Jewish children from Jonava. (Jonava Region Museum, jonavosmuziejus.lt)

Learning while Reading Grigory Kanovich

By Ramūnas Čičelis.

It’s a great honor and pleasure for me to present and discuss the creative works of the Litvak author Grigory Kanovich (Kanovičius). Kanovičius grew up and was formed in the same town in which I was born and raised and in which I live still – the central Lithuanian town of Jonava. It’s of great interest to speak to readers about Grigory Kanovičius, and I daresay, one can divide lovers of books and the written word into two groups – those who have already read Kanovičius’ work, and those for whom this experience will be a most rewarding one in the future. Those in the first group will have appreciated the moral lessons which Kanovičius teaches us in a series of more than 10 novels, set in the late 19th and early–to–mid 20th centuries. Interacting with these texts involves repeated challenges to one’s conscience, because while reading them, one’s own moral compass and beliefs are called into question, and sometimes temporarily, one can get lost in painful detours.

Grigory Kanovich. (D. Kanovich family archive)

Kanovičius’ narratives consist of novels and short stories, replete with observations full of life and empathy about people, their concerns and worries, as well as (less frequently experienced) moments of subtle and often understated happiness. The author himself, as well as the characters that he depicts, are products of the environment in which they are existing. The thoughtful and insightful Jews Kanovičius describes are not concerned so much about issues taking place beyond the horizon – their concerns and preoccupations extend in a vertical, rather than a horizontal direction. Their lives are guided by an eternal light that is not extinguished until the end of life. Almost 500 years ago, the Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri, in his Divine Comedy, wrote about the organization and structure present in a world beyond. Kanovičius and the subjects of his tales similarly illustrate the inner workings of Litvak society in Lithuania during the interwar period as well as during Soviet occupation. The goals of both authors are similar. Kanovičius is not a detached, objective observer, but rather someone who without restrictions describes his characters from up close, allowing the reader to experience the innermost layers and nuances of their personhood.

Litvaks living today often experience a certain degree of angst, having difficulty in identifying completely as either Self or Other when among foreigners. In his texts, Kanovičius reminds us that historically, Jews even today remain in the status of Other. The Other is a person not marching along with the majority, often remaining somewhat off to the side, perhaps slightly forgotten and less loved. However, in Kanovičius’ novels depicting shtetls in interwar Lithuania, an opposite point of view is also expressed: in smaller Lithuanian towns, Jews often represented a majority. It was only after the holocaust that Jews in Lithuania became the Other. Kanovičius explores this change in the position of Jews in Lithuania in his trilogy Candles in the Wind. In those countries with longstanding democratic traditions, in the second half of the 20th century, postmodern thinking led to the Other becoming Self. But in Kanovičius narratives describing the Soviet era, Litvaks remain pushed to the side, unaccepted and not understood. The characters in Kanovičius’ novels reach for an understanding of this dichotomy. And most often, such efforts are accompanied by dramatic and tragic endings.

Recalling the clarity of thinking of one Litvak philosopher of our generation, Leonidas Donskis, one is tempted to compare the painful efforts of both individuals, the thinker Donskis and the writer Kanovičius, to mediate beween people from different countries having different values and viewpoints. One of the most important meanings contained within Grigory Kanovičius’ work is the effort to illustrate to a broad readership of non-Jews the range of 20th century Litvak culture and experience. After Soviet occupation, in those countries where there had been a tradition of living together with others, traditions of tolerance were cruelly destroyed by the various repressions instituted by Nazis and Soviets during World War II. Kanovičius’ narratives serve as a bridge between a lost Eden and an interrupted present of unclear provenance. Were it not for Kanovičius’ literary contributions, young persons living in current-day Lithuania or Eastern Europe would have an unfinished and somewhat empty view of life during the interwar period.

Shtetl Love Song book cover.

