Revival of lost mandolin orchestra making debut in Berkeley

Avner Yonai does not play the mandolin. But his grandfather sure did.

Back in pre-war Poland, in the town of Gora Kalwaria (known as Ger in Yiddish), his grandfather, David Rybak, belonged to the hottest band in town, a Jewish mandolin orchestra. The 11-member ensemble was part of a thriving cultural life for Jews in Ger and across Poland.

Mike Marshall

That entirely vanished with the Holocaust. Most Jews in Ger, including orchestra members, died in the Warsaw Ghetto or Treblinka. Though his entire family perished, Rybak survived, having made his way to pre-state Israel in 1935.

Now, his Israeli-born grandson has made it his mission to revive the Ger Mandolin Orchestra. Thanks to Yonai’s globetrotting research, that ensemble lives again.

The reconstituted orchestra makes its debut at the 2011 Jewish Music Festival with a March 6 concert at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffee House. Mandolin great Mike Marshall will lead the 11-member group, which also includes renowned players such as Avi Avital and Jeff Warschauer.

Rybak died in 1996 at the age of 88. Throughout his years in Israel, he never breathed a word about his life in Ger or the orchestra to which he once belonged. He never played the mandolin again.

But in 2007, Yonai, a 39-year-old Foster City resident, had an epiphany after seeing the film “Everything is Illuminated” (based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 novel about one man’s genealogical search). He decided to learn more about his forebears.

Two weeks after learning that his grandfather came from Ger, Yohai hopped on a plane to Poland. He had no agenda, no itinerary, no contacts.

Once in Ger he found the Jewish cemetery locked up tight. A few inquiries led him to Avram Prajs, who at 94 was the town’s oldest Jewish resident. He had survived the war passing as a non-Jew, but he remembered everything about Ger’s lost Jewish life.

Prajs showed Yonai the Ger Yizkor book, a memorial to the town’s murdered Jews that was written in 1975 and published in Argentina. In that book he saw a photograph of the mandolin orchestra.

Avner Yonai looks at old Polish sheet music for the mandolin.

Prajs pointed out that in the photo was David Ryback, Yonai’s grandfather, along with Yonai’s great-uncles Shlomo and Berl, who was the orchestra’s manager.

Yonai returned to Ger two years later to erect a tombstone in the town’s neglected Jewish cemetery, but he wanted to do more. It occurred to him that rebuilding the orchestra would be a better way to honor the Jews of Ger than simply putting a plaque on some wall.

In full sleuth mode, Yonai tracked down an Argentine Jewish Shoah remembrance organization, which had the original photo of the mandolin orchestra. He went to Buenos Aires to pick it up, along with other archival materials about the Jews of Ger.

One big piece of the puzzle was still missing: the music the orchestra played. There was no way to know for sure, but Yonai did a little forensic reconstruction.

“I went on eBay Poland and got [sheet] music of old mandolin music,” he said. “I went to music stores looking for second-hand sheet music. At the National Library of Poland I found mandolin repertoire for Jews.”

He also found 1930s-era mandolin catalogs from Polish music publishers and record companies, some specially designated as Jewish (such as a Polish version of “Sonny Boy” by Sophie Tucker). He searched at YIVO, the Yiddish archive in New York City, and found CD versions of rare recordings by Polish mandolin orchestras.

Searching for more clues in Tel Aviv’s Chassidic neighborhoods, he paid a visit to the last living associates of the previous Gerer Rebbe, who died in 1948, to inquire about music from the Old Country.

That narrowed the music down to Jewish folk songs, cantorial and Chassidic pieces, and waltzes, serenades and dance tunes popular at the time.

So, he had the music. He had the concept. Now, all he needed was an orchestra.

Last fall Yonai approached Jewish Music Festival Director Ellie Shapiro with the idea of a new Ger Mandolin Orchestra. She immediately contacted famed mandolin player Mike Marshall, and she and Yonai paid Marshall a visit.

Once Yonai showed him the sepia-colored shot of the original orchestra, Marshall said, “I’m in.”

Yonai plans to film the concert and release a recording — in vinyl, just as the original Ger ensemble would have done. He also envisions an afterlife for the group, with possible concerts in Israel and Ger, where the orchestra now has a standing invitation to perform.

There’s an afterlife for Yonai as well. Ever since he started looking into his own family background, he has been active with local Jewish genealogy groups, as well as Yad Vashem’s Names Project, which seeks to account for every single Jew lost in the Holocaust.

He will continue that work for the foreseeable future. But for now, his attention is focused on the upcoming concert, which he hopes will have meaning for all who hear the music.

It already has plenty of meaning to him.

“I was looking for something to revive [the Jews of Ger], to say it did not stop there,” says Yonai. “There was a pause, but not an end.”

The 26th annual Jewish Music Festival presents the Ger Mandolin Orchestra at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 6 at the Freight & Salvage Coffee House, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets: $18-$25. Information: (866) 558-4253 or online at www.jewishmusicfestival.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.