He is the last Lithuanian Jewish author with first-hand experience of the shtetls, the small Jewish towns that vanished from the face of the earth in 1941. ”I have tried to create a written monument to the Lithuanian Jews”, says Grigory Kanovich in an interview with Baltic Worlds.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2:2019 pp 4-11
Published on balticworlds.com on June 17, 2019

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He is the last Lithuanian Jewish author with first-hand experience of the shtetls, the small Jewish towns that vanished from the face of the earth in 1941.

”I have tried to create a written monument to the Lithuanian Jews”, says Grigory Kanovich in an interview with Baltic Worlds.

Kanovich turns 90 this summer. At 85 he stopped writing when he published his last book, Shtetl Love Song. The book  Devilspel, from which an extract is published in this issue of Baltic Worlds, was written back in 2002 but not translated into English until now.

Kanovich has lived in Israel since 1993, and his son Sergey has helped in translating our questions into Russian and then translating the answers into English. First his father only answered three of the questions, and he was too tired to continue. But the following day came the rest of the answers.

”He is delighted that the English-speaking world is now able to read his books”, says Sergey, who is also a writer and currently walking in his father’s footsteps by trying to give life to the Jewish culture before the war through work with the Lost Shtetl Museum in the small town of Šeduva in northern Lithuania.

”I have said many times that Lithuania has enough traces of Jewish death,” he says. “Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to find traces of Jewish life in Lithuanian towns.”

This description of both the life and death of the Jewish culture in Eastern Europe is something that characterizes his father’s books. In Devilspel, the readers get acquainted with a couple of Jewish and half-Jewish families in the town of Mishkine in Southern Lithuania at the end of June 1941 when the Germans are about to arrive. The sounds of the war are heard from the distance, while Lithuanians suddenly are turning against their Jewish neighbors.

Grigory Kanovich himself was born in the town of Jonava, in central Lithuania. What did he experience of anti-Semitism before the family left?

”My life in the 1930s in Jonava was happy and untroubled. As far as my parents are concerned, I cannot tell you for sure if they experienced anti-Semitism at that time. They never dealt with politics. My father Solomon tailored suits for everyone regardless of ethnicity or religion — he tailored for rabbi and priest, policeman and doctor. My mother was a house-keeper.”

Researchers in the field have come to similar conclusions, namely that anti-Semitism was not a widespread phenomenon in Lithuania before the war, and the situation for the Jews was actually better than in many other European countries. The Jews had lived in the area for almost 600 years, and Lithuania’s autocratic leader at the time, Antanas Smetona, even spoke Yiddish.

The sudden change in mood among many ethnic Lithuanians, the outburst of hatred and violence, has been analyzed by several scholars. Many explanations have been put forward, but the one that is most often emphasized is that Jews were accused of supporting the Soviets when the country was occupied in 1940. This was of course a horrific accusation, and the vast majority of the Jews were victims of the occupation, just like the ethnic Lithuanians. At this time, the Jews accounted for about 8 percent of the Lithuanian population, but they held about 15 percent of the leading positions in the communist regime. Without in any way having a dominating influence, they were still over-represented among the hated communists. This fact was exploited by the Nazis: “It was Jewish communists who carried away your countrymen to Siberia, now you have to help us make your country free from the Jews,” was a message that many people bought.

Almost 80 years have passed since Grigory Kanovich experienced this sudden hatred, which forced him and his family to flee the country. How could his neighbors become murderers over night? What is his answer after all these years? Surely, he must have thought about it over and over again?

His answer is brief, and maybe he lacks the energy and will to dwell on it today:

”There were many reasons and most probably we will never know all of them. But we can raise the questions and try to understand. One of the main reasons was Lithuania’s loss of independence.”

Before the hatred took root, how intense were the contacts between kids from the Jewish community and the Lithuanians? In Devilspel, you describe how Elisheva had played as a child with the Lithuanian boy Povilas Genis. Was it common?

”The contacts and inter-relations between Jewish and Lithuanian kids were almost impossible due the language barrier. Jewish kids did not know Lithuanian and Lithuanian children were not in command of Yiddish. The fact that Elisheva was playing with a Lithuanian kid was rare, an exception to the rule.”

What did you yourself experience of Lithuanians turning against you Jews before you fled?

Before the evacuation I had never experienced any hostile approach from Lithuanian children — they knew that their parents were wearing Jewish tailored clothes, had their hair cut at Jewish barbers. This somehow made us closer.”

