Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947) was an internationally known master and teacher of the violin renowned for his individualistic interpretations and praised for his tone color, expressiveness and flexibility. Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, was founding the Palestine Orchestra, which later became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra when the Jewish state won its independence in 1948. Sadly, due in part to his modesty and his refusal to take much-deserved credit for his monumental efforts and accomplishments, he remains largely unknown today, even in Israel.



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Huberman was born in Częstochowa in the Russian-ruled Congress Poland to Aleksandra (née Goldman) and Jacob, a lawyer who could barely eke out a living but who cashed in on his son’s musical talent. A child prodigy, Huberman played at age ten before Emperor Franz Joseph, who was so impressed that he reportedly gifted the child with a Stradivarius violin, and for the violinist Joseph Joachim, who became his teacher. He made his debut in Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris (1893); by the time he was twelve, he had toured through Europe and the United States to great acclaim; and he played the Brahms violin concerto in the presence of the composer, who was stunned by his performance (1896).

Huberman’s relationship to Judaism was complex; while there can be no question that he developed deep Jewish feelings and developed great passion for Eretz Yisrael, as discussed below, he was never observant and was arguably even dismissive of the needs of those who were Shabbat observant. For example, asked once to change the date of a concert of the Palestine Orchestra from Friday night, he responded that due to work schedules in Palestinian colonies, concerts could only take place on Shabbat but, he argued, his concerts deepened spiritual uplift in a manner wholly consistent with Shabbat.

March 12, 1929, ticket to Huberman violin recital at Zion Hall in Jerusalem during his first visit to Eretz Yisrael, sponsored by F. Saphir’s Music Piano House.

Ironically, Huberman manifested early hostility to Zionism, expressed opposition to Herzl, and disdained the World Zionist Organization’s encouragement of Jews to make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael because, among other reasons, “The Jews will lose far too much if they leave Europe.” Viewing himself “first as a violinist, second a Pole – and then a European and lastly a Jew,” he told a Jewish audience in Vienna in 1929, “I have great reserve about Zionism. Jews need to stay and assimilate even more deeply within European society.” However, when he first visited Eretz Yisrael in 1929, the spiritual atmosphere he felt there changed his thinking.

Receiving an enthusiastic reception, Huberman was struck by the Jewish passion for music in Eretz Yisrael and, by the time of his second visit in January 1931, he had begun to develop his vision of organizing in Eretz Yisrael “a second and greater Salzburg,” an orchestra that would rank among the world’s greatest. During his third visit in 1934, he played 12 sold-out performances in 18 days, followed by several reduced-price “workers’ concerts,” performing in Tel Aviv with an orchestra that had been initiated only a year earlier. The orchestra was comprised of musicians who had been living in Eretz Yisrael since the 1920s, and augmented by Jewish musicians who had recently begun to emigrate from Europe. After the visit, he told his son, Johannes, who accompanied him and his wife on the trip, that he felt:

a special bond, a kinship with the people here. A kind of mysticism unites us and seems to turn the individual into a national collective. I sense this happening here in Palestine… I believe I am finally won over – I am becoming a true, and even an enthusiastic Zionist!

For more than a decade, Huberman had been a regular performer with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and, even when Jewish musicians were being dismissed from major orchestras and blacklisted, he was one of the few Jews not fired. Apparently, Hitler, concerned about Germany’s international image in the early days of the Third Reich, believed that it would not look good for Germany to sack Europe’s most famous violinist, and Wilhelm Furtwängler, the renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, had received a rather dubious concession from Goebbels to permit Jewish musicians to perform with the orchestra notwithstanding strict anti-Jewish decrees.

When Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933, however, Huberman canceled all his concerts in Germany; refused to perform there ever again; declined repeated invitations from his friend Furtwängler to perform with him; and, in an open letter to Furtwängler published in the European and American press, he denounced the “race elite” in all cultural areas in Germany.

