After tracing his family roots to Gora Kalwaria, Poland, and erecting a memorial stone in honor of them and the entire Jewish community that was wiped out in the Holocaust, Avner Yonai still felt incomplete.
"Standing in the graveyard, it felt like Hitler won," said Mr. Yonai, 42, a native-born Israeli who lives in San Francisco.
He doesn't feel that way anymore, since he helped create a living monument to that lost time and place.
During his research, Mr. Yonai discovered that in the 1920s and '30s. his maternal grandfather, David Rybak, and two of his brothers played in a band -- the 11-piece Ger Mandolin Orchestra, Ger being the Yiddish name for Gora Kalwaria. Most of the musicians died in the Treblinka death camp, but not David; he left Poland for British-mandate Palestine in 1935, before World War II.
Mr. Yonai set about reconstructing that orchestra, with top-flight musicians playing the same music with the same type of instruments his grandfather's orchestra had used. They have given two concerts so far -- their debut at the Berkeley Jewish Music Festival in 2011, and later that year in the old synagogue of Gora Kalwaria. (see video at www.jewishmusicfestival.org/projects/ger-mandolin-orchestra).
Their next concert, he said, will be in Warsaw at the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
"The orchestra is alive," Mr. Yonai told some 90 people Saturday at the 15th annual conference of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs, meeting at the Green Tree DoubleTree, where he showed an unfinished documentary of his historical and creative journey. His was one of dozens of presentations taking place all weekend, from the art of illuminating Jewish texts by Pittsburgh artist Ilene Winn-Lederer to the art of playing klezmer by Yale Strom, a renowned violinist, writer and ethnomusicologist from San Diego.
Mr. Yonai had no idea about his family's past. His grandfather, born in 1908, was the only member of the family to survive the Holocaust and never talked about Poland. "It was like that for a lot of them," he said. "They didn't talk and we did not know what to ask."
He learned about his grandfather's past by reading the so-called Pages of Testimony he had given to Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem. But the grandson had no desire to visit Poland until he saw the film "Everything Is Illuminated," based on Jonathan Safran Foer's 2002 novel about a young man who goes to Ukraine in search of his family's past.
"I felt immediately connected," he told the audience. So he went to Gora Kalwaria, nearly 20 miles southeast of Warsaw. Before the war, it had 7,000 people, split evenly between Catholics and Jews. When Mr. Yonai arrived, there were 12,000 -- but only two Jews. One of them, Henryk Prajs, in his 90s, remembered the Rybak family and, indeed, the entire orchestra.
Mr. Yonai traveled through archives on paper and online to Buenos Aires, Israel and Poland, researching documents and photos. He also combed through Polish antique shops and flea markets for old sheet music of his grandfather's era. Then he contacted Ellie Shapiro, director of the 26th Berkeley Jewish Music Festival, and proposed his idea. She recruited master mandolin player Mike Marshall, who assembled a hand-picked group of musicians. Mr. Yonai, owner of an international shipping firm, underwrote the whole thing.
Not long after the Ger debut in Berkeley in 2011, the orchestra was invited by the mayor of Gora Kalwaria. He invited them to play a special concert in the old synagogue, where they were a big hit. There was even a follow-up of mandolin lessons for Polish schoolchildren, and a concert by young musicians from a small town in the north.
"They're too small for their own post office or ZIP code, but they have a mandolin orchestra," said Mr. Yonai.
In the video, Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, a professor of Jewish and performance studies at New York University, sums up the Ger Mandolin Orchestra's importance:
"We have a lot of stone monuments, but this is a living monument. ... It brings something to life rather than honoring something that's dead."
The project is having the effect Mr. Yonai had hoped for, connecting people with history and awakening interest among young Poles in the vanished Jewish community they never knew. Since the concert, he said, the mayor of Gora Kalwaria has visited Yad Vashem, and he is planning to take school students to Treblinka next year.
"My grandfather is no longer alive," Mr. Yonai said, "but I think he would be happy we commemorated his life and the Jewish community by playing the music they loved."
Sally Kalson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1610. First Published April 28, 2013 4:00 AM