A few years ago, Avner Yonai flew to Góra Kalwaria, the Polish village where his grandfather lived before moving to Palestine in 1932.
Góra Kalwaria is known as Ger in Yiddish. When Yonai arrived there, one of the two Jews who still reside in the town, Henryk Prajs, showed him a tattered photograph of Yonai’s grandfather and other family members from the early 1930s playing in the town’s mandolin orchestra.
Today, the Israeli-born Yonai, who lives in the San Francisco area, is the founder of an updated Ger Mandolin Orchestra (GMO), which he created as an homage to the popular eastern European musical styles and a memorial to his family. This contemporary GMO will perform for the first time in Canada on Nov. 7 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. The event is tied into Holocaust Education Week.
“My immediate idea was to make a modern orchestra playing the same repertoire that [such an] orchestra might have played at that time,” Yonai says.
This updated band of musicians formed in 2011, after Yonai got in touch with Mike Marshall, a Grammy-nominated mandolin player.
“[Marshall] was the one to make the call to most of the musicians who came on board,” Yonai says.
Marshall recruited 10 other musicians, including Toronto’s Eric Stein, artistic director of the Ashkenaz Foundation, a non-profit organization that showcases Yiddish and Jewish art forms, such as klezmer music. Stein is also the only Canadian in the orchestra and credits the presence of Ashkenaz and its music festivals as an inspiration to helping him as a musician.
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“Getting into the instrument, I was really astounded by how many different styles of music are played on the mandolin,” he says. “[Ashkenaz] opened my mind to the possibilities of using the mandolin as a vehicle for expression within Jewish musical traditions.”
Klezmer music was a central part of Jewish culture in eastern Europe before the Holocaust. The mandolin was also a popular instrument for immigrant communities in North America.
GMO first performed at the Jewish Music Festival in Berkeley, Calif., in March 2011.
“We had many Holocaust survivors in the audience,” Yonai recalls. “We had a full house, and a lot of them knew the songs that were played by our orchestra. Some of them sang along. It was very heartwarming.”
Góra Kalwaria’s mayor later invited the orchestra to perform in the Polish town. The group has not performed as a whole since their concert in Poland two years ago.
“We performed in the town, in the old synagogue – a broken-down old building that hadn’t had a crowd in it for probably 70 years,” Stein says. “This tradition of mandolin orchestras has actually continued in Poland to this day, without the Jewish influence.”
During GMO’s stay in Poland, the 11 musicians who comprise the band did a workshop with around 200 Polish student musicians. Now, many of these orchestras play arrangements of Jewish music in their repertoires.
“It’s pretty cool that they were getting their own education about how significant the Jewish influence was musically, culturally, historically in their own country,” Stein says.
“It’s a really accessible way for young people, Jewish or non-Jewish, to memorialize the role that Jewish people played in Polish life for so many years.”
Holocaust survivors who show up to the Toronto event will get free admission. Stein is also working on giving away free tickets to students and youth groups interested in learning about musical culture during Holocaust Education Week.
“[The survivors] appreciate it as something that is nostalgic and meaningful for them, connoting the world that they came from in Europe,” Stein says.
“It’s a great way to connect young musicians who are working in older musical traditions that reflect Jewish musicals styles to connect to an audience of survivors.”
There’s not much historical evidence of the songs that the original GMO played. Yonai wants people to go to their attics and take out old albums of family who arrived in Canada from Poland and other eastern European countries.
Yonai says he wants to see if there is sheet music, pictures or playbills from mandolin orchestras before the war. He hopes to authenticate the new GMO’s repertoire with some of these songs. People who find artifacts can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.