In his powerful letter, which was published in the New York Times on September 14, 1933, Huberman exposed Hitler’s farcical attempt to try to paint Germany as not antisemitic in the eyes of the world: The “few foreign or Jewish musicians called upon to participate” were only there to “be paraded before the whole world to show that all is well with culture in Germany. In reality, however, German thoroughness would keep on applying new definitions about racial purity to immature art lovers, schools, laboratories, etc.” He spoke out against the situation facing “those museum directors, conductors and music teachers . . . who were dismissed on account of their Jewish heritage or differing political, or even simply apolitical attitude . . . which immediately separated me from Germany [and] which created a coercion of conscience to renounce Germany.” Not surprisingly, National Socialist official publications characterized him as “a fanatical agitator against Germany,” and he left Germany soon after, never to set foot upon German soil again.

In March 1936, Huberman wrote an “open letter to German intellectuals,” which was published in The Manchester Guardian in English in which he declared that he could never forgive the German intelligentsia for its acquiescence to – if not embrace of – Nazi policies and actions. Referring to his letter to Furtwängler, he wrote:

Two and a half years have now passed, countless people have been thrown in concentration camps, in prison, chased out of the country, sent to their death by murder or suicide . . . before the whole world, I accuse you, German intellectuals, you non-Nazis, of being the real culprits in all the Nazi crimes, in this mournful downfall of a superior people that shames and threatens our entire white race . . .

Huberman originally viewed his plans for a Palestine symphony orchestra as an uphill climb because he could not imagine that sophisticated and accomplished Jewish musicians would leave their positions with prominent European orchestras for Eretz Yisrael, but that changed in 1933 when, with the rise of the Third Reich, leading Jewish musicians began to lose their positions. Realizing that the creation of an orchestra in Eretz Yisrael could help many Central European Jewish musicians who had been left unemployed by the Nazis, Huberman decided that “one has to build a fist against antisemitism, and a first-class orchestra will be that fist.” He now reimagined what had originally been conceived only as a cultural institution for Eretz Yisrael as an important emergency rescue for victims of Nazism.

Many prominent musicians joined him and his nascent orchestra and, in this manner, he later became known as “the Oskar Schindler of musicians” and as one of the great unsung heroes of the Holocaust, saving almost 1,000 Jewish lives. Moreover, often overlooked in this regard is that, along with saving lives, he preserved the legacy of a European Jewish musical tradition that otherwise would have been lost.

As the situation in Germany became even more precarious for Jewish musicians in the wake of the infamous Nuremberg Laws (1935), Huberman, unlike many Jews and Jewish leaders who blindly and foolishly believed that European antisemitism was merely a fad that would soon pass, became convinced that Jews were no longer safe in Europe, and he escalated his plans for a Palestinian “orchestra of Jewish exiles” into high gear. As he wrote to a friend on October 18, 1933, “I am a Pole, a Jew, a free artist and a pan-European. In each of these four-character traits, I must see Hitlerism as my mortal enemy, I must fight it with all the means at my disposal as my honor, my conscience, my reflection, and my impulse dictate.”

With Eretz Yisrael under the British Mandate at the time, European Jews were generally denied admission unless they could clearly demonstrate an ability to support themselves. As a result, even when Huberman succeeded in convincing the great Jewish musicians of Europe to leave their established positions and historic homes for a dubious future in a largely unsettled land, he struggled to procure immigration certificates for them. Moreover, he understood that the musicians would only emigrate if they could take their families with them, rendering it even more difficult to obtain all the necessary immigration certificates.

By 1934, Huberman had already met with prominent Jews in Eretz Yisrael; he had begun to persuade influential people around the world to invest time and money in the proposed venture; and, launching an ambitious fundraising campaign, he approached wealthy American and British Jews seeking financial assistance. He also solicited assistance from Ben Gurion, the director of the Jewish Agency, who would only agree to provide temporary residence certificates for 70 Jewish musicians and their families – to be chosen by Huberman through a series of auditions throughout Europe during 1935 – but the violent Arab revolt in Eretz Yisrael in April 1936, and the concomitant British tightening of aliyah standards, forced the Jewish Agency to withdraw even this unsatisfactory level of support.

