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Kanovich pens a requiem for the shtetl

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The book cover shows Grigory Kanovich in Jonava, 1934. Age five.

Grigory Kanovich’s writing career began with a poem for a friend’s girlfriend. He had asked Kanovich to write a poem for her, and once he did, both of them loved it. This seemingly insignificant moment is what sparked this prominent Lithuanian-Jewish writer’s lifelong love for writing.

Kanovich has dedicated his much of his career to reviving the world of prewar Jewish life, which was almost completely obliterated by the Nazis during the Second World War. Most recently, an English version of his last novel, Shtetl Love Song has been released. This is the last book of his “Litvak Saga” that consists of 10 novels revolving around the theme of Jewish life in Lithuania in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was a bestseller in Lithuania, Russia, Germany and in the United Kingdom, and is available around the world.

Shtetl Love Song, which was translated by Yisrael Elliot Cohen, is a “requiem” for the shtetl. The book depicts the way of life in a small Lithuanian shtetl in the years leading up to the Second World War. The village, called Jonava, is located near the city of Kaunas, and is where Kanovich himself was born. Much of the novel is based on the memories of his mother, and brings to life a world that has long disappeared. During the Pale of Settlement years, most Jewish people lived in shtetls. However, after the Pale was dissolved during the Russian Revolution, Jews began moving to bigger cities, and shtetls became few and far between. By 1920, there was a steady decline in shtetls, and by the end of the war, the Nazis and their collaborators had destroyed virtually all shtetls as well as most of the people in them. Interestingly, though Kanovich writes of the tragic story of Lithuanian Jewry, he does not actually make any mention of the Holocaust and instead creates an atmosphere that reflects the tragedy. He also does not write in an accusatory way, nor try to blame anyone, but rather he writes with a subtle humour that makes the world of the story very vivid and authentic.

Grigory Kanovich in 2011

Kanovich himself was born 1929, and was 12 years old when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. His family was forced to flee to Russia through Latvia, and this perilous journey is also described in Shtetl Love Song. Once they arrived in Russia, his father is sent to join the Soviet army, while he is sent to live in Kazakhstan along with his mother. They later relocated to a coal mining town in the Urals Region, in order to be closer to their relatives.

READ: AUTHOR DISCUSSES HOLOCAUST IN LITHUANIA

After the war, Kanovich and his family moved back to Lithuania, having narrowly avoided the Holocaust. They settled in Vilnius, where he went to university to study philology. At 19, he published his first collection of verse and in 1959, he published his first collection of short stories, entitled I Look at the Stars. Interestingly, his son Dmitri, who currently lives in Toronto, started a charity that provides musical gifts to long-term care institution residents, as well as inmates in correctional institutions – it is named after his father’s aforementioned first book.

Earlier in his career, Kanovich wrote for stage and film, and wrote several very successful screenplays that featured well-know Lithuanian actors. However, throughout the years, Kanovich became interested in writing about Lithuanian-Jewish history. He was partly inspired by the work of artist, Marc Chagall, who had a series of paintings of shtetls and other Jewish themes, and Kanovich intended to capture a similar spirit in his literature.

He began writing a saga about Lithuanian Jews, the majority of which were murdered during the Second World War. It was a bold decision, as anti-Semitism was rampant in the Soviet Union, and openly writing about Jews was a risky business. Despite the dangers, Kanovich pursued this idea, and is now one of Lithuania’s most prominent and well-known Jewish writers. His books have been translated into 13 different languages, with over 1.5 million copies printed worldwide.

Kanovich, who has been living in Israel since 1993, has received numerous awards and honours for his writing, including the medal of the order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gedimimas and Grand Cross of Commander of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. He also won Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts in 2014.

Fundamentally, Kanovich’s saga about Lithuanian Jewry can resonate with not only European Jews, but with people from all nationalities. His work covers the eternal and universal problems that people face. Through the lens of Lithuanian Jews living in a shtetl – who are his protagonists – he discusses universal themes like unconditional love, compassion, anger, betrayal as well as human suffering and values.