Grigory Kanovich 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. This interview was given to Swedish journalist Påhl Ruin on the eve of two significant events of author’s life – presentation of a publication in English of one of his latest novels – Devilspel- in the UK and his 90 birthday (G. Kanovich is born on June 18, 1929.)
Devilspel over the past four years has been published in German, Macedonian, and English with pending translation to Polish. Devilspel was published by Noir Press in London and translated by Y.E.Cohen. A part of the interview was published in the Baltic Worlds magazine, but this is the first time when the interview is published in full.
Påhl Ruin: How was life for you and your family in the 1930s in Jonava? Happy? What did you see of anti-Semitism before 1940?
Grigory Kanovich: 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 have experienced antisemitism at that time. They never dealt with politics. My father Solomon tailored suits for everyone regardless of nationality – he was tailoring for rabbi and priest, the policeman and Jewish doctor. My Mother was a house-keeper. I have extensively written about it in my novel „Shtetl Love Song“ which a few years ago was published in London too.
Påhl Ruin: 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 Povilas Genis. Was it common?
Grigory Kanovich: The contacts and inter-relations between Jewish and Lithuanian kids were almost impossible due to 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 Lithuanian kid was rare and unusual. Exception from the rule.
Påhl Ruin: What did you experience of Lithuanians turning against you Jews before you fled? And how did you and your family manage to escape Lithuania? Could you give me a couple of details of the escape?
Grigory Kanovich: Before evacuation, I have never experienced any hostile approach from same-aged Lithuanian children – they knew that their parents are wearing Jewish tailored clothes, they would come to have their hair cut at Jewish barbers. This somehow made us closer. I recall our escape from Lithuania in detail. I have described it several times.
Maybe what is most important to emphasize in this regard is that I remember an argument between my parents – to leave or stay. My father was convinced as unfortunately many Jews who decided to stay that war will be over in a few days or few weeks at most. It was my late mother who persuaded him to leave. That eventually saved us. We escaped a day before my hometown was taken over by Germans. It was a long way – through Latvia, to the Ural Mountains and then to starvation in a kolkhoz of Kazakhstan steppe.
Who have you, over the years, seen as the main readers of your books? The Litvak in the Soviet empire? Litvak all over the world? Jews in general? The general public in a wider sense?
Grigory Kanovich: Living under the Iron Curtain my primary readers were Russian speaking Jews in general. But not only them. About half of my Litvak saga novels I wrote while already in Israel. I tried to create a monument to my extinguished compatriots and that was my mission. When I wrote it being in USSR I dealt with the topic of the destiny of Jews under anti-Semitic Tsarist Empire – probably that was the reason that soviet empire censorship thought that ideas and values I am sharing are harmless.
To the readers the parallel between the tsarist empire and Soviet one was obvious. At the same time, Moscow publishers would refuse my every novel before late perestroika, so they would be published in smaller runs in Soviet Lithuania and then virtually smuggled and in some cases hand-written copied and distributed in what was USSR. That all changed in 1989 when I became a member of last Supreme Soviet elected with Lithuanian independence movement Sąjūdis – only then Moscow publishers would start paying attention to my creations.
Devilspel is a vivid description of how friends and neighbors become murderers overnight. Researchers have come up with several explanations why Lithuanians turned against Jews before the German murder machine even started – which are your own explanations today, after having experienced it and written about it for so many years?
Grigory Kanovich: There were many reasons and most probably we will never know all of them. But we can raise questions and try to understand why. One of the main reasons why this happened is the loss of independence by Lithuania as a result of occupation by the Soviet Union. I have also tried to answer this question in Devilspel.
What was your role in the struggle for Lithuanian independence? Was it difficult to balance your thankfulness to the Soviet union for beating the Nazis with criticizing the empire for occupying the country?
Grigory Kanovich: In 1989 I was elected to serve as first afterwar Chair of Lithuanian Jewish Community and as I have previously said I made it all the way to Moscow as part of deputies elected from Lithuanian Independence movement Sąjūdis to the Supreme Soviet of USSR.
I travelled the world giving lectures and promoting the idea of Lithuanian independence and trying to build bridges between Lithuanian and Jewish diaspora over that topic. I do not think that “thankfulness” is the correct definition. Yes, the Red Army and the Allies stopped the massacre of European Jews. But the Soviet Union was never – nor before neither after the war – heaven for Jewish people or any nations it has occupied. It was the empire of evil and jail of nations.
Why did you leave Lithuania in 1993?
Grigory Kanovich: I have followed my compatriots and readers whom I was always advocating to leave to their historical homeland – Israel.
According to professor Krutikov at University of Michigan, after the war you made it your mission to inform about the history of the Jews. But how easy was it during Soviet times when the murdered Jews were called “victims of fascism”.
Grigory Kanovich: My novels make a kind of Litvak saga. A written monument to the extinguished Lithuanian Jews.
As a writer in Soviet Lithuania, which restrictions and limits did you experience? Were there things that you wanted to write but you could not write?
Grigory Kanovich: We were certainly not free to write all that we wanted. We had to be creative, hide our true intentions and ideas in a more metaphorical manner. The censorship was working and sometimes very attentive but sometimes very stupid. I one of my novels where I did expose the anti-Semitic nature of the Russian empire I had created a character of two Russian brothers -woodcutters. The characters I depicted were not totally negative.
The novel was supposed to go to print after proof-reading. 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 out of a sudden exactly at that time became the head of the Politburo of the Soviet Communist party.
On the serious note – I felt kind of protected from harsh censorship – formally my novels and their events took place in the times of Tsarist Russian Empire. But exactly as there are eternal values we inherited from the Bible the evil empires were inheriting and plagued with exactly the same diseases.
The Lithuanian government institutions are dealing with cases involving Lithuanian Nazi collaborators such as Jonas Noreika, do you have an opinion on how present day Lithuania handles the memory of the perpetrators?
Grigory Kanovich: I do not truly understand why it takes so long to deal with rather an easy problem. There should be no place to glorify any perpetrator or collaborator with the evil regime – be it Nazi regime or 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?
Grigory Kanovich: My son is in charge of this project. He is managing rather a big team. As someone wrote about both of us – I have tried and created a written monument to the Lithuanian Jews, my son has a privilege to create a material one. I am truly proud of him.