Remembering a Philly musician who survived the Holocaust to find poetry

David Arben was a Philadelphia Orchestra member for 34 years

PDNARBEN30-28032017-0002
Violinist David Arben

In 1941, in World War II Poland, a teenager named Chaim Arbeitman was marched into a forest by the SS along with a group of the old and sick. Prisoners at Budzyn, the labor camp, they were told to dig their own graves.

A prison assistant who knew Arbeitman spotted him among the others and told the Nazis the boy was a violinist and was needed, and he was pulled from the crowd.

Arbeitman was sent back to the camp. The 104 others were shot or buried alive.

At that point, the violin “became part of my body. It was me,” he later recalled.

Camera icon David Arben's Curtis student photo, under his former name of Chaim Arbeitman. 

Arbeitman ended up surviving seven concentration camps, and after the war made it to Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music as a student. He changed his name to David Arben, and later spent 34 years with the Philadelphia Orchestra, including more than a dozen as associate concertmaster.

Mr. Arben, 89, died March 13. He had been living at the Watermark retirement community at Logan Square for the last several years. He had no immediate survivors, said retired Philadelphia Orchestra harpist Margarita Csonka Montanaro, who had helped to care for him.

“He was quite a character,” she said. “He was very strong-minded, very opinionated.”

Camera icon David Arben's 1954 class photo.

His strong will benefited his students, several of whom now play in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, said close friend and retired Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Larry Grika, who called Mr. Arben “a sensitive and graceful violinist. His ability to touch audiences both in solo and ensemble settings was always evident. David told me that when he was soloist with Riccardo Muti, Muti asked him: ‘Why are you never nervous?’ David said he alluded to those years of ‘camp’ when the director daily came in, looked around, took out his pistol and gone was a prisoner.”

After the war, “with nerves of steel he forged ahead,” Grika said.

Born in Warsaw on Aug. 13, 1927, Mr. Arben studied violin from age 7. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, he and his family fled through the sewers and found their way to a small village but were captured in 1941. He never saw his family again.

After the war, he joined a pickup orchestra at St. Ottilien Archabbey, a monastery outside Munich serving as a hospital. “We called ourselves the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra, and we played concerts in our concentration camp stripes,” Mr. Arben said in a 2010 interview with Heidi Waleson for the Curtis Institute’s in-house publication.

A Swiss family helped him after the war, Montanaro said. With assistance from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, he traveled to the United States to audition for Efrem Zimbalist, the violin virtuoso who was director of Curtis, and he started school the following week.

After playing with the Cleveland Orchestra and Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he joined the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1959, becoming associate concertmaster in 1979, and retiring in 1993.

“His playing was refined, intimate, and full of affection for the music’s graces and inner colors,”  Inquirer music critic Daniel Webster wrote of a 1992 performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3. “He did nothing to impose undue poetic or theatrical weight to music that blossoms as naturally as the opening of a rose. He did, through subtle bowing, find poetry and expressive thrusts in details and in the very polish of his progress through the music.”

Playing the violin had not been a job, he told the Inquirer upon his retirement. “It’s my life,” he said.

A celebration for David Arben will be held at 7 p.m. April 14 at the Union League. "Haim," a work by Polina Nazaykinskaya for clarinet, string quartet, piano, and narrator, will be performed. Several of Mr. Arben's students are expected to play. Donations in his name may be made to the Curtis Institute of Music or the Philadelphia Orchestra.