Moreover, Ben Gurion and many in the Zionist administration opposed giving limited immigration certificates to the “Huberman musicians” when, given the “zero sum game” applicable to the certificates, agricultural workers necessary to build a Jewish State would be denied admission. However, Huberman outmaneuvered Ben Gurion with a successful appeal to Chaim Weizmann who, in his capacity as president of the World Zionist Organization, used his relationship with Sir Arthur Wauchope (then high commissioner of the British Mandatory Government in Eretz Yisrael) to get him to agree to provide the necessary visas for the musicians to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael.

In 1936, Huberman resigned from the teaching staff of the Vienna State Academy, and after 42 benefit concerts – that he completed in only two months, from February to April 1936 – he had succeeded in raising capital sufficient to recognize his dream of establishing his orchestra, despite an ever-worsening international economy. A February 9, 1936, article in the New York Times headlined “Orchestra of Exiles” reported:

Bronislaw Huberman, the Polish violinist, has reported that the first symphony orchestra in Palestine is to be created. The orchestra will have 65 musicians. It will be formed from outstanding German musicians who have been denied the right to play in their own country, and from other prominent European musicians.”

Two friends taking music: Huberman visiting Einstein at his Princeton home. Asked about the great scientist’s musical abilities, he quipped: “He can’t count!”

By July 1936, Huberman had recruited more than 50 leading musicians from across Europe and had facilitated their aliyah and, including local members from the orchestra with whom he had performed in 1934, the orchestra grew to 73 instrumentalists. For the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, the influx of so many world-class musicians provided a tremendous cultural stimulus and generated great pride.

Their delight grew exponentially when the chair of the American Association of Friends of the Palestine Orchestra, a violinist named Albert Einstein, assisted him with a 1936 fundraising dinner in New York, and when Arturo Toscanini agreed shortly thereafter to cancel his scheduled engagements and to conduct the opening concerts of the Palestine Philharmonic in Tel Aviv. The maestro’s authority and reputation were such that his mere involvement with the nascent orchestra brought it to the world’s attention and immediately gave it international standing. When Einstein learned that Toscanini had agreed to serve as the orchestra’s first conductor, the ecstatic scientist wrote to him:

Untranslated letter handwritten and signed by Huberman, Munich, December 23, 1906.

Honored Maestro! I feel the need to express to you how much I admire you and honor you. You are not only the incomparable interpreter of the world’s musical literature, you are as well a man who has shown the greatest dignity in the fight against the Fascist criminals. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the aid you have promised the newly to be formed Palestine Orchestra. The fact that a man such as yourself is living among us compensates for the many disappointments which one continually experiences… With love and high admiration, I greet you…


Singular postcard of the first performance on December 26, 1936, by the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, originally signed by Toscanini.

Shown here is an extremely rare and historic postcard that stunningly depicts Toscanini after conducting the momentous first December 26, 1936, concert by the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, signed by the conductor and dated January 2, 1937. Generally considered the greatest maestro of all time, he led the symphony in playing Rossini’s Overture “Scala di Seta,” Brahms Second Symphony; Shubert’s Unfinished Symphony; and, in a purposeful and pointed mocking of the Nazi regime he so loathed, a nocturne and scherzo to Midsummer’s Night Dream by the Jewish Felix Mendelssohn, whose music was banned in Germany. Time magazine waxed lyrical about the event, attended by 2,500 people, including Chaim Weizmann, David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir: “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.”


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Although photographed standing next to Toscanini after the historic and momentous first concert, Huberman deliberately chose not to perform in that famous first concert; a deeply modest man, he preferred that his musicians capture the headlines and the limelight. As it turned out, it was not until 1938 that he was able to play with his orchestra, due to a serious hand injury he sustained in a plane accident over Sumatra in October 1937 in which four passengers were killed and his wrist and two fingers on his left hand were broken. It was not until 1938, after intensive and painful retraining, that he was able to resume training with his orchestra, and he saw it for the last time in 1940. War and travel difficulties prevented him from ever visiting Eretz Yisrael again and, after the fall of France, he traveled to the United States and became an American citizen a year later (1941).

The concert, which had originally been scheduled for autumn 1936 but which had to be rescheduled because of the vicious Arab revolt, was broadcast live across the world on the radio, and the orchestra went on to perform with Toscanini in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa in December-January 1936-37. The orchestra also performed 140 concerts for the Allied Forces during World War II, including an emotional performance for soldiers of the Jewish Brigade at El Alamein in 1942.

