Mandolinists Revive Poland's Lost Jewish Music
The red brick walls of the synagogue in Gora Kalwaria, once a center of Jewish culture in Poland, reverberate anew with music lost in the Holocaust, thanks to one man's search for his Polish roots.
In the 1930s, a group of Jewish mandolin players from this small town just south of the capital Warsaw gained popularity across the country before many of them perished at the hands of Poland's Nazi German occupiers.
But in 2007, while retracing his family's Jewish roots, San Francisco businessman Avner Yonai found a telling photograph in Gora Kalwaria.
In it, he recognized his grandfather and two uncles among a dozen or so mandolin-clutching musicians of what was known as the "Ger Mandolin Orchestra".
Soon, Yonai began thinking about bringing this pre-World War II musical tradition back to life.
His dream became reality when several renowned mandolin players and guitarists from the U.S., Canada, Israel, Germany and the Czech Republic responded to his request for musicians interested in the project.
Chris Acguavella, Jeff Warschauer, Abe Schwartz, as well as the Grammy-nominated Avi Avital were among the illustrious volunteers.
"I had the idea to have a modern orchestra play the original authentic repertoire of the orchestra (in which) my grandfather played when he lived in Ger," which is Yiddish for Gora Kalwaria, Yonai told AFP.
"At the time it was the late 20s, early 30s and a band like this one with mandolins, was very popular in the region, " said Henryk Prajs, at 95 one of just two of Gora Kalwaria's surviving Jewish residents.
He was a teenager when the "Ger Mandolin Orchestra" was in full swing and recalls Avner Yonai's grandfather and the rest of the band playing popular Jewish, Polish, Russian and Italian tunes.
Prior to World War II, Jews accounted for about half of Gora Kalwaria's population of 6,000. Jewish culture flourished in the town, which was notably the seat of the Alter dynasty, a renowned group of Hasidic scholars.
In 1941, the country's Nazi German occupiers moved the town's Jewish residents to the Warsaw ghetto, and then sent them to their death at the Treblinka extermination camp in occupied Poland.
The old synagogue, the old Alter house and the old Jewish synagogue are the last rare vestiges of this lost world, drawing thousands of visitors from around the globe.
"Today, American Jews who come to Poland don't visit Warsaw's Old Town. They go to Gora Kalwaria, to Ger!" said Jan Jagielski of the Warsaw-based Jewish Historical Institute.
Eight years on, 11 mandolin players from around the globe pluck away in Gora Kalwaria's synagogue, recreating the pre-war atmosphere.
The town also invited them to visit a special exposition on the Jewish community of Ger, vibrant as it once was prior to the war.
A public call has been made for more information about the "Ger Mandolin Orchestra", but so far the old sepia photograph is the only evidence it existed.
Plans are afoot for concerts across Europe, but for Avner Yonai and the rest, nowhere compares to Ger.