“A man is alive for as long as he remembers what he must never forget” (Grigory Kanovich “Shtetl Romance”)
New phone numbers fill my contact list one after another. However, our friend Saulius keeps dictating new ones and explaining why it is necessary to call this or that particular person. But my thoughts are already elsewhere. I cannot take my eyes off one phone number, which might mean a dream come true. Finally, Saulius makes a call and we hear the great news – writer Grigory Kanovich will be happy to meet with us, but we’ll still have to ring him up and arrange the details.
The very next day we are walking to Bat Yam via Jaffa, marveling at the sea on the way. We come a little too early, so there still is time to see the town, or a Tel Aviv suburb, if you like. We sit down in the park where a number of senior citizens are passing their time walking, talking, enjoying the warmth of sun rays on their faces, not rushing anywhere, as if all the time in the world is theirs. Finally, as the agreed upon hour approaches, we get up slowly, so as not to disturb the calm of the afternoon.
We are met by the writer’s wife, Olga. Thanks to her smile and all-encompassing hospitality, it feels as if we came to see old friends. With the sound of chain saws outside the windows, sipping tea and tasting pastries, we begin our conversation.
For me personally, the meeting with the body of work by Kanovich was an eye opening experience. “And this one”, said Rafael, is the cloud named Lithuania.” “On its top – our folks – grandpa and grandma, Uncle Meilakh, Uncle Velvl from the capital, and quick Uncle Itzik, the baker Ruvim Fain, the butcher Moyshe Leib Kavalerchik, our whole class, all the tailors and the homeless Yeshiva students. All of them. Except for those who stay below – in the cemetery.” It is thanks to Kanovich that I saw that cloud which has always been right next to me, yet I had never noticed it; I touched that old world, I loved, I cried, and I longed together with those who dream of the lost Jerusalem and its tiled rooftops where cats walk around like angels, and angels – like cats. Works by Kanovich, albeit I encountered them rather late in my life, were one of those unique experiences when you simply feel how the word that penetrates your body changes you, opens new horizons, makes you reassess your identity and turn to others so that you can finally notice them and accept them as they are.
According Kanovich, today the world is taken over by various ideologies that make man their servant, or even a slave. Most often those are not humanist ideologies, but ideologies bereft of brotherly love and leading us the devil knows where. “How else can we call these ideologies, which make a brother kill a brother?” the writer asks rhetorically, and then adds that ideological arguments are often employed not for the sake of mutual understanding, but in order to deny or push away the “other”. In the end, both parties use their own arguments to claim the same land. One side claims that they have lived here for longer than the Jews. The other replies that this land was promised by God to them and they lived and worked there until they were forcibly dispersed. However, Kanovich observes, the point is not the struggle of arguments, because it is not necessary to fight, but to find an agreement that would allow living side by side in peace.
“A person who becomes a slave of one ideology or another does this at the expense of their humanism. Man must rise above ideology,” says Kanovich. I begin to think about how tempted we are to simplify multicolored reality, to narrow its limits, to see others through the glasses of ideology, allowing us to quickly label other people by their nationality, race, color, class, gender etc., as if it were possible to place people on shelves. Then everything seems so simple and clear, and all the multidimensional, multicolored and rampant reality becomes transparent and possible to control. Not causing any discomfort or challenges, but at the same time artificial, dead, cold and repellent.
Meanwhile Kanovich maintains that for Jews who lived in the towns of interwar Lithuania, the main ideology was their work or trade. Shleimke from “Shtetl Romance” is a good example of this. When looking for a new hired hand, he knew that he needed “not a fighter against the bourgeois, not an avid advocate of the late Lenin he knew nothing about, but a diligent worker. He was not interested in talks about freedom, equality, and fraternity. He avoided such topics because he knew that only worms in graves make people equal on this planet. Under all governments in the world, there will always be inequality, the rich and the poor, prisoners and jailers, and as for brotherhood – sometimes real brothers are unable to share even a small piece of barren land, received as a legacy.”
Yes, the writer adds, there were those who, like his uncle Shmulik, if wakened at night and asked for their father’s name would without hesitation point to Lenin. However, they were not many. G. Kanovich claims that in his home town of Jonava there were maybe ten or fifteen communists, while the total Jewish population consisted of about three thousand souls. The accusations we sometimes hear in the media that all Jews were communists does not contribute to encouraging the Litvaks living in Israel to create a stronger connection with Lithuania.
Speaking of “Shtetl Romance”, Kanovich says that this book is a glimpse into the reality of a small town he saw as a child. “There aren’t very good or very bad Lithuanians and the same is true for Jews. People described here are just as they were – with their virtues and sins.” says the writer. That’s why his characters are so alive; they are individuals rather than dead masks carved from the same tree of stereotypes or based on some ideological template. If there is an ideology, it is based on respect and love for the neighbor and the Ten Commandments, which actually are sufficient conditions for normal coexistence between people.
Mr. Kanovich says that when he was designated an honorary citizen of Jonava, he wrote a short letter of thanks to the mayor and members of the city council. “In this note of appreciation, I wrote that I am most grateful to the sky beneath which I grew up, the river which refreshed my childhood dreams, and the Jews and Lithuanians who colored and enriched my life.” said Mr. Kanovich, and I could feel the excitement in his voice. Probably this was due to the fact that this world of yesterday is so familiar, so alive, and that so much of his work has been dedicated to fostering the memory of it.
