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Grigory Kanovich, born 1929, is one of the most prominent modern Lithuanian Jewish writers, winner of Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts. Kanovich was born into a traditional Jewish family in the Lithuanian town of Jonava. He has written more than ten novels – a virtual epic saga – dealing with the vicissitudes of the history of Eastern European Jewry from the 19th century to the present day.
His novel Shtetl Love Song won the Liudo Dovydeno Prize awarded by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union.

Today, Kanovich is the only writer in the entire world capable of depicting the life of the pre-war Jewish shtetl with the documentary precision of an immediate witness and the deep emotional passion of a lover mourning his loss – Mikhail Krutikov, Professor of Slavic and Judaic Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

(biography and quote from noirpress.co.uk)

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Book cover, Shtetl Love Song

by Stephan Collishaw

 

Grigory Kanovich article 05Shtetl Love Song
Grigory Kanovich
Noir Press
ISBN: 978-0995560024
Lithuanian writer Grigory Kanovich has dedicated his life, in his own words, ‘to what has been lost, to what has been destroyed - the small Jewish town.’ His last novel, Shtetl Love Song, out for the first time in English, ‘is, in a sense, a requiem to all such Jewish towns.’

Kanovich is one of Lithuania’s most celebrated writers. He has been awarded the Medal of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas and the Order for Merits to Lithuania. In 2014 he was awarded the National Prize for Culture and Arts. Shtetl Love Song, was awarded the Liudas Dovydenas Prize by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union.

His novels have been translated into thirteen languages and more than 1.5 million copies have been sold.

Born in Jonava, near Kaunas, in 1929, he was brought up in the kind of Jewish community that he so loving depicts in his novel. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented, ‘Kanovich makes us feel and see a world that has long disappeared.’

When Kanovich was twelve years old, the life he had known came to a sudden and violent end with the outbreak of the war. It is a miracle that he survived. More than 95% of Lithuania’s Jewish community were massacred by the invading German troops and their local Lithuanian collaborators

The Second World War wiped out the Jewish shtetl and killed the majority of the communities that lived in them. Preserving that heritage was to become Grigory Kanovich’s artistic calling. Mikhail Krutikov, Professor of Slavic and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan has written, ‘Today, Kanovich is the only writer in the entire world capable of depicting the life of the pre-war Jewish shtetl with the documentary precision of an immediate witness and the deep emotional passion of a lover mourning his loss. He survived the Holocaust almost by a miracle, and made it his mission to serve, against all odds, as a custodian of the collective memory of generations of Litvaks, Lithuanian Jews.’

Grigory Kanovich article 03Art by Mark Kanovich

When the Germans invaded Lithuania in 1941, Kanovich, who was then twelve years old, fled with his family through Latvia to safety in Russia. It was a perilous journey, as he depicts in his last novel. His father was immediately called up into the Soviet army, while he and his mother were sent to a small town in Kazakhstan. Later they moved to a coal mining town in the Urals to be closer to relatives.

After the war, the family moved back to Lithuania, settling in Vilnius, where Kanovich was to study in the philology department at the university.

It was after Kanovich returned to Lithuania that, by a stroke of fate, his writing career began. A friend asked him to compose a poem for a girlfriend. Both the friend and the girl liked the poem, and so was born a literary career.

Kanovich began as a poet, releasing a collection of verse in 1948 when he was just nineteen. In 1955 he published Good Morning, a collection of poems and Spring Thunder in 1960. He also published a volume of light verse, With a Merry Eye: Parodies and Epigrams in 1964. However, he later turned his attention to writing prose. After graduating from Vilnius University in 1953 he published a long story, Looking at the Stars, which as well received.

‘Over the years I stopped writing poetry and turned to prose,’ Kanovich has written. ‘Gradually I found my topic. That’s how my first story appeared, which was the beginning of my saga about Lithuanian Jewry.’
Writing about the Jewish world of his childhood was a dangerous ambition for the young writer. The early 1950s were characterised by a wave of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.

Newspapers began to attack the Jewish cultural elite with terms like ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, ‘bourgeois cosmopolitans’, and ‘individuals devoid of nation or tribe’ and accused Jews of ‘grovelling before the West’ and supporting ‘American imperialism’. Nazi crimes against the Jews were denied and Jewish scholars were removed from posts and denied emigration rights. Solomon Mikhoels, artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre, was brutally murdered and his theatre was closed. Solomon Lozovsky, who had been the deputy minister of the foreign affairs of the USSR, was accused of Zionism.

Kanovich knew that to write about his Jewish heritage was a perilous undertaking.

Despite the threat of censure, Kanovich developed his theme, producing, over the years, what has been described as a virtual epic saga of Jewish life in Lithuania. Kanovich has long stood up against the suppression of freedom of speech and is a member of PEN international in Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Israel.

The most decisive influence on Kanovich as a writer, were the paintings of the Belorussian-French artist, Marc Chagall, which he had seen on a visit to Paris. Having seen Chagall’s paintings of the Eastern European shtels in a museum, with their Jewish characters floating into the air, Kanovich determined to try to capture the same spirit in his prose.

Exile in Russia, during the war, had weakened Kanovich’s ties to Yiddish, the language of his childhood. Having lost his native language along with his home and those relatives who spoke it, including his beloved grandmother, who had not fled the Germans, Kanovich found a new literary home in Russian.

Grigory Kanovich article 04Art by Mark Kanovich

Not content with chronicling the life of the Jewish shtetl in his ten novels, Kanovich has also been a prolific translator, introducing Lithuanian classics to a Russian audience. He also collaborated on a number of successful screenplays, notably the classic post-war Lithuanian film ‘Ava Vita’ with Vytautas Žalakevičius and ‘Nest in the Wind’ by Tallinn Film, which received one of the major awards at the Prague festival.
He also turned his hand to drama. Over the years he wrote more than twenty plays, staged in theatres around the Soviet Union, including Vilnius, Sterlitamak, Klaipeda, Liepaja, Riga and Leningrad. He was attracted to the sense collective experience in the theatre as opposed to the intimacy of novel.

Whilst the dominant theme of his novels had been the Lithuanian shtetl and the holocaust, he explored a wider range of subjects in his plays.

Despite his popularity as a Russian writer on Jewish themes, Kanovich’s writing was never published in the Sovietish Heimland, the only Yiddish magazine published in the Soviet Union, perhaps because of his Jewish nationalism. “It matters not what my fate may be, it does not exist by itself, outside the fate of the Jewish people.” In 1989 he participated in the First Congress of the Jewish Va’ad in Moscow and in 1990 he published an influential literary Zionist pamphlet.[1]

Kanovich was politically engaged and at the end of the 1980s he became a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and joined ‘Sajudis’, the Lithuanian political independence movement.

In 1993 Kanovich moved to Israel, where he is now retired. His native town of Jonava in Lithuania recently made him an honorary citizen. ‘The last time I visited,’ Kanovich has written, ‘was with my eldest grandson. Together we read the inscriptions on the Jewish gravestones.’ Kanovich’s novels stand alongside those gravestones as a memorial to the Jonava shtetl that no longer exists.

Having dedicated his own life to memorialising a rich element of Lithuanian history, Kanovich has expressed his doubts about whether the Lithuanian government is doing anywhere near enough to preserve the heritage of the Jewish Lithuania. ‘Lithuania is still afraid to openly and resolutely accept the full extent of the national tragedy of the Jews in Lithuania’ he has stated.

 

 

1. http://jcpa.org/article/spiritual-potential-of-the-communal-revival-yiddish-culture-and-post-soviet-jewry/

 

 

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