Exhibited here is a leaflet regarding the 1944/1945 season of concerts, featuring a concert for the Jewish Brigade out in the Western Desert where thousands of Jewish soldiers heard a concert by their national orchestra:

Palestine Orchestra leaflet for Jewish Brigade concert (1944/1945 season).


The Biggest Event in the Life of the Eretz Yisrael Orchestra during 1944/45

The Brigade concert is only one feature of the Orchestra’s numerous wartime activities. Since the outbreak of the war, over 140 concerts have been given exclusively for the Forces and there is not one Orchestra concert where the audience does not show an appreciable amount of khaki.

But increased activities for the forces have in no way decreased the number of concerts for the civilian population. The Orchestra has thrown a musical net over the whole of the Near East since its inception in December 1936, it has given 1215 concerts of which 935 have been given in wartime. During this period, it has held 740 concerts in Eretz Yisrael, 186 in Egypt, and 9 in Lebanon, and the Palestine Orchestra may be considered the most important cultural ambassador abroad of Jewish Eretz Yisrael.


A hallmark of these concerts was their concluding with an impassioned performance of the Hatikvah.

Well before accepting Huberman’s invitation to conduct the Palestine Orchestra, Toscanini (1867-1957) had become a staunch enemy of Nazism, due in part to his father, who had served with Garibaldi and gave the young Arturo a love of democracy that in later years led to the conductor’s general interest in Israel. As early as 1933, he courageously refused an invitation to conduct at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, a grand honor, in protest of the Nazis’ treatment of Jewish musicians, and he also turned his back on the Salzburg Festival because Germany refused to air Jewish conductor Bruno Walter’s performances there.

Toscanini had developed a particular sensitivity to Jews. For example, when told by an auditioning clarinetist that he could not perform on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, the conductor hugged him and said, “Now I like you even more!” He not only refused payment from the Palestine Symphony, even for his travel costs, but he also assumed the expenses of passage for many of the musicians’ families and paid to set them up in apartments in Eretz Yisrael.

During his first trip to Eretz Yisrael, Toscanini experienced what he called “a continuous exultation of the soul.” He characterized it as “the land of miracles,” where Jews who had been doctors, lawyers and engineers in Germany had become farmers who transformed sand dunes into olive and orange groves. His wife wrote to their daughter: “When we left, we were both crying. If you stop to think of what they have achieved through sheer labor, it is nothing short of miraculous.”

Affectionately called “the Passionate Sightseer” because of his keen interest in experiencing Eretz Yisrael, Toscanini was particularly eager to see its agricultural settlements, and he visited kibbutzim and farms, where he planted trees. The New York Times quoted him as saying, “I like to go into Jewish homes, eat Jewish food, and feel the pulse of Jewish life.” Among other activities, he attended a Seder; visited the Hebrew University, where he attended a lecture on Hebrew literature, and was presented with a deed to an orange grove, where he and Huberman planted a tree.

Israel stamp set featuring Huberman and Toscanini commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first performance by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.

When Toscanini returned in 1938, not only had the situation for Jews in Germany become dire, but things were hardly tranquil in Eretz Yisrael. At one point during the conductor’s stay, a bomb was thrown at the vehicle carrying him and his wife in Jerusalem, but nothing would stop the formidable maestro. There was such demand for his concerts that throngs of people had to be turned away and, seeing that response, he opened his rehearsals to the public. On a return visit to “his” orange grove, this great friend of the Jews and Israel wept when a beautiful freshly picked orange was placed in his hands.

After spending most of World War II in the United States, Huberman resettled in Switzerland after the war and died there in 1947. His papers and his musical estate were given to the Central Music Library in Tel Aviv, and the town of Częstochowa renamed its orchestra the “Bronislaw Huberman Philharmonic” in honor of its native violinist. His heroic and largely unknown role in saving Jews during the Holocaust and in Israel’s growth as a flourishing, artistic country and Jewish homeland, should be remembered and celebrated for all time.

Yehi zichrono baruch.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].