In his novels and other creative works, Kanovičius has been able to achieve that which the French painter Paul Cezanne attempted to accomplish 100 years earlier: to preserve and document an image of a tree in the process of becoming extinct, allowing this object of nature to continue to exist in a cultural, if no longer a biological, sphere. The totality of Kanovičius’ work allows us through language to understand the tragic events experienced by the Jewish people in the 20th century. In his novels, the personages and characters he depicts serve to reject nihilism and moral perversion in the world, while affirming the eternal persistence and memories of the humanity of its people.

On exploring the subject matter of Kanovičius’ Shtetl Love Song, we find that the story might well be described as the love of a Litvak for Jonava, the town of his birth. At the present time, when nationalistic sentiment is strengthening in America and Europe, it has become acceptable and even fashionable to talk about love for one’s birthplace. Yet, Kanovičius’ love for the town of Jonava is different from love of the “home” (Heimat) written about by Heidegger, conceived as a bouquet of feelings and strivings that can ultimately lead to intolerance of the world outside of the homeland. Rather, Kanovičius’ love for Jonava is first and foremost a reflection of where his journey began, and about the people there who surrounded him, protected him, and enriched his life experience. This love for one’s birthplace is dominated by thoughts and memories, and hence is long-lived, rather than by feelings, which often change and can be fleeting. One emotion that is long-lasting is a sorrow for the broken and destroyed lives of the people who used to live there. This heavy feeling in the prose of Grigory Kanovičius serves as an anchor, turning our thoughts to a past that has been lost, and they turn us away from unmeasured hope for the future.

It would be a mistake to assume that Kanovičius’ stories are strongly reflective of his own life. These days, when autoreferential and narcissistic literature focusing on individualism is in vogue, one can understand this Litvak author as one who always regarded his own individuality in the context of relationships with members of his family, his neighbors, and his acquaintances. The individuality of Grigory Kanovičius should be understood as a construct that depends on his relationships to others. Kanovičius’ rich body of work represents not so much his own biography, but the experience of his entire nation. As such, he offers an unusual opportunity for readers to experience the light of humanity from many viewpoints, but also, the darkness of dehumanization. Several years ago, the poet Tomas Venclova proclaimed, that soon it would be less important to decide if one is a Lithuanian, Russian, or Jew, than to understand if one will retain his or her humanity. Readers of Kanovičius’ work are invited to protect their own humanity, and to maintain it for as long as they live.

Much of Kanovičius’ work (written in Russian), has been translated into Lithuanian. Only two of his novels are readily available in English (e.g. via amazon.com): Shtetl Love Song, and Devilspel. The latter work was awarded the prestigious EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) literature prize for 2020. Translations and publication of additional writings are being organized by his son Dmitrijus, living in Canada, who is planning to gift Shtetl Love Song to every federal prison library across Canada as a part of his classical music gift program, “Looking at the Stars.”

There are only a handful of writers born and raised in Lithuania who could be called world-class authors. In the introduction to a collection of Kanovičius’ stories published in Lithuania, Literature Professor Petras Bražėnas reminded readers of Kanovičius’ idea that he was describing and writing about the “planet of the Jews” (žydų planeta). The author of this article can affirm this concept and can emphatically state that Kanovičius’ narratives about the “planet of the Jews” are worthy of the attention not only of Lithuanians, but of a broad international audience.

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Excerpts from Chapter 3. (Shetl Love Song by Grigory Kanovich; illustration added by LH.)

