from Child Prodigy to Savior

By Peter Aronson

As a child, Bronislaw Huberman didn’t play outdoors much, nor did he attend school regularly like most children. That’s because young Bronis, wearing his tunic and knickers, loved to play the violin. He played the violin so much and so beautifully, in fact, that he made history.

Bronis was born in Czestochowa, Poland, on December 19, 1882. His father was a lawyer’s assistant and an amateur musician who desperately wanted his son to be a professional musician. By age 9, Bronis was helping support his parents and two brothers by performing in health spas in Austria and Germany. He played so beautifully that he was commanded to perform for Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. The Emperor was so impressed with the young violinist that he presented him with a valuable violin.

As word spread about the prodigy, Bronis began performing in France, Belgium, Germany and England. In London, the famed opera singer Adelina Patti was mesmerized by his performance. She called him an “angel” and invited him to play during her farewell concert tour. At their concert in Vienna, in January 1895, he upstaged her. Bronis played Mendelssohn so well, the crowd demanded an encore. This infuriated Patti. “We have come to say farewell to a setting star and we have the joy to greet a rising star,” a critic wrote.

In 1896, at age 13, Bronis played 10 sold-out concerts in Vienna. At a concert at Musikverein Hall, he performed Brahms Violin Concerto. Composer Brahms was skeptical that a boy could play his music well, so Brahms attended the concert. Bronis played so beautifully that Brahms cried with joy. After the concert, Brahms hugged and kissed Bronis and gave him an autographed picture.

Over the years, Bronis would mature from child prodigy to one of the great violinists of the 20th Century. However, World War I would change Bronis’ life forever. Bronis was in Berlin performing when war broke out. Because he was Polish, he was considered an enemy of the state of Germany. He was arrested. The German crown princess, who loved Bronis’ music, immediately got Bronis released from prison. This episode led Huberman to realize that art can overcome war and hatred. This belief would serve him well later in life.

Bronis was Jewish. He began performing in Palestine, a faraway land on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea where Jews by the thousands were moving to escape anti-Semitism in Europe. Bronis played in concert halls in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and also on makeshift stages on the fields of agricultural settlements called Kibbutzim. He witnessed the building of a country and a people’s love of culture. “One had the feeling as if with every new orange tree planted in the ground a parallel tree of spiritual culture is planted,” Huberman wrote.

As Bronis’ love of Palestine grew, Adolph Hitler was coming to power in Germany. The year was 1933. Hitler’s Nazi government began discriminating against Jews. Many Jews lost their jobs, including Jewish musicians, who were forbidden from performing in the great orchestras of Germany.