of the film is a feat in itself as well, one that must be acknowledged in order to understand Aronson’s passion and dedication. The director explained in a supplementary talk at the event that the entirety of “Orchestra of Exiles” was a three-year production, and was based off of a script written almost exclusively from letters uncovered in archives. He had to sift through thousands of letters, translating them from languages such as Polish and German. Thus, this film gains respect as a historical achievement, one that has allowed Hubermann to remain alive in the minds of viewers. Aronson has commemorated a man and allowed for him to live on.
“Orchestra of Exiles” is a memorable production, permeated with the musical notes of Hubermann and the elite of his time. Hubermann is shown transforming from a privileged child to a man dedicated solely to egalitarianism and humanism. Once ignited by an inward passion, he took it upon himself to establish a musical legacy in the deserts of a foreign land. Aronson did this story justice, while meticulously documenting the life of a man that planted the seeds of a culture which continues to blossom.