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The Violin that Witnessed History

March 19, 2015 | by Roizy Waldman

Violinist Bronislaw Huberman saved hundreds from the Nazis. The amazing story behind Joshua Bell’s priceless Stradivarius.

Reprinted with permission from Ami Magazine.

Eight years ago, an intriguing little experiment made news. The experiment – arranged by the Washington Post to study how people react to unexpected, out-of-context art – called for Joshua Bell, world-renowned violinist, to stand in a Washington D. C. subway and play classical music.

Bell played for about 45 minutes, during which time more than a thousand people passed by. Ordinarily, when Bell gives a recital, he earns about a thousand dollars a minute, but in the 45 minutes he played in the subway, only 27 out of the 1,075 passersby threw a donation into his violin case, netting him a grand total of $32.

No wonder the experiment caused a sensation!

In its aftermath, scores of articles were written about the experiment, and all kinds of questions were asked. What happens to art without a frame? Can people not recognize quality art on their own? Why would people shell out upwards of hundred dollars a ticket to hear Josh Bell play and not stop to listen when the music was free? Does cost add value? Is it all part of our herd mentality –if we aren’t told something is good we cannot realize it is good?

These are fascinating questions. But when I initially read about this experiment, I found myself obsessing over an entirely different question. My question arose out of a trivial detail that the Washington Post mentioned as it related Bell’s preparation for this experiment. Bell, the Post claimed, took a taxi from his hotel to the subway station, a distance of merely three blocks, because his violin was too expensive to risk walking with on the street. What kind of violin was this, I wondered, to merit such care and protection?

As I began my search to uncover its past, I did not know that it would lead me not only to the story of the violin but also to a story about courage, perseverance, and the making of history! I didn’t know I would learn about nearly a thousand Jews who were saved from the Nazis’ grip and almost certain death – all because of a single man who happened to be the previous owner of this valuable violin. The man was Bronislaw Huberman.

Bronislaw Huberman

Born in 1882 to a secular Jewish family in Poland, Bronislaw Huberman’s musical genius was discovered early. His father, a law clerk, recognized young Bronislaw’s talent when he was a mere child and could not yet understand the effect such talent could have on his life. At that time, classical music was the music that mattered, the only music genre that could potentially make someone a lot of money. Bronislaw’s father knew this. And he chose to take advantage of it.

Bronislaw Huberman

Instead of giving Bronislaw a regular education, his father hired a music teacher for him to help hone his craft. Denied the experience of attending school with children his age, Bronislaw spent his childhood years traveling from country to country performing music. He gave his first public concert at the age of 7. By the time he was 14, he was playing in front of no less a musical virtuoso than Johannes Brahms. Branislaw performed a Brahms composition, stunning the composer with the quality of his performance.

For the Huberman family, young Bronislaw was their gold mine. His talent afforded them a nicer home and a more comfortable lifestyle than their father’s law clerk salary had allowed them. Bronislaw’s lost childhood seemed a small price to pay for these advantages.

Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Bronislaw’s father made sure to provide him with stellar teachers, including Isidor Lotto, Charles Rosen, and later Charles Grigorovich, with whom Bronislaw studied in Berlin. When Bronislaw was 11, he garnered the support of arts patron Count Zamoyski of Paris, who gave young Bronislaw a gift of a Stradivarius.

The Stradivarius

A Stradivarius is an instrument made by Antonio Stradivari, an Italian born in 1644. Stradivari was a luthier, a maker of stringed instruments, such as the violin, cello, guitar, etc. During his lifetime – he died in 1737 – he crafted more than 1,100 instruments. Of those, 540 violins, 50 cellos, and 12 violas are still in existence today. A “Strad” produces the most magical tones, unequalled by any other stringed instrument. Though many luthiers have attempted to reproduce the exact sound, none have succeeded yet. Over the years, music historians and researchers have come up with various theories about why a Stradivarius produces such exceptional sound. Some claim it’s the wood Stradivari used; others say it’s the varnish, and still others believe it’s the waters of Cremona, the city where Stradivari lived.

The Stradivarius gifted to Huberman by Count Zamoyski was called the Gibson, named for its previous owner, George Alfred Gibson, a professor of violin at the Royal Academy. The Gibson Strad was crafted in 1713, making it more than three hundred years old now.

Denouncing Hitler and Nazism

Because of Bronislaw’s atypical growing-up years, which revolved entirely around his career and was spent mostly in the company of his father, he sometimes acted oddly and crudely. He was known to be overly prickly if things didn’t go his way. Among people his age and to those in the music industry, he became known as an “eccentric” – tactless, somewhat asocial, and obsessed with his career.

