IN THE SPRING, my father and I visited Bauska, Latvia — alternatively Bauske, Bauskė, or Boisk, depending on whom you ask — to attend the unveiling of a plaque honoring a distant, long-deceased relative. Located where the Müsa and Memele rivers meet near the Lithuanian border, Bauska is one of many nearly forgotten Baltic hamlets, a place where the tragic past determines the contours of life far more than the impoverished present. To conclude the modest festivities, a local historian-turned-politician took us on a tour of the town center. The first stop was the whitewashed 16th-century Lutheran church, its murals lovingly restored to retain their original coloring, its military embrasures keeping watch for intruders. From beneath its stone archway we strolled to what used to be a bustling market square, past slanted, single-story shingled homes, their doorframes occasionally labeled with white signs reading, “June-July 1941: To Those Who Never Came Back.” Each sign marked the home of a local resident who had been deported to Siberia by the occupying Soviet forces. For the Jews among them, the relocation meant salvation from a much worse fate. It took just 30 minutes for the town to change hands on July 28, 1941; the Soviets left town at 3:00 in the afternoon, and German forces arrived at 3:30.
On the other side of the central square, on Riga Street, an unmarked overgrown lot testifies to the destruction that followed. It once housed the local synagogue and kosher slaughterhouse, where the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, scholar, mystic, and poet Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), had worshipped. (His poems appeared in the Hebrew journal Sinai in 1945. One reads: “The light outruns the vessel, / Thought soars beyond existence, / The ordered world breaks down, / the vessels are broken, / The kings are dead, / The gods are dead. / The world stands naked, lonely, broken.”) I asked our guide whether a memorial or museum was being planned for the vacant lot, since statues dedicated to the victims, participants, and perpetrators of that unhappy era had recently cropped up elsewhere in town. He shook his head. “You can’t build a memorial if there are no Jews left to visit, can you?”
And yet. Across the old Pale of Settlement, from Kovno to Kherson, a rich variety of memorial projects — literary, forensic, reconstructive, and virtual — are underway. In Ukraine, the Protecting Memory project and the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage Project are unearthing and preserving Jewish tombstones and grave sites, marking places where once-thriving Jewish communities lived and died. In Poland, the Matzevah Foundation is doing the same. The hope behind these projects, in the words of Michel de Certeau, is that the “renovated ‘old stones’ [will] become places for transit between the ghosts of the past and the imperatives of the present.” In Lithuania, another team by the same name, the Maceva Project (Matzevah or Maceva means gravestone, in Hebrew), is creating an online archive of over 200 Jewish burial sites, using Google Maps to document cemetery locations and digitize tombstones. “Time ruthlessly ravages old graves,” the project homepage reads. “Because of lack of funds and initiative, old Jewish cemeteries are quickly disappearing and the memories of Litvaks who are buried there will disappear as well.” Every data point represents a destroyed Jewish community, the gravestones being the only markers of what once was. Another project, Shtetl Routes, transports visitors to 18th-century life on the “forgotten continent” of Eastern Europe with the help of 3-D modeling. The virtual turn in preservation comes as the physical artifacts seem beyond repair: most gravestones will be abandoned to “continued ruination,” a rather ominous term that preservationists use to describe the fate of fragments of history unworthy of saving. And all this virtual preservation comes at a cost: access to the Maceva online database is available only for purchase, $100 for access to a single gravesite, $500 for the whole archive.
One data point on Maceva’s map marks the location of the cemetery at Seduva, a 15th-century Jewish village about an hour’s drive from the Latvian border. There, Maceva co-founder Sergey Kanovich has embarked on an ambitious memorial endeavor, the Lost Shtetl, which aims to reanimate and commemorate the constellation of Jewish villages that once surrounded Vilnius, the Jerusalem of the North. Under Kanovich’s direction, Seduva’s Jewish cemetery has been restored, its gravestones unearthed and reinforced against the elements. The Lost Shtetl website includes a comprehensive transcription of every tombstone (“Here is buried David, son of Avraham. He died on the 1st of Tamuz of the year 5628 [June 21, 1868]. Let his soul be tied into the knot of life.”) At the three sites where local Jews were massacred, monuments have finally been erected; a museum to the life and death of the Seduva shtetl is being built, designed by a Finnish architecture firm; and Kanovich is scouring the globe for anyone who might remember what life during Seduva’s heyday was like. The results will be compiled in a documentary he is in the process of writing, called Petrified Time.
In a sense, all memorial endeavors aim to petrify time. “Intentional commemoration is about victory over time itself,” Svetlana Boym writes. But going to battle with time, of course, means accepting the inevitability of defeat: the rush to digitize, renovate, restore, archive comes with the reluctant acceptance that not everything can be saved. This, Kanovich knows all too well — the Lost Shtetl aims not to wholly reconstruct, but primarily to mark and celebrate a forgotten civilization in a country where street signs still honor its murderers. “I have said many times that Lithuania has enough traces of Jewish death,” he told Delfi, a local newspaper. “Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to find traces of Jewish life in Lithuanian towns. So we should take care not only of the traces of death, but also show and talk about Jewish life.”
