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Plucky Move

A picture of his Polish grandfather’s mandolin orchestra inspired Avner Yonai to start his own

Alexander Gelfand
October 28, 2010
The Ger Mandolin Orchestra in the 1930s.(Courtesy Avner Yonai)
The Ger Mandolin Orchestra in the 1930s.(Courtesy Avner Yonai)

Have you ever had one of those moments—one of those epiphanies—when everything is illuminated?

Avner Yonai did. And it came, fittingly enough, while he was watching the film Everything Is Illuminated, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Which led, of course, to the mandolins.

But first, the epiphany.

Yonai, who runs a moving and storage company in California, was born in Israel. His father’s family emigrated from Poland to Palestine in 1932; his mother’s family, or at least some of them, did the same in 1935. Those that didn’t perished in Treblinka, along with the other Jewish residents of Gora Kalwaria, or as it’s known in Yiddish, Ger.

No one in Yonai’s family talked much about life in Ger. “Living in Israel, they had no desire to return to Poland, or to talk about it,” he said. And Yonai didn’t think much about it until he found himself in a darkened theater, watching Elijah Wood return to his character’s ancestral shtetl and stand before a monument commemorating the date of the massacre in which most of his forebears lost their lives: March 18, 1942.

“I was born on March 18,” Yonai said. “I don’t believe in signs, but that was too much of a coincidence.”

Within two weeks, Yonai was in Ger, trying to find traces of his own family. He met with a survivor, one Avrum Henryk Prajs, now 94, who pulled out the town’s Yizkor book and proceeded to show Yonai a photograph of his grandfather, two great uncles, and a cousin, taken sometime in the early 1930s.

It was a photo of an orchestra. The Mandolin Orchestra of Ger.

One can still find mandolin orchestras in most large cities in this country. In the early decades of the 20th century, when the Gibson guitar company actively promoted them, mandolin orchestras were everywhere—especially among the immigrant communities for whom the mandolin carried memories of home.

The mandolin originated in Italy in the 15th century, and there exists a large body of Baroque and classical music for the instrument. Cheap and portable, it rapidly became a staple of folk music across the continent, especially in the eastern parts; there is Slovakian mandolin music, Ukrainian mandolin music, and a significant amount of Jewish mandolin music. “The mandolin was the instrument you would sit around and play with your friends,” said mandolinist and guitarist Jeff Warschauer.

Sometime in the 19th century, some enterprising soul realized that mandolins could be built in different sizes and grouped just like bowed string instruments: mandolinas for violas, mandocellos for cellos, mandobasses for contrabasses. Thus was born the mandolin orchestra, Jewish versions of which quickly sprang up across Europe and North America, their mostly amateur members furiously picking away in a mass of quivering, shimmering tremolos. My old mandolin teacher, Mr. Katz, led just such a group in Montreal when he wasn’t schooling little kids in Eastern European chestnuts like “Tumbalalaika” and “Dark Eyes” (“Ochi Chornye”)—the latter having been a favorite of my maternal grandfather, who emigrated to Canada in the early 1920s from Krynki (Krinek), just 150 miles northeast of Ger.

That black-and-white portrait of the Mandolin Orchestra of Ger eventually led Avner Yonai to some long-lost relatives in Israel. But that was hardly the end of it. Given that most of his mother’s family had played in the orchestra, Yonai decided to resurrect it.

Figuring out what the orchestra played has not been simple. Prajs can identify its members, but he was just a child when they gathered at the Y.L. Peretz Library in Ger during the 1920s and 1930s. In a YouTube video you can see him struggling to recall what they might have performed.

One can hazard a guess as to the general outlines of the group’s repertoire based on the kinds of music that were popular among Eastern European Jews at the time, and on what Jewish mandolin orchestras in America played during the same period. “I would expect that they would be playing light classical pieces, tangos, Yiddish theater songs, and folk favorites,” says Warschauer, who has examined the repertoire of the old Workmen’s Circle Mandolin Orchestra in New York, among others. But it’s still a guess. As Yonai says, “There is not an archive where we can go and ask the librarian, ‘Give me the repertoire for the mandolin orchestra of Gora Kalwaria.’ ”

But Yonai is not one to give up easily. He has used the genealogy website JewishGen and the YIVO archives to find contacts and archival materials among the scattered descendants of the Jews of Ger. He has hired a doctoral candidate in ethnological studies at the University of Warsaw to pore over old newspapers, sheet music, record catalogs—anything that might hint at the mandolin orchestra’s repertoire. Together with the Israeli mandolinist Benny Bilsky, who has volunteered to act as music director for the project, he has even visited the large community of Gerrer Hasidim in Bnei Brak, Israel, searching for tunes that might have found their way into the orchestra’s book.

(It’s a safe bet that the orchestra dealt mainly in secular material, but you never know. As Warschauer points out, the old Jewish mandolin orchestras here in North America played “some Yiddish things, some things we might call klezmer, and even some Hasidic things.”)

A resurrected version of the Mandolin Orchestra of Ger is scheduled to perform at the 26th annual Jewish Music Festival in the Bay Area this coming March. The program has not yet been finalized, nor, for that matter, has the personnel list, though the festival’s director, Eleanor Shapiro, hopes to attract a roster of international mandolin virtuosi.

So, if you have a chest of old mandolin music from your great-grandfather’s collection moldering in the attic, or a Yizkor book that happens to mention the pieces that your great-uncle’s mandolin orchestra played in Poland in 1933, drop Yonai a line. He’ll be happy to hear from you.

For Avner Yonai, this is not just about mandolins. It is about connecting to a past that otherwise exists only in fading memories and rare photographs. And it is, first and foremost, about a small group of people who stayed behind when others, more prescient or maybe just luckier, chose to leave. People he met on his first trip to Ger, gazing at him in black-and-white across the span of nearly one hundred years.

“For me,” he said, “it is a family thing.”

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.