By Robert K. Stephen
(TORONTO, ON) – Those of us of a certain age are very well aware of The Holocaust but history always blurs with the passing of generations unless some efforts are taken to ensure certain “unpleasant events” are not forgotten. There has been genocide in the past but what the world’s current population remembers is what counts. The Holocaust is not forgotten by many (but not all) because efforts have been made to ensure it is not forgotten and because it is a relatively fresh historical event.
So where does The Ger Mandolin Orchestra, comprised of 10 mandolinists, fit into the Holocaust? In the Polish town of Gora Kalwaria (“Ger” in Yiddish) prior to the outbreak of World War II there was a Jewish mandolin orchestra. Israeli-American Avner Yonai discovered an old photograph of his grandfather and two other relatives playing in this mandolin orchestra. Yonai was so inspired by this old photograph of his family and other orchestra members he decided to recreate the orchestra as a memorial project for his own family and the other orchestra members who perished in the Holocaust. In fact incredibly and emotionally Ger Mandolin performed in Gora Kalwaria. Mike Marshall (leader of Ger Mandolin Orchestra and a Grammy Award winner) describes the feelings at a performance I think few of us can understand the significance of;
We performed in the very synagogue where this group were members in Gore Kawaria Poland. To walk into that building and feel the presence of the people who were there and then to perform THIS music for a sold out audience of Jews and non-Jews holding hands and dancing by the end. OH believe me their presence was felt that night.
We were in the midst of something extremely profound and every time we have performed it comes back. I think as humans we all have a moral duty to ALL peoples who have suffered the way the Jews did during this period. It’s of course part of human history and continues even today in parts of the world. So unless we seek out and consider it our duty to stand up and to remember and pay homage to those who suffered then we are bound to repeat these horrors. But to be a mandolinist of course we feel a kind of brotherhood towards this group which moves us as well.
Mandolin orchestras were popular in Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and was brought to the United States by immigrants but losing popularity in post World War II times. The Ger Mandolin Orchestra preserves the traditional Klezmer and Yiddish music along with some Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, Czech and classical selections. Mike Marshall remarks:
As you look at the original photo of the group you see that they were a very sophisticated group of young guys. Very well dressed. Very integrated into the popular culture of European life. To us they do not look very ‘Jewish’ per-se. Like many of the mandolin ensembles from that time in Europe they were probably playing a wide variety of music. Eastern European, Spanish, Italian. Perhaps a bit of light classical music and also of course some Klezmer and Yiddish songs but maybe not as much as one might think.
Ger Mandolin speaks of memory of happier times before the very bad times of the Holocaust. Mike Marshall elaborates:
They (the audience) can expect to be brought back in time to another era, another feeling about music and how it functioned for the people of that time and of that place. The whole concept of the orchestra is such a brilliant and emotionally moving concept that it carries with it a kind of weight of purpose and history that far surpasses almost anything that I have been involved in my 35 years performing music. The simple act of the recreation of an ensemble that existed as this one did in Poland in the 30s is so profound and yet intimate and simple, it’s just moves people when they are present.
So given all this stream of horrific and ghastly history can’t we just move on and hope it never occurs again. I am rather afraid we can’t as many in the younger generation in Canada have any idea about the Holocaust or if they do it is simply part of some abstract historical discourse. No personal experience or connection therefore no lasting memory.
The Toronto performance of Ger Mandolin Orchestra falls under the banner of the Ashkenaz Festival. The Ashkenaz Foundation is a community based non-profit organization dedicated to fostering an increased awareness of Yiddish and Jewish culture through the arts. In addition to Ashkenaz Foundation the event is sponsored by Moses, Libby and Sam Znaimer, Helen Stollar in memory of her husband Jack Stollar, The Centre for Jewish Studies of the University of Toronto and Anonymous.
Canada is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance which is an intergovernmental body made up of government officials and experts from 31 countries. The Alliance is chaired by Canada for 2013-2014. The Alliance supports Holocaust education, remembrance and research in member companies and globally. Many countries have their own Holocaust Memorial Days and 12 countries observe January 27 the day of liberation of Auschwitz.
Ger Mandolin Orchestra performs in Toronto on 7 November at the George Weston Recital Hall. Holocaust Education Week in Canada runs from 3-9 November 2013.
(The Ger Mandolin Orchestra, 7 November 2013, 7:30 pm, George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario, Tickets available through Ticketmaster 1.855.985.2787)