What was life like for Lithuanian Jews before genocide wiped out nearly an entire people? Happily, a Russian-language book by Grigory Kanovich, now in English translation, provides a vivid view of that time, providing invaluable answers, especially to families — like my own — of Litvak origin.
Kanovich fled the Nazi invasion as a child, saved by his mother, who hid him in a haystack. After time spent in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, he returned to largely Jew-free Lithuania. The resultant part-memoir, Shtetl Love Song, is poignant, informative and lyrical with “indestructible and imperishable memories”.
Central to its cast of characters is Kanovich’s beloved grandmother, the formidable Rokha Kanovich, dubbed “the Samurai”, who had an opinion on everything and everyone. Fierce on the surface but soft and loving underneath, she met her match in the unlettered but fiercely intelligent Hennie, the author’s mother, who in turn married Shleimke, a tailor devoted to “riding” his (to him hypermodern) Singer sewing machine. Earlier, he rode a real horse, due to the equal rarity in the shtetl of Jonava of his conscription as a Jew into the Lithuanian cavalry.
For her part, Hennie discovers a new world of French and fine food and clothes as au pair to the saintly, Polish-born Esther. Grigory himself doesn’t arrive on the scene until halfway through the book —under his Yiddish name, Hirshke — Hennie and Shleimke’s first surviving child. Other characters include Uncle Shmulik, a Marxist dreamer who is sprung from prison when the Soviets swallow up Lithuania in 1939 and appointed Jonava’s local point-man for the secret police, and Avigdor Perelman, a talmudic genius who loses his faith and ends up as the community shnorrer.
Shtetl Love Song evokes a sense of lost community, one of blacksmiths, haberdashers, cobblers, butchers and bakers, with each caste cherishing its own tiny synagogue.
As for professions, Jonava had one hard-pressed doctor, a rabbi imported from German-speaking Tilsit, and a few teachers, but no lawyers, academics, high officials or tycoons. The local “Rothschilds”, Kanovich jokes, would be paupers compared to the real ones in distant Paris and New York.
Kanovich is a natural story-teller, whose descriptions of the cocoon of Jonava and jaunts to larger cities is interspersed with poetic interludes, with scenery redolent of Chagall, and plotlines reminiscent of Sholem Aleichem. Yet it bears the authenticity of Kanovich’s own experience. Behind parochial charms, loom adult concerns. While Rokha insists that Hirshke enrols at the new Hebrew-language school, her family plump for the humbler institution where they speak mama-loshn. Hebrew, they argue, is useful only for rabbis or toilers in distant Palestine.
Jonava Jews lived a precarious existence alongside Catholic peasants, yet somehow the two cohered. The Yiddish-speaking Christian policeman Gedraitis warned Jewish friends ahead of time of government crackdowns — and relished his annual dose of matzah when visiting the Kanoviches every Pesach.
Meanwhile, the cheerful tailor’s help, Julius, still could not fathom that Jesus and the prophets were Jews.
Ironically, as we all know, that delicate harmony would crumble in months. But at least this dense book shows how Jews lived and not just how they died.
Shtetl Love Song By Grigory Kanovich (Trans: Elliot Cohen), Noir Press, £14
Lawrence Joffe’s books include ‘An Illustrated History of the Jewish People’