The Lost Shtetl is an impressive architectural intervention on blighted ground. But at its heart, it is a literary endeavor, a partial realization of the work of Kanovich’s father, Grigory, the most celebrated Lithuanian Jewish novelist. Kanovich père is a prolific chronicler of the once-flourishing Litvak community, and his works have been widely read in Lithuania and Russia and translated into Hebrew, German, and Polish. This past September, he made his book-length debut in English when Shtetl Love Song, originally written in Russian, was released by Noir Press in Yisrael Elliot Cohen’s translation.
Part memoir, part novel, Shtetl Love Song is an invitation to walk with Kanovich among the gravestones of his hometown of Jonava, which lies halfway between Seduva and Vilnius, in the heart of Lithuania. “In that eternal habitation of the dead you can hear now only the rustling of old shrivelled pines and see the black and tattered nests of noisy ravens and feel the memories that surround you,” Kanovich writes. “Memories, memories! Are they not the most long-lasting cemetery in the world?”
Shtetl Love Song begins, as many memoirs do, with the author self-consciously chastising himself for the belatedness of his project. “For a long time I have been intending to write about my mother with that joyous enthusiasm and the kind of abundant detail with which it is fitting to recall one’s parents,” Kanovich starts. “But to my great shame, for one reason or another, I have kept putting it off and off.” For years, he approached the subject by writing occasional scraps about his mother’s neighbors and relatives, seeing her only in his dreams. “So now, in my declining years, I have finally decided that I have no right to put it off any longer.” Time resists arrest — it runs out.
The resulting book is a sketch of Kanovich’s earliest years, a tale of life in a declining Lithuanian shtetl on the eve of World War II, as told though the eyes of his mother, Hennie: “‘A person is alive as long as he remembers that which he should in no circumstances forget,’ my mother used to say.” The novel revels in sentimentality, depicting the motions of daily life — birth, love, marriage, school, work, death — with tender humor and mournful detail. Kanovich cites no artistic influences, save for Marc Chagall. After seeing an exhibition in Paris of Chagall’s mystical, lyric paintings of Jewish life in Poland, Kanovich told himself, “try to do that in your prose.”
Just as his son’s Lost Shtetl is a literary project as much as it is memorial, so too Shtetl Love Song is as much memorial as it is literary — a “Kaddish for the shtetl,” as the German radio station Deutschlandfunk put it. The book is animated in large part by Kanovich’s conviction that “whoever allows the dead to fall into oblivion will himself be justly consigned to oblivion by future generations.” It may center around his good and loving mother, “that hefty Hennie Dudak,” describing her early triumphs, friendships, disappointments, and her final flight from home, but by the end it has captured the “whole galaxy of the shtetl” that made her life possible. Sitting before his computer screen, plumbing the depths of memory, Kanovich feels as if he is turning the handle of a childhood music box, allowing its melody to conjure the personalities he had encountered in his early youth:
Slowly, close-up, like in a silent movie, one by one my unforgettable fellow shtetl dwellers stream past my eyes. I listen to a simple tune and they come alive again, lined up in one friendly row; the philosophising beggars and industrious tailors, the rich philanthropists and home-grown transformers of the world, like my Uncle Shmulik, who dreamed about a freedom that turned out to be an illusion.
Shtetl Love Song concludes with Kanovich’s solitary return to Jonava after the war. He and his parents survived by fleeing first to Riga, and from there into Russia and then into the Kazakh steppe. “I wandered for a long time around my native shtetl, which felt like a cemetery,” he writes, the shuttered homes of his family and friends lining the road like gravestones. He proceeds, anonymous, until he spots a familiar face on the street near his grandmother’s empty house — the tailor Julius, his father’s Lithuanian protege. They don’t speak much of the war — too raw and difficult a subject. Instead, they descend to the banks of the Vilija River, which, together with the “pale Lithuanian sun,” once sustained the shtetl and its “inimitable inhabitants,” who present themselves to Kanovich as he stands at the riverbank. “On a starry night, if you go out of your house you can hear familiar voices in the tranquil silence. It is the dead talking with each other in the sky and whispering to us,” he writes. “One shtetl, one Jewish town that was wiped from the face of the earth, converses with another.”
In October, I received a call from an unfamiliar number while waiting in line at the DMV. It was a California businessman, a champion of the Latvian Jewish diaspora, calling to tell me that after years of effort, a memorial was finally being erected at the site of the destroyed Bauska synagogue. Dignitaries from Latvia, Israel, and the United States convened at the site later that month for the unveiling; a Yizkor prayer was recited, recalling the dead. A stone pillar, carved in the shape of the book of life, now immortalizes the long history of the town’s vanished Jewish community. “Dedicated to the Jews of Bauska, who for centuries lived here and built this city,” it begins, in English and Latvian. Four sculpted figures representing the murdered mark the perimeter of the site, their bodies fashioned from rubble — all that remains of the synagogue — and encased in strips of steel. Mournfully, they look out upon the town square, scolding their environs for the belatedness of their return.