In all the twenty years of her life Hennie had never ventured beyond the borders of her shtetl – not counting the already long–forgotten Vitebsk, which was where, when she was a girl of fourteen, together with all the other Jews suspected of being spies, she had been expelled by the Russian tsar, Nikolai, whose name remained long in the memory of her people as the embodiment of hatred toward those of the Jewish faith. When she was angry, my grandmother on my mothers side used to turn to her husband Shimon and say, “Why are you looking at me so suspiciously, the way Tsar Nikolai looked at peyos!” [Peyos are ear locks worn by pious Jews]

Map showing Jonava (Hennie’s shtetl) to the northeast of Kaunas, and Alytus (the army base where Shleimke was stationed) to the south. The distance between Jonava and Alytus by road is about 60 miles. (freeworldmaps.net)

Alytus was larger than Hennie’s shtetl. The streets were broader, the houses taller and the store windows contained greater riches. In Jonava Hennie was familiar with all the lanes and alleys; every shop, every workshop and barbershop, post office and barrack, every place for holding military manoeuvres and even the police station.

If only she could bump into a policeman like Vincas Gedraitis, who would help her so she didn’t get lost, she thought, recalling, suddenly, Jonava’s guardian of law and order who was a frequent guest in her home on Kaunas Street – almost a member of the family.

Before the Passover holiday Gedraitis, trim and in full uniform, usually dropped in at the house of the cobbler Shimon, to share a bit of matza and down some honey liqueur and, especially, to speak with him in fluent Yiddish about the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and the apostles. Gedraitis, a fervent Catholic, absolutely refused to believe that they had all been Jews.

“It can’t be, it just can’t be! I don’t believe it! You have cobblers and tailors, you have usurers, but you don’t have apostles! The apostles are ours, and I ask you not to take them for yourselves.”

“Jews. They were Jews,” Shimon muttered, not wanting to get into an argument with Gedraitis. (Out of respect for his host the policeman always spoke with him not in Lithuanian, but in the mama-loshn.) “Jews just like us.”

“A Jew could not crucify a Jew,” insisted the phlegmatic and gentle Gedraitis, chewing on a piece of matza. “A Lithuanian could. A Pole maybe. A German could. A Jew – never in his life! Deceive, yes, without blinking an eye, denounce his brother to the authorities, yes – but crucify?”

“Is the ethnic origin of your God and his apostles really so important? Anyway, you tell me where Jewish villains could have bought the nails to nail poor Jesus to the cross,” Shimon said ironically, watching his guest devour the matza. “Where? From Reb Yeshua Kremnitser? Or perhaps from Shmuelson in Ukmergė?” He chuckled.

“You, Shimon, are not just a master shoe-repairer, you’re quite handy with your tongue too. You are. You certainly are! But be careful, even if you are a cobbler,” Vincas Gedraitis said and, leaving the tasty matza until next year, he would warmly embrace the old man.

Hennie didn’t know anyone in Alytus. After wandering around the strange city in vain with her cloth suitcase, she decided to turn to someone who looked like a Jew, who might tell her how she could reach her goal, the soldiers’ barracks, before it became dark.

Next to a store with a huge sign of a woman’s high-heeled shoe and large letters that read in Yiddish and Lithuanian, ‘Meir Liberson – The best shoes in Europe’ (below the word ‘Europe’, to attract customers, the words ‘inexpensive’ and ‘long–lasting’ appeared in smaller script) Hennie politely stopped a fair-haired man in a long black coat and asked whether he could tell her, an out-of-towner, where the lancers were quartered.

“The lancers, who are they?” the stranger asked, staring at her in total incomprehension.

“Soldiers,” Hennie explained in confusion. “But not infantry. Cavalrymen.”

“So why does a fine Jewish girl like you need Lithuanian cavalrymen?” The man grinned, touching his rumpled black hat with the tips of his fingers.
The fine Jewish girl took the slight gesture of his hand as a sign of dismissal and quickly added, “I’m looking for my friend. He was recently called up to the army and sent here, to Alytus, for his national service.”

“Is he a Jew?”

“Yes, a Jew. A tailor.”

“That’s the first time I’ve heard that they’ve called up a tailor for the cavalry, and a Jewish one at that. We’ve never had any Jewish horsemen,” the stranger repeated several times, a smile illuminating his cheeks, which were sunken and of a sickly yellow tinge. “Is he expecting you here?”

