Through the loss of his family at the hands of Nazi Germany and his own imprisonment in various concentration camps, violinist David Arben (born Chaim Arbeitman) remained incredibly resilient and grateful for his chance at life after the war. In an interview with his biographers, he summarized his outlook on life—“Life is my specialty. I am in love with life. It is fantastic. Freedom to breathe, freedom to talk, freedom to stand up, freedom to walk, freedom to move. I cherish this kind of freedom because I know the opposite.”
Chaim’s fascination with music began at the age of two when he followed his father into a nearby barber shop where the barbers frequently played a violin and sang along. Young Chaim was amazed by the ability of this wooden box to produce such beautiful sounds and had to play it himself— to prove his commitment to music, he went on a hunger strike for three days. Though they were not musicians themselves, his parents bought him a violin and he began lessons at the age of seven. Two years later, Chaim and his father attended a concert featuring Efrem Zimbalist playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Warsaw Philharmonic. Chaim was so moved by the performance that he decided in that moment, “One day I will study with that man.”
Chaim showed immense musical talent and within five years of formal instruction was preparing for his solo debut with the Warsaw Philharmonic. The performance unfortunately never occurred— the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 destroyed the music hall where his performance was to take place and sent the Arbeitman family into hiding. Over the next year, people of Jewish heritage were displaced into ghettos, separated from the rest of the city by a 10 foot wall topped with barbed wire, and under constant surveillance by members of the SS. In Warsaw, 350,000 Jews (30% of the city’s population) were concentrated into only 2.4% of the city’s area.
Soon after their imprisonment, the Arbeitman family attempted a daring escape through the sewers of Warsaw, bribing the underground workers and resurfacing near a train station. With disguises, the family successfully made it to Lublin, a nearby Polish city where the Nazis had not yet established a ghetto. At only 13 years old, Chaim was detained to a nearby concentration camp where his mother would visit him each day at lunch. He attempted escape in the middle of the night, crawled through the barbed wire surrounding the camp, and walked 3 miles to where his parents were staying. Knowing that SS officers would soon realize his disappearance, they left immediately. Chaim was eventually apprehended by Nazi officers and separated from his beloved family, never to see them again. “At 13, my family and I were separated. We had tried to run away, to hide. I never saw my family again. I had a younger sister, parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Tragedy happened. We were all sent to different concentration camps where my entire family was murdered.”
Chaim was taken to the concentration camp at Budzyń. One morning, during a routine inspection, he was taken to the nearby woods with other young, old, and sick prisoners. “There was a grave ready, a firing squad behind us. I realized when I saw the grave, this was the end of life. We were told to line up three abreast. We had to put clothing, if we had any, on the side. I took off my pants and shoes, laces tied together. I knew at one particular moment that the next bullet will be for me. It was such a horrible feeling. You knew in the next few seconds you would be buried. All my life since childhood, like lightning, came to my brain. Suddenly Noah Stockman (the Nazi appointed camp elder) grabbed and took me to the Obersturmfuhrer. Stockman said: “He is a violin virtuoso and we need him.”
Chaim spent more than four years in seven different concentration camps until the collapse of the Third Reich in 1945. In an attempt to conceal the numerous war crimes the Nazis had committed, Chaim was set to be transported to the concentration camp at Dachau. No more than fifteen minutes into the trip, the Allies mistakenly identified Chaim’s train as a Nazi military transport and repeatedly bombed it. Chaim miraculously escaped the wreckage and avoided the SS officers who were indiscriminately shooting injured and escaping prisoners.
"Hitler didn’t achieve what he wanted to achieve. He didn’t kill me and I had my revenge."
Through all the tragedy he had experienced, he had not lost sight of his dream to study in the United States with Efrem Zimbalist. It was through Leonard Bernstein during a visit to the American Occupation Zone that Chaim learned of Zimbalist’s position as music director of the Curtis Institute; with the financial assistance of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, he emigrated to the US in 1949. Chaim auditioned and was immediately accepted into Veda Reynold's studio, spending a year bolstering his scales and etudes before transferring to Zimbalist’s studio the following year.
After his time at Curtis, Arbeitman joined the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, where he was encouraged to change his name from Chaim Arbeitman to David Arben. In 1959, Arben joined the Philadelphia Orchestra, becoming associate concertmaster in 1979, a position he held until his retirement in 1993. Though he soloed with the orchestra 27 times during his tenure, Arben only toured once during his nearly 40 year career, which culminated in a performance at the Center of the Nazis in Berlin. “Center of the Nazis in Berlin was the best concert I remember ever playing. Something happened when I had to show that Hitler did not destroy the mind or growth of a people. Hitler didn’t achieve what he wanted to achieve. He didn’t kill me and I had my revenge.”
Thanks to friends at the Philadelphia Orchestra, Arben was able to visit Warsaw after 56 years. His synagogue was the only one to survive the Nazi occupation and in 1997, he returned to play the violin and recite Kaddish (an ancient Jewish prayer of mourning) in honor of his family. David Arben died on March 13, 2017, at the age of 89.
1. May, M. I. (2021, May 29). David Arben’s Life of Miracles and Successes [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1qoSN4J7qg&feature=youtu.be
2. Ghettos in Occupied Poland. (2021). Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/ghettos-in-poland
3. Dobrin, P. C. M. C. (2017, March 28). Remembering a Philly musician who survived the Holocaust to find poetry. Https://Www.Inquirer.Com. https://www.inquirer.com/philly/entertainment/arts/David-Arben-dies---a-violinist-who-found-poetry-.html