As the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra embarks on its 14-city tour of the United States under the direction of Zubin Mehta, it’s easy to forget the events of the 1930’s that triggered the creation of what is well established as one of the great orchestras of the world.
Soon after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, the Nazis moved to consolidate their power and purpose, as one anti-Semitic policy after another became institutionalized. Jewish professionals, including orchestra musicians, in Germany and other parts of Central Europe lost their jobs. Jewish musicians were ghettoized into Jewish-only Kulturbund orchestras. Many prominent Jews, including artists, began leaving Germany.
Bronisław Huberman, the internationally-acclaimed Polish Jewish violinist, would eventually create the Palestine Orchestra, now known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, comprised of Jewish musicians fleeing Europe. He undoubtedly saved many lives. But prior to 1933, Huberman believed strongly that Jews should remain in Europe. Huberman had been a staunch pan-Europeanist, believing that maintaining a united, harmonious European people was the best way to avoid future world wars. He supported and admired Jews in Palestine, but over the years he had rejected Zionism, believing Jews should remain in Europe as an essential component of European life and culture.
“It would be a tragic phenomenon if the Jewish people wanted to break the tie with Europe, where the Jews have taken part in such great measure in building the culture, for which I am proud of my Jewishness,” Huberman said.
Huberman’s thinking had already begun to evolve, but the confluence of events in 1933-34 caused a seismic shift in his thinking. Eventually, he would embark on a global mission that would change the course of musical history.
Among the many tragic headlines out of Germany at the time, as the world lurched towards World War II and the Holocaust: Anti-Nazis murdered. Civil liberties suspended. Frankfurt mayor dismisses Jews employed by the city opera, theatre and library. The Nazis ban Bruno Walter from conducting in Germany. The Nazis raid Einstein’s home in Berlin, and later seize his bank account. A one-day boycott of Jewish businesses begins legalized racism.
At the time, Joseph Goebbels stated that an even more severe legal strike against the Jews would be made, one such “as to annihilate German Jewry.” The world was alerted, but few reacted with impact. In April 1933, Arturo Toscanini, the world’s most acclaimed conductor, led an international boycott against performing in Nazi Germany.
Huberman was immensely popular in Germany, but in July 1933, he joined the boycott. In response to an invitation from conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic, Huberman wrote a letter of rejection, which was published in The New York Times on September 14, 1933.