October 25, 2012

ARCA Lecturer Dorit Straus' on how a stolen violin inspired "Orchestra of Exiles"

Bronislaw Huberman with Albert Einstein
 who was instrumental in raising funds to
 start the orchestra./Orchestra of the Exiles
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

The documentary opening tomorrow in New York City, “Orchestra of Exiles”, tells the story of cultural preservation of people and music, and also features the family history of one of ARCA’s Lecturers, Dorit Straus, who returns each summer to Amelia to teach “Investigation, Insurance and the Art Trade”. Before Ms. Straus studied archaeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, her father was one of many musicians who escaped Jewish persecution from the Third Reich.

The film's writer, director, and producer Josh Aronson spent two years filming in Germany, Poland, Israel and New York.  The film centers on the story of polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman’s struggle to bring Jewish classical musicians to British Palestine in 1936 to found what would later become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

One of those musicians, David Grunschlag, was Dorit Straus’ father. We asked Ms. Straus via email about the film -- and discovered her story also involved an anecdote about a stolen -- and recovered -- Stradivarius violin once owned by Bronislaw Huberman.

ARCA Blog: According to Mr. Aronson, it was your dedication to honor Huberman’s memory that was the initial driving force behind this film.   Could you elaborate for us?
Ms. Straus: In 1995 I set down with my father to do an oral history about his life as a musical prodigy and what it was like to live in Vienna during the the 20s.  I was particularly interested to know if there was any intersection between the musical life and the visual arts, since it was such an interesting time in the arts. I also knew that he was Bronsilaw Huberman's protege and I wanted to know more about what it was like to be a "Wunderkind" and what exactly his interactions were with Huberman. My father told me about growing up poor but rich in talent which opened all kinds of doors for him.  He played in some of the most opulent homes in Vienna. There was indeed a direct link to the visual arts as both my father and his sisters would often play in the homes of the wealthiest Viennese families including the Bloch-Bauer family.  My father told me how Bronislaw Huberman was one of the most famous violinists of his time and very hands-on in my father's education -- sending him to Berlin at age 14 to study at the most famous music academies such as "Hochshule fur music" so that he would have a very rounded education.  At the same time, Huberman took care of finding my father a patron in Berlin to live with and arranged to pay for all the expenses through his personal banker.
The following year, my father passed away so it was very lucky for me to have this material to keep for future generations of my family.  In 2004, I was attending a conference in Dresden and decided to make a trip to Berlin to see if I could find any materials relating to my father's studies in Berlin.  I was so surprised to find so much material in the archives of the conservatory including letters from Huberman's banker as well as letters from my grandfather relating to my father's stay there. I connected with my father's younger sisters who were duo pianists, and for the first time I heard how Huberman had personally arranged for them to leave Vienna in 1939 when they had no hope of getting out.  I had never heard that story before and that was a real awakening for me. A few years later, I was visiting family in Israel and noticed that in the hall where the IPO plays there was no mention of Huberman at all or of the founding members so I went to the orchestra management.  In 2006, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the orchestra, we dedicated a plaque to Huberman and all the founding musicians at a wonderful ceremony with Zubin Mehta and descendants of the original players.
Around the same time, I met by chance Joshua Bell who was riding on the NY subway carrying with him the Stradivarius that used to belong to Huberman.  The violin was stolen in 1936 when Huberman was playing at Carnegie Hall raising money for his orchestra.  The violin did not surface for 50 years when in 1986 the thief on his death bed confessed to his wife that he had stolen it. She reported it to the police and got a reward. The police turned the violin over to the insurance company who sold it through a well known violin dealer to Norbert Brainin the violinist of the Amadeus String Quartet, and eventually in 2004 Joshua Bell purchased it from Norbert.  I felt that this was a sign from heaven, and that it was up to me to remind the world who Huberman was and what he did to save so many musicians from certain death. First I produced a concert in Vienna with Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk to commemorate Huberman and that led to the film.
ARCA Blog: What was your role in the development of the film?
Ms. Straus: First, I pitched the idea to Josh Aronson.  Then I helped in the research and made introductions in Israel to the General Manager of the Israel Philharmonic and many of the people who are featured in the film -- like the violin maker Amnon Weinstein; the composer Tzvi Avni who complied the Huberman archives with Huberman's secretary Ida Ibbeken after Huberman died in 1947;  Leon Botstein who told me that everything about Huberman interested him and he would be happy to help. Leon did a marvelous job in providing historical context and more, and last but not least my aunt Rosi Grunschlag who died  earlier this year who has an incredibly moving interview sort of in the "golden section" of the movie telling how Huberman helped them.
I helped in translations from Hebrew as well as giving advise about images and identifying people.  I found a not-for-profit entity with a mission compatible with the subject of the film who were able to offer tax deductible charitable deductions for contributions.  I contributed financially, as well as raised money from others, wrote letters asking for support, and spoke to anyone who would listen about the film.  For the last three years in addition to my "day" job, I was totally absorbed in the project.  This was a large project with a budget of over $1 million.  We started the film just when the (Bernie) Madoff scandal came out -- so raising money was incredibly difficult when so many Jewish foundations and funders who would have naturally supported such a project were not in a position to do so. So it is incredible that we were able to complete the film without going into a deficit.
ARCA Blog: The website for “Orchestra of Exiles” says that the movie sets out to answer two questions: “How did living through WWI and the Depression change Huberman from a self-absorbed eccentric genius into an altruistic statesman dedicated to egalitarian politics and humanism? How did Nazism and its cultural policies ignite Huberman and inspire him to bring music to Palestine, to save Jews and to fight anti-Semitism?” What is your personal response?
Ms. Straus:  Josh Aronson the filmmaker, did a fabulous job in answering these questions.  When I started out to make this film it was going to be a small personal story, but Josh -- through his research and his creative mind -- saw the bigger picture and asked these questions and answered them very dramatically in the film.
ARCA Blog:  What does Huberman have to teach us today about being heroic and living productive lives that make a difference to others?
Ms. Straus:  In Huberman’s case, the producers of the movie estimate he saved more than 1,000 lives. What made him different from the others who felt so powerless against a repressive government? I think that is the question that is most difficult to answer - why would someone at the height of his career dedicate himself totally to the plight of others when he could have gone to Switzerland and then to the US and continued with his career -- unlike ordinary people, there would have been little difficulty for him to relocate  particularly as early as 1933 -- but that is what makes him and Arturo Toscanini and Pablo Casals unique -- they had a broader world view and a conscious and they acted upon it!
"Orchestra of Exiles" opened October 26th at New York City's Quad Theater at 13th Street between 5th and 6th. NOTE:  The Quad Cinema at 34 W 13th Street is back up and running post hurricane Sandy and the documentary will be running from Friday November 16th for another week.  Josh Aronson will be at the 7:30 showing on Sunday, November 18th for Q & A.

Simultaneously, the film will be shown in LA at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 and will open soon at the Laemmle Monica - both on a limited schedule.  Please consult the Laemmle Theaters website for schedule.  The film will also be screened in the Hudson Valley at Upstate Films November 16th.

In Europe, the documentary will premiere at the Berlin Jewish Museum on November 22 with a 2nd Berlin screening on November 23rd and in Paris on December 11th and on January 15th.

Here’s a link to the film’s trailer and more information about the film: www.orchestraofexiles.com.

Here's a link to an interview with Josh Aronson and his meeting with Ms. Straus and her story about Joshua Bell and the stolen violin.  And here on Joshua Bell's website is the "Story of His Violin".


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