In his autobiographical novel Shtetl Love Song, Grigory Kanovich—a native speaker of Yiddish who writes primarily in Russian and now resides in Israel—tells the story of a child in a Lithuanian shtetl, its occupation by the Soviet Union in 1940, and his flight with his family into the Soviet heartland following the Nazi invasion of 1941. Long an influential work in Russian, the book has now been published in English translation. Mikhail Krutikov writes in his review:
Shtetl Love Song belongs to the genre of homespun shtetl literature which began with [the great 19th-century Yiddish author] Mendele Mokher Sforim’s autobiography, Shloyme ben Khayems. One generation fades and another takes its place; the old country is fading year by year from the Jewish collective consciousness. In its place, the memory of the real shtetl is being replaced by a mythological image. Today’s readers are more interested in fantasies about the shtetl than realistic depictions of its Jewish life. Real shtetlekh, towns with significant Jewish populations spread throughout pre-Holocaust Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Bessarabia, and more, are barely represented in contemporary Jewish culture. . . .
[This book] may seem sentimental to contemporary Jewish readers, but it has an important role to play in today’s political reality. The post-Soviet republics are continually rewriting their histories with a nationalistic narrative that leaves little room for their Jewish past. While they are aware that it is unacceptable to deny the Holocaust because doing so would threaten relations with Western Europe and the United States, it has become acceptable for them to manipulate the historical reality of the Holocaust for their own purposes, for instance emphasizing their countries’ suffering under the Soviet regime [at the expense of other aspects of World War II]. This approach allows East European nationalists of various stripes to present their [respective] countries as victims of occupation and even genocide. In this way the collaboration of local citizens and “freedom fighters” with the Nazis in murdering Jews can be easily hushed up.
Grigory Kanovich’s novel is so important because there simply aren’t many Jewish voices left which can provide a personal counter-narrative.
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