This nonfiction account, first in the middle-grade Groundbreaker series, explains how a Polish Jewish violinist helped saved the lives of Jewish musicians and their families from Nazis.
Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947), born in Poland, was a child prodigy on the violin by the time he was 9 and soon after toured Europe and the United States. When he was 13, Huberman played Brahms’ music at a concert whose audience included “Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss and Johannes Brahms himself….Huberman played so beautifully that Brahms, reportedly, cried with joy.” Growing up, Huberman became a world-touring concert violinist (including performing in then Palestine) and had his first encounter with political oppression in World War I. He was playing in Berlin when war was declared, and as a Polish citizen, he was considered an enemy of the state. Luckily, the German crown princess appreciated Huberman’s talent and got him released, but the experience turned him into an anti-war activist. Hitler’s rise introduced many anti-Semitic laws, such as one that barred Jewish musicians from performing. Because he was a great and famous musician, Huberman was nevertheless invited to play with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, an invitation he angrily refused in a 1933 letter published in the New York Times. As anti-Semitic violence in Europe rose, Huberman decided to take action by raising money for a new orchestra in Palestine that would offer refuge to escaping Jewish musicians. Auditions that were “competitive, emotional and tense” took place all over Europe; Huberman got financial and political help from the likes of Albert Einstein and David Ben-Gurion. In 1936, 50-plus Jewish musicians and their families sailed to Palestine for a new life. “Today, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the greatest orchestras in the world, and, as Huberman had hoped, the leading cultural ambassador for the state of Israel,” writes Aronson. Huberman settled in New York in 1940, dying in Switzerland seven years later without having seen Palestine again.
For his debut book, Aronson—a former journalist—interviewed original members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; also included in this volume are a selected bibliography and photo credits, useful information for researchers. The book feels somewhat light at only 50 pages, mainly providing highlights and apt quotations. The main story does convey the fascinating details of how the orchestra was conceived, paid for, and staffed, but it may not bring Huberman and his heroism alive for middle-grade readers. Aronson notes, for example, that Huberman faced difficult choices as musicians auditioned for their lives (and their families’), but he sounds remote and chilly: “ ‘In art there can be no mercy and no comprise,’ he wrote to a friend.” More time could have been spent on episodes from Huberman’s biography, such as his musical education, the nature of his musical gifts, or his personal life; Aronson doesn’t mention, for example, Huberman’s marriage and divorce. Still, this is an exciting, relatively unknown historical account that warrants attention.
An absorbing and useful but bare-bones account of how a musician’s vision helped save nearly 1,000 lives.