Grigory and his parents fled Jonava the day before the town was taken over by the Germans. Via Latvia they managed to escape to Russia and the Ural Mountains and ended up in a kol-khoz at the Kazakhstan steppe where they lived with very little food. His father had to serve in the Soviet army.

They almost didn’t make it all the way to Russia. At one point the line of refugees they were travelling with was attacked by a German airplane. Grigory’s mother dragged him into a haystack in the middle of a field, an act that came to save their lives. The scene is dramatically retold in the novel Shtetl Love Song.

Grigory tells me that his mother saved the family even at an earlier moment:

”I remember an argument between my parents — to leave or to stay. My father was convinced, as unfortunately were many Jews who decided to stay, that the war would be over in a few days or a few weeks at most. It was my late mother who persuaded him to leave.”

Around 95 percent of the Lithuanian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, over 200,000 people, most of them already in 1941. Grigory lost several family members, but still the family moved back to Lithuania after the war, settling in Vilnius. ”We were drawn back to the cemeteries of our relatives,” he said in an earlier interview.

Grigory started studying at the philology department at the university. His command of Yiddish had somewhat deteriorated during his years in exile, which led him to start writing in Russian. After having written a successful poem to a friend’s girlfriend, his career as a poet started. His first collection of verse came in 1948, when he was only 19 years old. Eventually he turned to prose and gradually found his topic: ”My saga about Lithuanian Jewry”, as he put it.

But writing about the Jewish world of his childhood was a difficult task in the Soviet Union. The early 1950s were characterized by a wave of anti-Semitism in the empire. Newspapers called the small remains of the Jewish cultural elite ”bourgeois cosmopolitans” and ”supporters of American imperialism”. Nazi crimes against the Jews were denied, and Jewish scholars were removed from their posts. How was it even possible to write under these circumstances?

”About half of my Litvak saga novels I wrote after 1993 in Israel. In the parts I wrote in the USSR, I dealt with the topic of the destiny of the Jews under the anti-Semitic Tsarist empire — probably that was the reason why the Soviet censorship thought that the ideas and values I was sharing were harmless. To the readers, however, the parallel between the Tsarist empire and Soviet one was obvious. But up until perestroika and glasnost, Moscow publishers would refuse to publish any of my novels. They would instead be published in smaller runs in Soviet Lithuania and then virtually smuggled and, in some cases, even hand-copied and distributed in the USSR.”

He describes how Soviet authors dealing with sensitive issues had to be creative and to hide their true intentions behind metaphors. The censorship was very attentive, but also stupid at times. He recalls one incident, and I can almost see his smile there in the outskirts of Tel Aviv when he notes down his answers to my questions:

”In one of my novels where I did expose the anti-Semitic nature of the Russian empire, I had created the characters of two Russian brothers who were woodcutters. The characters I depicted were not totally negative, but it was a must that the censor’s office, called Glavlit, would give their approval. They insisted that I change the name of the two brothers from Andropov to Andronov. Why? Because Andropov suddenly and exactly at that time had become the head of the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party!”

Who have you, over the years, seen as the main readers of your books? Litvaks in the Soviet empire? Litvaks all over the world? Jews in general? The general public in a wider sense?

”While living behind the Iron Curtain my primary readers were Russian-speaking Jews in general. But not only them, I had readers among other groups too. After Lithuania became independent and after I moved to Israel, more people have come across my books.”

Grigory Kanovich’s works have been translated into fourteen languages. Apart from his ten novels, he has written more than twenty plays and made a number of translations. He has indeed been praised also in Lithuania through a couple of prestigious prizes, but he has never reached a wide audience in the country. Why so? I asked my friend Rūta Puišytė, former Deputy Director of the Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University, who has studied Jewish history for many years. She herself read Kanovich already during Soviet times and was very touched by the books.

”The history of the Jews in Lithuania was not a big topic during the decades of Soviet occupation, and very few were interested in learning more. In fact, at the time of independence there were many, even highly educated people, who hardly knew that the country had had a large Jewish minority.”

Puišytė concludes that the knowledge of the history of the Lithuanian Jews is more widespread these days and that the authorities are taking several praiseworthy steps to highlight this history. At the same time, she questions the level of interest in the issue, especially in the Lithuanian schools. At the moment she is active in a project where they have made recordings of the few remaining Jews who experienced life in Lithuania before the war — the voices of people like Grigory Kanovich. She has been in contact with several school principals, asking if they would be interested in using the recordings in history lessons. The response has been lukewarm at best.

