Shtetl Love Song

Written by Grigory Kanovich Yisrael Elliot Cohen (trans.)
Review by Janet Hancock

Set in rural Lithuania between the two World Wars, this book combines affection, humour, and observation. The author is possibly the only writer today who remembers the life of a Jewish shtetl during those two brief decades of Lithuanian independence: the work ethic and petty rivalries of a community bound by ancient tradition and feast days.

The book blurs the boundaries of fiction and biography. Part One tells of the author’s parents. His feisty mother, Hennie, waits for her cavalryman, Shleimke, to complete two years’ military service despite the hostility of her future mother-in-law. The most prized wedding gift is a Singer sewing machine. Apprenticed since the age of thirteen, Shleimke will become a master tailor. Part two tells of the author’s childhood until the age of twelve in 1941 when the Germans invade Lithuania. Sometimes he refers to his mother as Mama, sometimes as Hennie. It is as if he is a silent observer in the room, privy to everyone’s thoughts.

The author and his parents survive the Holocaust. Fleeing the advancing Germans—first in a horse and cart, later on foot with the retreating Red Army—the family reach Russia, where they stay until 1945. They return to Lithuania and settle in the capital. Only the author visits his native village. The shtetl has been eradicated. In the poignant final pages, he meets Julius, formerly his father’s non-Jewish apprentice, now a master tailor with the Singer sewing machine.

This is a dense read with much detail and little variation in style. This reader’s eye snagged on inconsistencies of spelling and errors of formatting. But no matter. How else could one enter that vanished world, narrated with such integrity and authenticity, and an absence of rancour?