In 1902 Bronislaw’s father died suddenly. For the eccentric, career-obsessed 20-year-old, his father’s death was a tremendous blow. True, his father had kept him from enjoying a traditional childhood and adolescence, but his father had also sacrificed his own life as a father to his other children, as well as given up his job, in order to turn his son into a star. Besides, their constant travels had drawn Bronislaw and his father closer to each other than to anyone else, even if perhaps only because of physical proximity. His father’s death, therefore, threw Bronislaw into turmoil.

From a psychological standpoint, it’s fascinating to note how people often react differently to being orphaned than expected. Bronislaw Huberman is a case in point. He could have easily allowed the shock of his father’s untimely death, the sudden loss of both his greatest supporter and strictest taskmaster, to break him. As an established star, he could have changed his rigid work ethic and slack off, now that he finally could.

Instead, the “eccentric” Huberman surprised the world. At the height of his career success, he chose to cancel all his pending concerts and enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris. Instead of slacking off, he decided to work harder, this time to get the education once denied him.

Formal education served to refine Huberman. He became a deeper thinker, more political and more humane. Some of these changes were also due to what he’d witnessed during World War I. The greed, the quest for power, the bloodshed, man’s inhumanity to man – everything he’d seen of war left a deep impression on him and served as the impetus for his later actions when Hitler came to power.

“The true artist,” Huberman once said, “does not create art as an end in itself; he creates art for human beings. Humanity is the goal.” Indeed, humanity through art is precisely what Huberman practiced.

In 1933, as Hitler took control of Germany, Jewish musicians who’d been employed for years by the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra suddenly found themselves jobless. Each month, Hitler ordered more and more Jewish musicians to be fired, and no other orchestra was allowed to hire them. However, to preserve his reputation among foreign countries, Hitler tried to retain a handful of the most famous Jewish musicians in the orchestra. One of the musicians he was persuaded to keep was Bronislaw Huberman.

The orchestra’s conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, sent Huberman a personal offer of employment. But Huberman refused it. In fact, not only did he refuse it privately, but he also wrote a public letter denouncing Nazism and racism, defending freedom for all European citizens regardless of ethnicity. In September 1933, his letter was published in German, French and English in various publications.

Just a few years before that, in 1929, Huberman had visited Palestine for the first time in his life. Palestine at the time was little more than a desert. Idealistic Jewish settlers were occupied with building the basics: homes, roads, and shops for daily provisions. There was no time, energy, resources, or money left over to devote to highbrow culture or art. But when Huberman arrived in Palestine, he received an enthusiastic welcome. For educated Jews starved for culture, he and his music were embraced with grateful joy.

The Palestine Symphony Orchestra

How is a dream born? Who can tell? Timing, opportunity, means, passion – so much must come together to form the necessary synapses of thought, the drive to achieve the impossible. Did the germ of Huberman’s dream take hold during this 1929 visit to Palestine? Or was this trip Hashem’s way of “naturally” preparing the seeds of rescue for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews just a few years later?

In the early 1930s, Huberman realized that Jews had no future in Germany.

It’s difficult to know exactly what prompts what, when the precise moment of decision occurs. But what we know is this: In the early 1930s, Huberman realized that Jews had no future in Germany. What he also realized was that immense Jewish talent would go to waste if it did not find a proper outlet. And so, he conceived a vision: an orchestra in Palestine composed of the greatest European Jewish performers. It would be called the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.

Huberman invited the best Jewish musicians to audition. Implicit in the invitation was the promise of the orchestra’s providing a haven for these victimized musicians.

At the time, with Palestine under the leadership of the British Mandate, it was nearly as difficult for European Jews to immigrate to Palestine as to the United States. In order to be granted entry, refugees had to demonstrate that their prospects of earning a living were strong. The soon-to-be Palestine Symphony Orchestra ensured that these refugees would be gainfully employed.

Still, Huberman faced an uphill battle. Once the musicians agreed to leave their European countries of birth, Huberman struggled to procure immigration certificates for all of them. He negotiated with the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which gave out immigration certificates that were designated by the British.

In many cases, Huberman insisted that the musicians could only emigrate if they were accompanied by their spouses, siblings, children, or parents, and so managed to snag certificates for all of them. Unlike many people, who believed that this European anti-semitic wave would soon pass, just as earlier anti-Semitic waves had, Huberman believed that Jews were no longer safe in Europe. Consequently, he worked tirelessly to rescue as many people as he could from the Nazis’ clutches. He ensured the Jewish agency, and thus the British government, that he’d employ many more people than he possibly could.

