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Joshua Bell photo by Chris Lee

Inside Vienna State Opera . Huberman left Veinna for Switzerland just before Hitler's Aunchluss in 1937.

The Story of How Jewish Virtuoso Joshua Bell Bought the Violin of Legendary Huberman, Hero who Saved Lives of Europe's Premier Jewish Musicians from Nazis By Forming the Palestine Orchestra

by Rhonda Spivak, Sept 5, 2016


Jewish  Violin Virtuoso Joshua Bell, widely regarded as one of the three or four best violinists in the world,  opened the  upcoming Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra season on Tuesday, September 20th .
Bell  played a fifteen million dollar Stradivarius  violin,  (handcrafted by Stradiveri  who lived between 1646-1737  ) currently valued at  $15 million  that has an amazing pedigree in that it belonged to  a Polish Jew Bronislaw Huberman ( 1882-1947   ), who not only was the greatest violinist of the 20th century,  but who heroically and single handedly saved the premiere classical European Jewish musicians  and their families  (close to 10000 people) from  Hitler's death camps. Huberman rescued these musicians by going to Palestine and founding the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel-Aviv, which later became the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra when the State of Israel was founded in 1948.
Below is the fascinating story of how the courageous Huberman  used his musical talents to rescue Jews from the Holocaust , and how Joshua Bell bought this violin because of its unique  story and because it ties him to his own Jewishness and to the chain of Jewish history.
Branislov Huberman was a child prodigy born in the Polish town of  Czestochowa, who got his first violin at age four (which is also the age when Joshua Bell got his first violin.)  A Polish count gave Huberman the Stradivarius violin, from his family's collection, after hearing Huberman play. It was a " 1713 Gibson Strad",  named after  previous owner, a well known English violinist George Alfred Gibson.  Relatively few  Stradivarius violins remain in the world and the instrument produces extraordinary tones-possibly because of the varnish-which others have not been able to reproduce.
Huberman was so talented that Johannes Brahms, who did not originally believe that a child could play his Violin Concerto, was in tears when he heard Huberman play it.
When the clouds of Europe were darkening for Jews as Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 Huberman rightly foresaw what was on the horizon for Jews.   He was so famous by that time that he could have gotten himself out of Europe and gone to America. But Huberman, worried not only about himself but about other Jewish musicians and he used his violin as a way to save as many souls as her could by setting up the Palestine philharmonic.
Huberman held auditions  for what was to be his new philharmonic. During the auditions he turned his back towards the musicians, selecting the very best without seeing them but only hearing them. He knew that that those he did not choose would likely see their deaths, and it haunted him that he could not let all of them in to his philharmonic. Huberman turned to David Ben-Gurion , the leader of the Jewish agency at the time asking him to help save Europe's best classical Jewish musicians but Ben-Gurion did not have the funds to help. Huberman used his own funds to select close to 100 Jewish classical musicians , saving them and their families from death (There is even one musician who once he got to Palestine decided to become a baker on a kibbutz   as a way of enabling  Huberman  to be able to offer  one more place in his Palestine philharmonic to rescue another Jewish musician from Europe.)  
In 1936, Huberman went to New York to try to find donors to fund his Palestine philharmonic and he was performing at Carnegie Hall in New York when the Gibson Strad was stolen from his dressing room.
It was stolen from him by a Jew, named Julian Altman. Altman, who lived in new York, had a domineering mother who believed her son was so talented that he was deserving of  Strad violin. Huberman had two Strads and she encouraged her son to steal whichever Strad he was not playing on stage. Altman offered the guard at Carnegie Hall a cigar, and told him he was a violinist who worked nearby who adored Huberman and  pleaded with the guard to listen backstage, and once inside stole the Strad.
The first concert of the Palestine Harmonic, on December 26, 1936 was conducted by Arturo Toscanini, an Italian maestro whom  Huberman had invited when he heard of his refusing to perform in Germany to protest the Nazi takeover.
Huberman never found his Gibbson Strad and died in 1947 in Switzerland, before the State of Israel was born. In its first years,  Israel's philharmonic orchestra was made up entirely of Holocaust survivor's, all of whom owed their lives to Huberman.
The stolen Gibson Strad was insured by Lloyd's of London for $30,000 and they paid Huberman that amount to compensate him for his loss at the time.
The thief Julian Altman, who was a decent musician, and a carouser, eaked out a living playing the Gibson Strad , disguising it with shoe polish,  playing it at a variety of gigs for  48 years, without anyone ever suspecting that he was the thief of Huberman's famous Gibson Strad. On his deathbed he told his second wife to get his violin and search inside it for hidden documents. She did so and found  newspaper clippings from 1936 regarding the theft of Huberman's Gibson Strad. When Altman died in 1985, she appeared before the authorities with the story and the Strad was now turned over to the insurer Lloyd's of London , now valued at $1.1 million.
The insurer, Lloyd's paid her a $263,000 finders fee and it took nine months to restore the Strad by removing all the shoe polish and grime. They then they sold it for $1.2 million to an English violinist Norbert Brainin. As the New York  Daily  detailed in 2004, Joshua Bell learned  in 2001 that "Brainin was about to sell the violin to a wealthy German as a museum piece. Bell said, "It made me nauseous, the thought of that...I said, "You cannot take this violin! He paid Brainin nearly $4 million for the 1713 Gibson Strad, raising part of the money by selling for $2 million his own 1732 Tom Taylor Strad, which he played in the Oscar-winning score from the film, 'The Red Violin.'
Another Holocaust Survivor Sigmund Rolat, who lived in the same neighborhood as Huberman's parents in Czectochowa Poland, sponsored a concert by Joshua Bell  performing with the Czestochowa Orchestra in 2009 that took place at a concert hall, that was built over the ruins of the synagogue where Huberman's parents had prayed.  The concert took place with efforts to open the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.To see the very worthwhile documentary "The Return of the Violin" outlining the story of  the violin, with Joshua Bell  in it, go to
Bell who is regarded as an international violin superstar, lives with his family in New York and his own grandfather was a Rabbi, who immigrated to Israel pre-state. At the WSO concert, Bell will perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, one of the most beautiful works of orchestral music ever written.
To see the long list of awards Bell has won go to Bell is a passionate artist, whose musical interests are almost unparalleled in the world of classical music. 
The concert was sponsored by the Asper Foundation and the Gail Asper Family Foundation. 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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