Grigory Kanovich is regarded as one of the finest writers on Jewish themes – a giant among both Russian and Lithuanian authors. This 2012 masterpiece has been described as a kaddish (mourners’ prayer) for the shtetl, but it is much more. It is part family history, part eyewitness account, part imagined reconstruction of a world that vanished in June 1941, when the Nazis and their collaborators annihilated every vestige of the Litvaks – the Jews of Lithuania. Above all, it is a majestic, affectionate, totally gripping but unsentimental account of a way of life, the loss of which has made Eastern Europe a lesser place. Other cultures are victims of social and economic ‘progress’: the shtetl was a victim of planned ideological destruction.
Shtetl Love Story is in two parts: Book One, set in Jonava in the early interwar period, is the love song of Hirschke’s (Grigory’s) parents; of Mama Hennie patiently waiting for her Shleimke to finish his military service. The other characters all perform their stately dance around Hennie: her mother-in-law Rokha, known as the ‘Samurai in a skirt’ for her sharp tongue, and her long-suffering husband, a cobbler whose mouth seems permanently full of both nails and wise saws. There’s also ‘Almost-a-Jew’, the local policeman, Vincas Gedraitis, who speaks Yiddish as fluently as those he watches over. All these and more are drawn by Grigory Kanovich in sympathetic detail against a backdrop of small-town life that is as vivid as anything in Tolstoy.
In Book Two, Kanovich sings his own love song – of life in the Jonava backwater, as people only become aware at the last moment of the gathering war clouds. The family argues about whether Hirshke should go to the Yiddish or the Hebrew school, while firebrand brother-in-law Shmulik castigates Shleimke for worrying about ‘what is going on in our own souls and heads’ rather than ‘the evil plans of that nutcase Adolph Hitler’.
Kanovich weaves into his narrative the long-held beliefs Jews clung to in a dangerous and unpredictable world. As the banker husband of Hennie’s employer says: ‘For Jews, the future is an unreliable bank; they deposit all their hopes in it and then it turns out to be completely bankrupt’.
And later, as they are warned that the Germans are on the move, Rokha shrugs: ‘Such is our cursed fate – to flee from wherever we were settled to somewhere else from where there’s nowhere else to run.’
Hirshke and his parents ran to the Soviet Union and somehow escaped the Holocaust. As they lie in a hay loft en route, Hirshke reflects on ‘the deep, impenetrable silence … only the pungent, peaceful scent of cut hay and a vision of a world not desecrated either by ungodly hatred or bloodshed’. Revisiting Jonava at the war’s end, he realises that ‘whoever allows the dead to fall into oblivion will himself be justly consigned to oblivion by future generations’.
I am the son of a second generation Litvak. These words and this magnificent novel moved me to realise why my father’s family were the way they were – never forgetting, yet never openly talking about the reality of where they came from and why they left.
To this day, I know only that my grandfather’s shtetl was near Klaipeda, that he was a shopkeeper, spoke little English and wrote none. Were there other relatives who perished in that Lithuanian Holocaust? I have no idea. But now, at least, I do have a vivid, unforgettable picture of how my forebears lived and what they lived for.
Reviewed by Max Easterman
Shtetl Love Song
Written by Grigory Kanovich
Translated by Yisrael Elliot Cohen
Published by Noir Press (2017)
Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 25 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.
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