While Huberman was struggling to persuade cultured musicians to make their home in a virtual desert, while he toiled to procure their visas, while he dissembled to the government in an effort to wrest more and more Jews away from Europe’s ever-increasing perilous situation, he also had to put together the orchestra itself. A dream is merely a dream. But for the dream to become a reality, so much had to fall into place. Money was needed. The musicians’ morale had to be maintained. A venue had to be found, a conductor procured.

On the latter front, Huberman lucked out. Italian Arturo Toscanini, one of the most renowned conductors in Europe, agreed to conduct the orchestra’s first few performances. Toscanini, who wasn’t Jewish, despised Nazism and Fascism. He courageously spoke out against the Nazis and Fascists even at the cost of his personal safety. In fact, after one such outburst, a group of Fascists beat him bloody. But he refused to be silenced.

Toscanini traveled to Palestine in 1936 to train the orchestra and ready them for their first performance. In keeping with his idealism, he declined payment for his work, even paying for his travel expenses himself. I had to show my solidarity,” he said. “It is everyone’s duty to help in this cause according to one’s means.”

Toscanini cemented the orchestra’s reputation. He was held in such high regard that as soon as it became known that he would be the orchestra’s conductor, fund-raising become easy, musicians clamored to become part of the orchestra, and people bought tickets to the concerts. In no time, nine concerts – in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Cairo and Alexandria – were sold out.

The first concert took place on December 26, 1936, in Tel Aviv. Crowds of people who couldn’t get tickets stood outside the windows and climbed up onto the roof to be able to hear the gorgeous music. When the concert was over, the audience gave the musicians a standing ovation that lasted thirty minutes!

One has to build a fist against anti-Semitism,” Huberman once said. “A first class orchestra would be that fist.”

Indeed, a first class orchestra it became! The Palestine Symphony Orchestra toured the entire world, wowing audiences with their beautiful performances. In 1948, when the United Nations recognized Israel as a country, the orchestra changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Huberman had died a year before.

Stolen Violin

But how did Joshua Bell acquire Huberman’s historically-rich violin?

On February 28, 1936, Huberman came to New York to give a recital at Carnegie Hall. Huberman always carried a double violin case, in which he kept his Gibson and another violin made by Stradivarius’s Cremona colleague, Giuseppe Guarneri. For some reason, he decided to use the other violin for this recital and left the Gibson in his dressing room. When Huberman returned to the dressing room, the Gibson had been stolen.

In monetary terms, this wasn’t a tremendous loss, because the Gibson was insured by Lloyds of London. Also, the Gibson Strad had been stolen once before and was quickly retrieved. Huberman, therefore, was confident that the same thing would happen this time.

But it was not to be. The Gibson was never found or returned during Huberman’s lifetime.

Joshua Altman, a decent though not exceptional violinist, worked musical gigs whenever and wherever he could get them. He never managed to acquire a permanent chair at any of the leading orchestras, but he somehow eked out a living as a “journeyman player.”

The violin he used was not well cared for. It was sticky and dirty. Anyone who saw it knew immediately that it hadn’t been taken to a shop for maintenance or tuning in years. Of course, after his death, everyone would understand why.

In the 1980s, Altman was diagnosed with stomach cancer. As he lay dying, he called his wife to his deathbed and told her he had stolen the violin from Huberman’s room at Carnegie Hall. “I want you to do something about that violin,” he said. “That violin is important.”

Altman’s wife looked inside the violin case and found newspaper clippings that reported the theft of Huberman’s Strad. She called Lloyds of London and returned the violin to them.

For nine months, J&A Beare Ltd., a firm that restored precious instruments, worked to remove the dirt and grime that had accumulated on this violin, while cautiously retaining the Strad’s prized varnish. Eventually, Nobert Brainin, a renowned British violinist, purchased the violin for 1.2 million dollars.

In 2001, Brainin decided to sell the violin to a wealthy German who would put up the violin for show – as a work of art instead of as an instrument to be played.

Joshua Bell with the Gibson-Huberman-Bell Stradivarius.

When Josh Bell heard this, he was appalled. “It made me nauseous, the thought of that. I said, ‘You cannot take this violin.’” He paid Brainin almost four million dollars for the violin.

Now, the world – when it’s not too busy to stop and listen – gets to hear the magnificent music played by a master on this historically rich Gibson-Huberman-Bell Stradivarius.

Reprinted with permission from Ami Magazine.

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