Devilspel: remembering the Jewish dead of Lithuania, and their neighbours

By Vanora Bennett

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EBRD Literature Prize 2020 winner announced

Winner of EBRD Literature Prize 2020 asks, what makes people turn to good or evil?

“I have tried to create a written monument to the Lithuanian Jews”, Grigory Kanovich, who at 91 is the last major novelist to remember the lost world of eastern Europe’s shtetl life before the Second World War, has said of his ten books.

Grigory Kanovich explains how difficult it was to write "Devilspel"

The Jews of Lithuania were almost all killed when the Nazis invaded in 1941, with both Nazis and local collaborators carrying out the murders. (Kanovich himself, then just 12 years old, escaped to safety in Russia with his family; he returned only after the war was over). The destruction of the Jewish community in one small town is the tragedy at the heart of Devilspel, a memorable novel which came out recently in a translation from Russian to English and is now a finalist for this year’s EBRD Literature Prize.

Interview with the translator Yisrael Elliot Cohen

Devilspel movingly describes the lives of people affected by the massacre in the settlement of Mishkine in the summer of 1941, as the Germans arrive. But it has a broader theme; it’s also a philosophical inquiry into what makes people turn to evil or retain their humanity.

Mishkine is one of those towns where Lithuanians and Jews have rubbed along together for centuries, speaking their different languages and minding their own business, without catastrophic problems. But as the war comes closer and the Germans arrive, all that suddenly changes. Some Lithuanians who see their traditional Russian rulers as oppressors greet the German as liberators. Relationships are torn apart as collaborators implement the anti-Jewish orders of their new masters. There is no place any longer for the Jewish minority have been Mishkine’s tailor, newspaper salesman, butcher, miller, doctor, and gravedigger. Rounded up together by neighbours who will profit from the new German connections, the local Jews disappear from history.

Yet this is not a story about a massacre. It’s more subtle and interior than that. Instead, readers follow the lives of two families, including, in the days after their relatives have disappeared, a few who remain alive, sharing their agonising questions about human and divine justice in a world gone mad.

Grigory Kanovich’s writing, both while he lived in Soviet Lithuania and then, after he emigrated in 1993, in Israel, has been devoted to this theme, “because I was interested in the life of little Jewish towns in the last war, because no one had written a word or taken an interest in them before. So I took an interest and wrote my novels.”

His books, translated into 14 languages, have sold 1.5 million copies in Russian and won many prizes. His last novel, the very autobiographical Shtetl Love Story, describes his own family’s escape from the Jewish town of Jonava in 1941, and was published when he was 85. It was the first of his books to be translated into English.

Devilspel, written earlier, has more recently been published in an English translation by Yisrael Elliot Cohen, who taught Russian literature at the University of Illinois before becoming an academic in Israel after 1979. The translation took years, Cohen says. “It’s a great book, I think, and very complex. Therefore, as a translator, I felt a great responsibility towards the author but also towards the potential reader. Grigory has a unique voice and he combines lyrical, tragic and even humorous elements, and one has to find the words and ways of expression that the target audience can also understand and see where he’s coming from.”

The novel begins and ends in Mishkine’s Jewish cemetery, run by the thoughtful Danuta Hadassa. She’s there because she long ago fell in love with the Jewish grave-digger, but by blood she is Polish and by religion a Catholic. Her sons, Yakov and Aron, fall in love with sisters, Elisheva and Reizel, the daughters of the town’s Jewish tailor, Gedalye Bankvecher. Silver-tongued, Stalin-loving, pork-eating Aron has disappeared off to Moscow, leaving his wife Reizel behind. The quieter Yakov stays home, converts to Judaism, and visits Elisheva, an idealist who wants to emigrate to Palestine and is learning farming out in the countryside. While Yakov courts her, he helps his mother run the graveyard, where Danuta cherishes the Jewish dead she’s cared for for so long. Because Elisheva lives out in the countryside, she is not caught in the round-up of the town’s Jews. To keep her safe, her Lithuanian farmer boss then has her baptised. Danuta, meanwhile, doesn’t know whether the Nazis will even see her as a Jew, but wants to go on looking after the Jewish dead. So she and her son remain at the cemetery as the novel’s final events unfold. The novel ends among the Jewish graves, as it began, but by the end of the book the cemetery is deserted and overgrown, inhabited only by ravens.

For an author on record as saying that a cemetery is “the home of the memory of the living,” that abandoned place gives a bleak picture of what the war left behind in Lithuania.

What must it have been like for Kanovich and his family to return, in the late 1940s, to a homeland from which 95 per cent of Jews had disappeared? And how does today’s Lithuania remember this past? Post-Soviet governments have made efforts to end an era of amnesia, especially in the capital, Vilnius, where almost all the Jewish holy places of a city once known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” were destroyed, but where memorial plaques now mark them and the Nazi-era ghetto, and there’s a Jewish museum. But the fate of the shtetls – where many more people died - is less well known. Kanovich’s poet and essayist son, Sergey, is trying to change that, working on a memorial complex in and around the small town of Šeduva called the Lost Shtetl, which includes a restored cemetery, and a museum which will open in 2022. Still, when asked what he thought of Lithuania’s approach, Grigory Kanovich says, “Lithuania has done something to remember the Jews of the past, but it could and should have done a lot more.”

“A lot of the book takes place in the cemetery, and this is a tremendous metaphor for what happened to European Jewry,” translator Cohen says. “The question is the responsibilities of those who murdered, those who tried to protect or shelter, and there were both, among the Lithuanians.”

“The title of the book Devilspel has to do with the temptation one has to look out for oneself and not others. One of the main Lithuanian characters decides to shelter a Jewess, at the risk of his own life, and that’s fantastic. As with most great authors, through the individuals, one learns about universal questions. Here I think there’s a very strong universal aspect.”

In Devilspel, as she surveys the wreckage of the graves in her cemetery, Danuta utters a last cry of despair, of hope and humanity extinguished: ‘Oh Lord! Great God! Have You grown deaf and blind? God, what will happen to the living if You, the Omnipotent and All-Merciful One, cannot even protect the dead?

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