International Yiddish Conference & Retreat

Avner Yonai: Founder, Ger Mandolin Orchestra Revival; Yad Vashem Interviewer; Israel; San Francisco, California

Avner Yonai

AVNER YONAI received his B.A. in Political Sciences & Criminology Studies
from the Bar Ilan University and his M.A. in International Relations and
Human Rights Studies at the University of Malta, Faculty of Law. He is a
Yad Vashem-certified interviewer of Holocaust survivors for the Names
Recovery Project. Avner is the founder and the project manager of the Ger
Mandolin Orchestra revival—a memorial project of reconstructing the Jewish
mandolin orchestra of the town of Ger, Poland circa 1920-1930.

Avner Yonai, founder of “the Ger Mandolin Orchestra”, a memorial project of reviving the Jewish Mandolin Orchestra that was active in Gora Kalwaria between 1920 to 1930, is pictured on September 1, 2011 in Warsaw. The background is original picture from 1920-1930 showing the first Mandolin Orchestra from Gora Kalwaria in which grandfather of Avner Yonai used to play. AFP PHOTO WOJTEK RADWANSKI

Around two years ago, I wanted to take in a movie in Palo Alto, but it was entirely sold out, so I settled for the other film, Everything is Illuminated (2005), based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel and Liev’s Schreiber’s screenplay. Within minutes I identified with the characters and plot of this film like no other I had seen in my life. When the protagonist in the film discovered the date of March 18th—my birthday—on the monument commemorating the Nazis’ slaughter of his grandfather’s village in the Ukraine, it could be only a sign directed at me to explore my family’s past. As soon as I returned home from this mesmerizing motion picture, I immediately connected to the Internet and started planning my own journey to Poland and Belarus that has knit together the past and present in a way that sheds light on my Israeli American family and the intertwined drama of Jews and gentiles in four countries. What I discovered may provide you with resources that can light sparks around your family’s history as well.

In a tale spanning across Poland, Belaraus, Israel and the US, Avner Yonai (38) a native Israeli businessman living in California, recently connected with a lost relative after discovering Pages of Testimony submitted by his grandfather in memory of family members who were murdered in the Shoah.

Since 2008, Avner has served as a volunteer through the JFSF of San Francisco for the Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project where he meets with Holocaust survivors to assist them in filling out Pages of Testimony in memory of their loved ones. As part of his volunteer work Avner also learned to conduct searches on the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names database, which ultimately led him to discover a living connection with a descendant of his great aunt Bluma, who was brutally murdered in the Shoah.

In a tale spanning across Poland, Belaraus, Israel and the US, Avner Yonai (38) a native Israeli businessman living in California, recently connected with a lost relative after discovering Pages of Testimony submitted by his grandfather in memory of family members who were murdered in the Shoah.

Since 2008, Avner has served as a volunteer through the JFSF of San Francisco for the Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project where he meets with Holocaust survivors to assist them in filling out Pages of Testimony in memory of their loved ones. As part of his volunteer work Avner also learned to conduct searches on the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names database, which ultimately led him to discover a living connection with a descendant of his great aunt Bluma, who was brutally murdered in the Shoah.

Avner’s maternal grandfather, David Rybak, was born in Poland in the town of Gora Kalwaria (aslo known as Ger). Yonai recently unearthed his grandfather’s travel and aliyah documents, which show that David Rybak emigrated from Poland to Mandatory Palestine in 1935, before the Nazi conquest of Poland. One of his brothers, Beryl Rybak remained in Poland and was murdered with his wife Bluma (née Goldhecht) in Treblinka in 1942. Bluma’s brother, Yaacov Goldhecht survived and filled out a Page of Testimony in her memory in Israel in the 1950′s. Avner then discovered that his grandfather, David Rybak, had also filled out Page of Testimony commemorating his sister-in-law, Bluma.

Avner’s research also revealed that Yaacov Goldhecht was from the same town as his grandfather, where they were neighbors and friends, and played together as members of The Mandolin Orchestra of Ger. Beryl Rybak served as the conductor of the orchestra which was active during the 1920’s and 1930’s; most of its members were killed in the Shoah. Goldhecht explained in an excerpt from the Gora Kalwaria Yizkor book that it was: “A unique orchestra directed by Beryl Ryback …who knows? Under different circumstances Beryl could well have gone on to become a world-renowned conductor.

This all exists only in the memories of the survivors of Ger, in all the countries of the world where they have been scattered…from time to time they feel a longing for this beautiful romantic past, that belongs to a past that is dead and buried… The Jews of Ger died the deaths of martyrs by the hands of the vile Nazi murders!”

Using the contact information on the Page of Testimony submitted by Yaacov Goldhecht, Avner succeeded in tracing the Goldhecht family. He immediately contacted his newly found cousin Giora Goldhecht (Yaacov’s grandson) and members of the two branches of the family came together for an emotional reunion in the Goldhecht family home in Israel.

Avner’s mother Lea and his uncle Yitzhak were both named after members of the family that perished in the Shoah, yet until Avner’s recent discovery, neither of them was aware of the fact that their father had submitted Pages of Testimony to Yad Vashem.

Avner says he used the Internet to plan his travels to Poland and Belarus where he painstakingly traced his family roots in a journey that has knit together the past and present in a way that sheds light on his Israeli American family and the intertwined drama of Jews and non-Jews in four countries. In addition to launching a Facebook page dedicated to the orchestra that was once so pivotal to his family, Yonai is also spearheading an effort to stage a revival concert of the mandolin orchestra of Ger.