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In New Film, an Eccentric Genius Outwits the Nazis and Creates an Orchestra

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It seems the Holocaust will never be done delivering its tales. From that era comes yet another story that both illumines humanity's darkest period from a fresh perspective while delivering the story of an astonishing hero little known in America. Orchestra of Exiles, by Academy Award-nominated Josh Aronson, chronicles the course of Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, from his years as a child prodigy to his position as the most celebrated fiddler in Europe at a moment when the Nazis were taking over the continent. At the peak of his fame Huberman cancelled his concert dates and reset his course to single-mindedly devote himself to a vision: he would cull the best of Europe's musicians, tossed out of work by the Nazis, and invite them to Palestine to form the orchestra which would become the Israel Philharmonic.

In a nice bit of timing, Orchestra of Exiles, which began its theatrical run last week, was preceded on October 25 by a Gala of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) helmed by Zubin Mehta (with seats topping out at $100,000) on a four city tour of the U.S. The IPO's mighty rendering of Hatikvah, Israel's national anthem, reaching to the rafters of the packed house made for a very special moment. In its religiously-themed program it was not hard to imagine the IPO as Huberman's vision made concrete.

To dramatize Huberman's achievement in Orchestra, Aronson braids together archival footage, enactments of key scenes, musicians making great music, and talking heads. And some heads: they include the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Joshua Bell, and Leon Botstein. What lifts the film beyond just restored history is a character arc right up Hollywood's alley: the transformation of Huberman -- really, the unlikeliest of heros -- from eccentric, self-centered prodigy, to "a visionary and a dreamer," as Zubin Mehta calls him, who coupled the painstaking formation of an orchestra in a new land with a wily, often circuitous battle to rescue Jews from the Nazi machinery. Through Huberman's agency close to one thousand escaped.

It's chilling to hear about the many musicians who didn't, eminent artists who thought themselves immune to the Nazi terror and imagined they could continue to function in a separate musical sub-culture. But the film dwells more on Huberman's successes in persuading these entrenched Europeans to take a chance on his scheme and flee to a then very primitive new land. Huberman was well aware that a world-class ensemble of Jewish exiles would be a powerful tool to fight the savage anti-Semitism spreading out from Germany, and would build the international prestige of the Jewish people.

Orchestra underscores the primacy placed by the new land on music, on culture generally. For the maiden performance of the Palestine Orchestra Arturo Toscanini (charismatic and violently anti-Fascist) takes the baton, an event which had the entire fledgling nation enthralled. Footnote: Watching that section of "Orchestra" I was reminded of how I was struck, on a recent trip trip to Israel, by a similar passion for the arts and intellectual achievement. My introduction to the country began in the airport, where on my arrival a huge crowd milled around a celebrity. A rock or sports star? No, it was the bespectacled Belarus-born Grand Chessmaster Boris Gelfand -- who had actually just lost a world tournament, but had won the hearts of Israelis.