”One of them said, ’But how can we find the time to include this in the teaching when we have the French Revolution and everything else’,” she recalls with a sigh. ”Our own history seems to have low priority, but the history of the Jews is part of the history of Lithuania.”

This seems like an obvious statement, but it hasn’t been obvious. Many Lithuanians have for a long time treated the fate of the Jews as something that did not concern the development of Lithuanian nationhood in the 20th century. One reason for downplaying the importance of Jewish history is of course that thousands of Lithuanians contributed to ending this history. Yet another aspect that makes this issue even more complicated is that some of those responsible for the killings of the Jews were at the same time considered heroes in the armed struggle against the Soviet occupiers.

Over the years, several freedom fighters, called Forest Brothers, have been revealed as perpetrators — which has led to intense debates over the validity of the claims. At the very moment I am writing this text, the case of Jonas Noreika is the subject of a hot discussion in Lithuania. He was known as General Storm and is widely regarded as a national hero for his resistance to the Soviets both before 1941 and after 1944. But it is his actions between these years that have caused huge controversy. He was executed by the communists in 1947 at only 37 years of age.

Today he is accused of sanctioning the murders of more than 10,000 Jews in Šiauliai county, where he was governor in 1941. In this capacity, he was responsible for the establishment of the ghetto in the town of Žagarė and for the transfer of Jews to the ghetto from which they were taken to the killing pits nearby. What makes this example even more remarkable is that the newest research behind these accusations was carried out by his granddaughter Silvia Foti, a journalist born and raised in Chicago. At her mother’s deathbed, she was asked to finish the glorifying book on her grandfather’s life, a book that her mother had started writing. Last year she instead published the book General Storm — Unmasking a War Criminal.

Her findings on Noreika, combined with earlier research, have been harshly criticized by several influential politicians with nationalistic agendas. But she has also received support among the highest echelons of Lithuanian society. Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius wrote last fall that ”in front of my eyes, I have documents that bear witness to clear collaboration with Nazis”. This led him to the conclusion that the Municipality of Vilnius, and the Academy of Sciences, should remove the plaque that honors Noreika at a library in the center of town. The granddaughter Silvia Foti has, together with a Californian Jew whose family members were killed in Šiauliai County, sued the state-funded Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance for erecting the plaque. Recently the court dismissed the lawsuit, citing ”ill-based intentions”.

The Noreika case has a direct connection with the Kanovich family — Sergey was one of several Lithuanian intellectuals who already in 2015 demanded that the plaque be removed from the library. What are his reactions today?

”It is so evident that Noreika, and several other heroes, are guilty of atrocities. Why are some politicians today so scared of the historical truth? They bring shame on the country, and they damage our reputation.”

I also asked his father Grigory about these difficulties that many present-day lawmakers have in facing the truth:

”I truly don’t understand why it takes so long to deal with this rather easy problem. There should be no place to glorify any perpetrator or collaborator with any evil regime — be it a Nazi one or a Soviet one.”

Your son Sergey is building a museum in Šeduva, giving life both to the rich Jewish culture and to the Holocaust. What were your feelings when you heard about these plans?

”Myself, I have tried to create a written monument to the Lithuanian Jews, and my son has the privilege to create a material one. I am truly proud of him.”

The museum, slated to open in 2020, will be part of the Lost Shtetl memorial complex in and around Šeduva. It will be located across the road from the town’s restored Jewish cemetery, which is part of the complex. The curator of the main exhibition is the historian Milda Jakulytė-Vasil. I met her back in 2012, when she had published the Lithuanian Holocaust Atlas. In an impressive effort, she travelled to all 227 execution sites, documenting what happened there and also naming some of the perpetrators.

Several years later, she has now looked even closer into the case of Šeduva, in connection with the museum project.

”I found out that the number of killings were somewhat higher than I had learned before, around 700 people. By studying the archives, I also know today that several Lithuanian families tried to save Jews.”

It has previously been documented that a large number of Lithuanians — a larger proportion than in many other European countries — risked their lives by hiding Jews. In the extract from Devilspel published here, one of the characters, the farmer Cheslavas, has the young Jewish lady Elisheva working for him. When the threats and the killings start, he gives her a cross to carry around her neck so that his fellow Lithuanians would take her for a Catholic. The fictional scene mirrors the reality in Šeduva where Milda Jakulytė-Vasil found out that eleven Jews there were baptized in three different families.