I remember poems by Wislawa Szymborska pointing to the fact that the eternity of the deceased continues as long as they are remembered. Kanovich says he completely agrees with that, because the only thing that really makes a human a human is the ability to remember both good and evil, and to never mix them up. “Just as we must try to see the virtues and weaknesses of every person," he adds. According to the writer, memory, as written in “Shtetl Romance”, is our common roof under which we take shelter. He says that this means that neither murderers, nor heroes, beggars, nor rich can be evicted from this shelter. After all, problems begin when someone starts splitting this shelter and wishes to get rid of one or the other, and involves some ideology.
"I can disagree on the details with Antanas or Donatas, but we have to agree on the main thing – Lithuania is a free and independent country which should find space for those who profess a different religion, those who speak a different language,” says the writer, and adds that the most difficult thing is to bring together people who take the opposite positions on major existential issues. However, this should not stop us.
Another sip of the tea prepared by Mrs. Olga Kanovich, and we continue our conversation, which now turns towards the Museum of the History of Polish Jews which recently opened its doors in Warsaw. “For me it is very difficult to talk about the Holocaust, because I am from a family that suffered from this tragedy. Yet I believe that by founding this museum, the Poles did a huge work which, unfortunately, is still unattainable for Lithuania. They did not open a museum for the Holocaust – they opened a museum for the Polish Jewry, and tell a story of its life. This is not some kind of monument with three words carved on it. People who visited this museum take away not the taste of death, but that of a full, colorful life. In this way, they are moved to change something in their daily lives – working with the youth in schools, etc.” says Kanovich, and I feel his words reflect my own experience from a visit to this museum – a museum which opens up the whole story, not just a part of it taken out of context while leaving the rest in darkness as the terra incognita which the visitor is supposed to discover for herself or himself.
Kanovich says that today we should also talk about how much the Jews of Lithuania have contributed to the benefit of the country – how many of them died in the struggle for its independence, how hard they worked in order to clothe and shoe their neighbors. “Ethnicity does not matter. I spoke Lithuanian with errors, but this did not prevent me from becoming an advocate of Lithuanian independence in the USA, Canada, or wherever I was,” says Mr. Kanovich.
According to him, if we want to cherish memory, we cannot just chisel out a few words in stone with a cold heart and forget everything the very next moment, because repentance and development of memory cannot be limited to rallies or remembrance dates, which are repeated every year, and every year are marked by the same state officials giving similar commemorative speeches. According to him, we need to work in order to reach people’s hearts and minds, not just repeat the same words or reiterate the statistics.
Returning to the inter-war Jonava in his memories, Kanovich claims that Lithuanians and Jews lived together in peace. He says the only violent episode he can remember happened after a football game, when Maccabi played the LFLS team. Then the Lithuanians and Jews made the feathers fly. But in general both communities coexisted peacefully.
And what about the Litvaks of today? Do they feel some kind of inner connection with Lithuania? The writer assures us that they do. True, he adds, perhaps most Litvaks do not express this as eloquently as he and some of his fellow writers in their work. Yet, they do care about Lithuania a great deal. Kanovich argues that Litvaks feel a closer connection with their former home than, say, Moroccan or Russian Jews. “Litvaks of the older generation not only visit Lithuania, but they also bring their children and grandchildren to this country. I can mention my best friend, Icchokas Meras, who did so much in order to build up a connection with Lithuania.” says the writer.
According to him, there will always be people who are against one or another country and this is normal. However, Mr. Kanovich says that it is important to emphasize that the flame of animosity is gradually dying out, although perhaps it is not immediately transformed into love and fellow-feeling. For the thaw of the ice in the Lithuanian-Litvak relations, Mr. Kanovich would like to credit the post-Soviet Lithuanian ambassadors to Israel. And here I can only add that from many of the people I met in Israel I heard only good words about our diplomats – in particular, the ambassador Darius Degutis, who wasn’t just the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel, but both he and his wife Nida have become true ambassadors of Israel in Lithuania.
“I do not have a desire for everyone in Lithuania to fall in love with Jews or Israel. We should respect another person, another country, and try not to do harm. For me this is the most important thing. We should avoid collective stereotypes, when the whole nation, the whole state is judged and labeled as executioners, aggressors, or occupiers. I was brought up a moderate man, and I think that moderation may be the key to the improvement of relations. Today, we still lack temperance, but the situation is improving,” says Mr. Kanovich, and adds that his greatest concern is still that which is posed by radicals who continue spreading the flame of ideology. Different people can live together in one country just like different kinds of fish coexist in a river, and to G. Kanovich such slogans as “Lithuania for Lithuanians” are similar to saying “We want Lithuania without rivers or birds”. But in Lithuania there are rivers and birds. There were Jews, and a small community still exists, even though Mr. Gregory says he feels concerned about its future, as it is shrinking and is not refreshed. However, it is their home where they belong; they are citizens who have exactly the same rights to this state as the Lithuanians.
On this note we end our conversation. Mrs. Kanovich carefully reminds her husband that he should take a break. We also need a break to contemplate the thoughts we’ve just heard. Before saying goodbye, we pose for a picture. I am sure that more than once in the future I will show this photo to people and rejoice that I too have been up on the cloud named Lithuania, that I have met the man whose work shaped my worldview and identity. Saying goodbye, we hear the words that sound as an encouragement and obligation – we are the ones who are setting the course for our homeland. To this I can only answer that we will be able to lift this burden only thanks to such people as Mr. Kanovich – a moral authority that we can rely on and draw strength from, thanks to whom we know why and where we have to go, so that under the roof of Lithuania there is space for all and no one is forgotten.
Authorized translation by Judita Gliauberzonaitė.