Orchestra of Exiles


It is a generally acknowledged fact that World War II, Europe’s worst cultural crisis—its human toll aside—was in many respects a cultural jackpot for America. Another offshoot of the same great exodus of European genius is the subject of Josh Aronson’s capable-if-more-TV-appropriate historical documentary, Orchestra of Exiles, concerning the formation of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. The period of dreadful anticipation before the all-out war is the backdrop to preparations for the orchestra’s December 1936 debut, where a bill of Schubert, Brahms, and Mendelssohn proved the fugitive Jews to be better keepers of German Kultur than their former countrymen. The central figure is Bronislaw Huberman, a Jewish violin prodigy whose commitment to pan-European unity made him an outspoken opponent of any détente between art and the ascendant Nazi Party. Aronson’s film follows Huberman, who clearly saw the writing on the wall, on his audition tour through Germany, Austria, Poland, and Hungary—and through struggles with immigration authorities—to fill the chairs of his orchestra-to-be with the cream of Central Europe’s Jewish musicians. Although the movie is overreliant on chintzy-looking and rather corny historical reenactments, these are counterbalanced by anecdote-rich interviews, including descendants of Huberman’s first orchestra, human testament to the family tree of Israeli musicianship that he planted.