”Eventually the crosses didn’t help them, and all but one were killed. The surviving Jew hid with a family in Šeduva for three years, and later left for Israel.”

Almost all of the killings in Šeduva took place during two days at the end of August 1941. During the first day, no Germans were present. Both the supervising and the actual shooting were carried out by Lithuanians. During the second day, a few Germans had come, but only as super-visors.

”It is known beyond any doubt that not a single Jew was killed by a German in Šeduva,” she says.

The Lost Shtetl project is the result of a wealthy family of South African Jews who wanted to search for their Litvak roots. The family’s ancestors had fled already in the 1920s, and information about life in Lithuania was not passed on to future generations. It was not until recently that they learned that Šeduva was the town in question.

”It is their wishes that we present everyday life in the shtetl, showing what people worked with, their ideas, their contacts with the rest of the town. We focus on the interwar period.”

Just like Grigory Kanovich’s father who tailored suits for everyone, there were Jewish tailors. But also storekeepers, doctors, dentists, and other professionals serving all citizens in the community.

”Culturally, however, there was an abyss between the Jews and the Lithuanians. Friendships were rare, and one should rather talk of customer relationships. We have done research on the extent to which they visited each other’s churches — and it almost never happened.”

There were around 3,000 citizens in Šeduva back then, and the number is roughly the same now. In the 1930s one third of the citizens were Jews, today there are none.

”We have found three Jewish families living in Vilnius today with roots in Šeduva. That`s all.”

In total, there are between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews in Lithuania today, depending on how you count. Before the war a large number of Jews were found in practically every town. Typical for all Lithuanian communities back then was that the Jews lived in the center whereas most Lithuanians lived outside of the town, often working as farmers. One very sensitive issue for the creators of the museum in Šeduva is what to do with the names of the perpetrators.

”Several of their family members are still living in the Šeduva area. And most of them don’t know what their relatives did during the war.”

Some Lithuanian perpetrators were tried and convicted during Soviet times, but no one has been convicted since the country gained independence — neither in Šeduva nor in any other town. Milda Jakulytė-Vasil and the others have decided to display the names not only of those who were convicted before independence, but also the names of the individuals who were in charge of the groups who took the prisoners to the pits where they were shot.

”We cannot name the ones who actually fired the shots, since we don’t know who they were.”

The names of the group leaders in Šeduva have never been published before, which of course makes it extremely sensitive. Milda Jakulytė-Vasil claims that even naming the perpetrators who were exposed during Soviet times is delicate because the results of these trials are barely known among the general public.

”We anticipate intense discussions. And we welcome them!”

The museum team cooperates with a filmmaker who conducts interviews with Šeduva citizens who have memories of what happened with the Jewish population in the town. Milda Jakulytė-Vasil describes one interesting incident:

”Recently we met an old man who was a boy at the time. The man said that he heard rumors of the killings, but that he hadn’t seen anything with his own eyes. Then suddenly his granddaughter came in, she had overheard the conversation and cried out: ’But Grandpa, you have told me that you saw the killings’. Eventually he admitted that he had lied to the filmmaker.”

A couple of days before I met Milda Jakulytė-Vasil in Vilnius, an archeologist had found yet other Jewish gravestones in Šeduva some distance away from the Jewish cemetery. They were probably stolen from the cemetery during Soviet times. The stones are of good quality and were used for several other purposes at the time. In his book, Kanovich describes how graves were decapitated already during the summer of 1941. In the book, two young Lithuanian men stand by the cemetery declaring that ”the Jews are guilty, the dead as well as the living. There is no difference. Imagine how many tiled stoves you could make and how many new huts you could build from these stones”.

Milda Jakulytė-Vasil says that they will make a monument of the gravestones that they have found in Šeduva and place it close to the newly restored cemetery.

In Jonava, the municipality has made Grigory Kanovich an honorary citizen. ”The last time I visited the town of my childhood,” Kanovich wrote some time ago, ”was with my eldest grandson. Together we read the inscriptions on the Jewish gravestones. Those who forget the graves of their ancestors are not worthy to be called people.” ≈


  • by Påhl Ruin

    Freelance writer, based in Stockholm. He has previously worked and lived in Vilnius. He has earlier reported for Swedish publications from Tokyo and Vienna and worked for several years in Stockholm. Frequently published in Baltic Worlds.

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