“Where is our beloved son Shleimele hanging around?” Rokha demands of her husband at the beginning of Shtetl Love Song.
Rokha, the author’s indomitable grandmother, who earns the sobriquet “Rokha-the-Samurai” from her shtetl neighbours for her sharp tongue and bristling manner, is worried that her beloved son is going to end up with an inappropriate bride. Or, God forbid, “some blonde shiksa wearing a cross on her breast”. In fact Shleimele is wooing Hennie, the impoverished daughter of a cobbler.
It is the start of a love story, and the beginning of a tale about a world that no longer exists. A world that was brutally wiped away by the Nazis along with their Lithuanian collaborators in a few short months in 1941.
“Kanovich makes us feel and see a world that has long disappeared” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes. Grigory Kanovich is one of the most prominent Lithuanian writers, winner of Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts for 2014. He was born into a traditional Jewish family in the Lithuanian town of Jonava in 1929. Tomas Venclova, poet and Yale professor, has called Kanovich “the last link in the chain” of Litvak literature.
Shtetl Love Song traces the story of the writer’s mother, Hennie, the poor daughter of a down-at-heel cobbler. In doing so he draws a vivid and moving portrait of the Lithuanian shtetl, with its poor artisanal workers, the beggar and the rabbi, the shopkeeper and landlords and the firebrand socialist.
He traces too the backdrop of a nation in crisis, with the right-wing coup in 1926, the rise of Socialism and its brutal suppression, and, as the 1930s progress, the billowing, dark clouds of anti-Semitism and the threat of war and the invasion of Hitler’s army.
“Kanovich, himself a child of a Lithuanian shtetl,” writes Mikhail Krutikov, Professor of Slavic and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, “survived the Holocaust almost by a miracle, made it his mission to serve, against all odds, as a custodian of the collective memory of generations of Litvaks, Lithuanian Jews.”
“It is the memories of his surviving family members which give Kanovich his rich narrative, the colourful stories from the world of his childhood. He composes his stories from monologues and dialogues, in which one can still hear the Yiddish, his mother tongue. This novel of goodness, old age, and quiet resignation is a melancholy memorial, a Kaddish for the Shtetl, which is exactly what makes for its incomparable charm” – deutschlandfunk
In this extract from Shtetl Love Song, Jews fleeing from the Nazis try to force their way onto a train that will take them to safety.
There’s no doubt that Mendel and I, more than anyone else, wanted to get to Russia as soon as possible, where we could sleep in a proper bed with a pillow and a cover, not standing up in a smelly cattle car. Grandma Rokha always used to complain that God had never, in her whole life, fulfilled any of her wishes, even though she believed in Him more than Grandpa Dovid did. However, He did fulfill my wish. A rumour circulated among the refugees that on the third track a train was being prepared to leave with women and children and that some empty places could be seen through the lit-up windows of the compartments.
“All the passengers are VIPs,” Mother said. “They have special tickets and they won’t allow us on without special documents. Maybe we should wait?”
“For what? For death?” Father said. “Maybe they will let us on. After all, we’re not thieves or looters.”
Esther agreed with Father. “What do we have to lose? If they let us on, good! If not, we can either accept that or we can force our way on. For Mendel’s sake I’m ready to do anything.”
Esther’s determination surprised everyone.
The rumour about the empty seats on the train from Dvinsk to Velikie Luki and then to Yaroslavl spurred the refugees into action. They immediately rushed from the platform to the third track, but what they saw from a distance cooled their enthusiasm.
Armed guards stood along the whole length of the train. It was easy to guess that the reason for them was to safely evacuate the families of Party members and high-ranking officers to the Russian hinterland.
The soldiers guarded the approaches to the train, while women conductors with pocket flashlights scrupulously checked the tickets and the special passes which only the big shots and their children possessed.
Over all, there were no more than two hundred refugees attempting to flee the Germans. At first the guards viewed them with puzzled sympathy, but then, when some of the refugees began to approach the train, the guards grew alarmed.
“Comrades,” the deep bass voice of a commander shouted. “I ask you to quickly move away from all the access tracks so as not to put your lives in danger or to interfere with the arriving trains!”
However, there were no trains arriving and the refugees were in no hurry to carry out the order.
“Citizens, I am asking you politely to disperse,” the bass voice called out. “Please wait for your own train in the waiting room!”
It was easy for him to say, “Wait for your own train.” We didn’t have our own train, and perhaps never would.
Whether from the increasing, humiliating hopelessness, or from an audacity aroused by despair, instead of retreating, the first rows of refugees moved closer to the train.
“Perhaps it’s not worth making them angry.” Velvl hesitated. “If the train is guarded by soldiers, it means they have the right to open fire on those who threaten law and order…”
“You should be ashamed!” Esther said, cutting him off. “We don’t support the Germans, we support the Red Army; do you think they would dare use their weapons against us?”
“If we’re doomed to die, what difference, tell me, does it make at whose hands it will be? Of Soviet or German atheists?” whispered Meir Zhabinsky and, as if he had discussed the matter with God, added, “God commanded human beings to fear disgrace, not death.”
“People are cowards and most choose disgrace,” Father commented. “But Meir has a point. What is there for us to fear? We’re not escaped criminals and these guards are people, not animals.”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Mama quipped.
Caught up in an outburst that pushed aside all doubt and fears, the crowd of Jewish refugees approached the train. Demonstrating loyalty to his oath and devotion to military discipline, one of the guards shouted out.
“Stop or we will shoot!”
The soldier fired several shots over the heads of the desperate refugees.
“What scum!” someone shouted. “Shooting refugees!”
The shooting did not stop the crowd. Rather than turn back, they advanced on the train like kamikaze pilots, risking not only their own lives, but also those of their children.
The stunned guards seemed to conclude that if they opened fire on the refugees there would be a considerable amount of bloodshed and no guarantee that they would able to establish order. What’s more, there might well be consequences, since it wasn’t Germans they were shooting, but their own, albeit new, Soviet citizens.
Encouraged by the indecisiveness and confusion of the guards, the refugees broke through the cordon and began to storm the train. By the force of their momentum they pulled the helpless conductresses with them into the train cars and occupied the empty places in the compartments.
We too found seats, but none of us were ready to rejoice yet.
“What about the others?” we wondered. Hopefully, no one had been killed, crushed, or wounded.
“God willing, we won’t be thrown out of here,” sighed the sceptical Velvl, who was accustomed to the unexpected twists of fate.
“Rather than throwing us off, they might simply move another train onto the next track, put all the Party officials and commanders’ wives on board and leave us here. It’s possible, isn’t it?” my cautious father said.
“Everything is in the hands of our merciful God. What happens does not depend on us,” said Zhabinsky, who was praying in the corridor. I was shifting from one foot to the other next to him. The thought occurred to me that if the Russian passengers and their children were indeed put onto another train and we were left here and the doors were closed, this car would become our prison and, maybe, even our grave. The German pilots would appear in the skies and in two minutes bomb us to pieces. However, I recalled the advice of Grandma Rokha. She used to say, “It’s not right to share bad thoughts with others, since everyone has plenty of their own and it’s a sin to add yours to them.” So I kept mine to myself. Perhaps, for that reason they disturbed me even more.
Like what Deep Baltic does? Please consider making a monthly donation – help support our writers and in-depth coverage of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Find out more at our Patreon page.