Despite Soviet pressure, award-winning author Grigory Kanovich, a Jew born in Lithuania, passed away on Friday at 93 in his Tel Aviv home.
More than 30 plays, screenplays, novels, and collections of poems and short stories make up Kanovich’s body of work; practically all of them are devoted to the stories of Lithuanian Jews.
Kanovich was born in 1929 in the shtetl of Janova, a predominantly Jewish community located north of Kaunas, the interwar capital of independent Lithuania.
Over 3,000 Jews, or 80% of the city’s population, lived there when he was a young man.
There were numerous synagogues, Jewish schools, hundreds of Jewish-owned businesses, and a Jewish bank.
The fortunate Kanovich family fled during the brief Soviet Occupation between the 1939 Russian-German Non-Aggression Pact and the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union.
The family traveled east through Latvia into Soviet-controlled Central Asia, where they remained throughout the conflict.
After the war, Kanovich went back to his hometown to attend the University of Vilnius, but the place he had grown up in was no longer there.
He started writing about his feelings about the loss in 1949, eulogizing Lithuanian Jewry and capturing the brand-new Soviet Jewish reality.
Although he wrote primarily in Russian, his writings incorporated the yeshivas of Lithuania’s Talmud.
“Kanovich wrote on the plight of the Jewish people and how they interacted with Russian and Lithuanian culture. A German Slavicist named Wolfgang Kazak reportedly remarked of Kanovich’s works, “At the center of his works is the ‘small man,’ who obstinately confronts evil and for the author embodies a human in general.
Through the eyes of a young yeshiva student navigating the Holocaust, Kanovich’s first trilogy of novels, written between 1974 and 1979 and based on short tales he wrote in 1959 and 1967, was published.
A journalist from Ukraine, Vitaly Portnikov, stated that Kanovich “wrote about sorrow, but about the tragedy of individuals who, even in the face of imminent death, did not lose either their dignity or a sense of belonging to their people and their civilization.”
The topics of Kanovich’s writing, such as longing for a religiously rooted past and resistance to assimilation, restricted the readership of his works in the Soviet Union; only the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, where he resided, was allowed to publish them.
Nevertheless, it earned the love of Jews across the Soviet Union. Kanovich was briefly elected president of the Jewish community in newly independent Lithuania after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but like so many other Eastern European Jews, he decided to come to Israel in the 1990s.
He continued to write there, telling the tale of the Lithuanian shtetl until his most recent publication in 2019.
Kanovich was awarded the Israel Writers Union Prize and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas, two of Lithuania’s highest honors, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
He also received the title of Laureate of the Prize of the Government of Lithuania for Culture and Art.
His two sons, together with his wife Olga, are left behind.