“No. It’s just that I haven’t seen him for so long. And I very much want to see him.”

Hennie’s constant wandering back and forth and her fruitless staring through the gaps in the fence alerted the sentry, who was exhausted from boredom since he really had nothing to do. The excessive curiosity of the young woman, who clearly looked Jewish, aroused the suspicions of the guard and he left his post and, with a kind of arrogant laziness, strutted toward her.

Having looked the unexpected visitor over from head to toe, as if he were trying to guess what she wanted and what she had in the mysterious bag she was holding, he asked, severely, in Lithuanian, “Ko čia, panele, ieškot?” What are you looking for, young lady?

Hennie concentrated and with considerable difficulty managed to reply, despite her poor command of the state language, “Aš ieškot chaveras Shlomo Kanovich.” I’m looking lor my friend, Shlomo Kanovich.

She succeeded in mispronouncing all the Lithuanian words except for the first person pronoun and the name of the person she was seeking. The sentry grimaced at the girl’s inability to speak the language of the state he was so dutifully protecting against its enemies. But, overcoming his disdain, he asked her a question that would remove all his doubts.

“Jis čia tarnauja?” Is he serving here?

Intuition told her what he was asking. Hennie quickly nodded so that her dark curls danced up and down and she hastened to open her bag, carefully removing from under the goodies a threadbare wallet with a photograph that was wrapped in newspaper. She showed it to the sentry.

Looking at the photo and recognizing the regimental steed in it, the guard spoke in a much friendlier tone. “Palauk.” Wait here.

When it seemed that she could do nothing but despair after waiting so long, fortune smiled on Hennie. Accompanied by the sentry, a suntanned Shleimke emerged from the entrance in a uniform that made him look even taller and more handsome than ever. Instead of rushing toward him joyfully, Hennie could not move.
With a rapid, youthful step, Shleimke approached and embraced her, kissing her and slowly and carefully wiping the tears from her cheeks.

They walked down towards the Neman, found a grassy spot and sat down facing each other. Hennie opened her bag, took out a tablecloth and set out the goodies: pie with raisins, marzipan crusts, round candies that looked like the shiny buttons on a high-school student’s uniform, walnuts, two copper-nickel wine cups and an unopened bottle of Passover wine carefully wrapped in a kitchen towel. But there were more than edibles in her cloth bag. At the bottom it was possible to see some
non-edible gifts: an intricately monogrammed handkerchief that Hennie had embroidered and woollen socks that she had knitted.

“You might have brought me a potato kugel,” Shleimke scolded her affectionately.

“I’ll make you a kugel right here.”

“Where? In the barracks?”

“I’ve decided to stay in Alytus. I’ll find work and rent an inexpensive corner of a room in town. We’ll serve together and then return home together. What difference does it make where I work?”

“You’re really something! You’ve decided to stay to make me kugel. Have you gone out of your mind?”

“Yes, to make kugel, kugel! The potatoes are tastier here than in our shtetl,” Hennie said, screwing up her eyes in a sly expression. Then she cut the raisin pie and poured the sweet holiday wine into the cups.

“To you!” she toasted and clinked cups with him. “And to your horse, so that he will love you and be careful with you!”

“To you, Hennie!”

“When you go home, Hennie, tell my mother not to worry. No one insults me here and my horse is a calm one. I wish to God that all our Jews were as easy-going as she is. ‘There’s no reason for you to stay here for two years, giving up your home for some foreign hole. If you can, come to see me on Saturdays. We’ll sit by the river, eat pie with raisins, suck sweets and go to the synagogue and ask God to forgive our sins and bless us with a long life together. And we’ll try to express our gratitude by obeying him and by our deeds.”

“Yes, Sir.”

She didn’t say another word, but wrapped up the rest of the food in the tablecloth and accompanied him back to the gate. She bowed her head to say goodbye to the sentry, kissed Shleimke on the cheek and slowly headed back to town.

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