Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 6/4/2014, Literature and Nonfiction (Feuilleton section), Page 10—Editions D1, D1N, D2, D3, D3N, R0, R1—1,185 words
The Boy Who Survived as a Snowman
  Depicting the decline of a world through the watchful eyes of a child, Grigory Kanovich’s moving novel Ewiger Sabbat (Eternal Sabbath) is a masterpiece of Jewish literature.
   Grigory Kanovich, who has lived for more than twenty years in Israel, was born in Lithuania in 1929, the son of a Jewish tailor. In 1979, his major novel on the German invasion appeared in Russian. In it, he describes the end of a Lithuanian shtetl—first, the final years before the war, when Lithuania was still independent, then the occupation and the ghetto—but in reality, the years of peace are already years of death. A central metaphor is that of the cemetery, and part of the artistry of the novel is that a boy growing up, the first-person narrator Daniel, shows the reader everything through his child’s eyes.
   Daniel is ten when we meet him for the first time. His mother is dead; his father, a Communist, is in prison for political crimes; and the child grows up under the wing of a despotic grandmother. “You will go, Daniel, with me into town,” she announces to him. This is the first sentence of the novel, and its peculiar syntax is a sign of what is to come: the woman speaks no Lithuanian, she speaks Yiddish. Through her and many other characters in the novel, Kanovich resurrects a world that has long since ceased to exist.
   Daniel’s grandmother senses that death is approaching. She wants to visit her son in prison one last time, and Daniel can’t wait to see his father. But nothing comes of it, as they never reach their destination. Daniel’s father has been transferred to another prison, and even the goose that they wanted to bring him is already starting to putrefy. It is the harbinger of a long death. First, the grandmother is buried, then the grandfather moves into an old people’s home, but he doesn’t last long there, and one day he disappears without trace.
   Then, Josef, a one-legged gravedigger, takes on the child, and the cemetery becomes Daniel’s new home. Before becoming a gravedigger and when he still had two legs, Josef had been engaged to Daniel’s grandmother. Then a war came, and Josef enlisted. When he returned from the war on crutches, Daniel’s great-grandmother stopped the marriage from happening—and now that everything is over, the circle is closed. The life that Josef did not lead takes shape, and the fact that it is far too late does not bother him. As a gravedigger, he has always lived in the face of eternity.
   What gives this epic work its power? How is it that despite its images of death, it never produces a sense of morbidity? An answer lies at the heart of the novel, in the character of its narrator. Daniel is not just at the start of his life; through him, Grigory Kanovich achieves something rare in Jewish literature: he is a child unburdened by any past, with no tradition to bear. Daniel is a boy who was not already old when he came into the world.
   For a long time, he remains illiterate, an “am ha’aretz,” as they are known among Jews. Kafka translated the term as “a man of the land”—someone who waits a lifetime before the law without ever being admitted. Daniel, however, does not let himself be handicapped by his ignorance. On the contrary: his view is unbiased. He sees how only the grumpy synagogue attendant still keeps to the old teachings, or how the kosher butcher laments that his sons no longer follow Jewish dietary laws, but Daniel does not perceive these things as a loss. No one introduced him to these traditions, and when the time comes, he must take care of his own future.
   When the Germans arrive, Daniel is eighteen. The fascist local policeman rounds up the Jews into the synagogue, and the depiction of this horrific time is one of the most poignant parts of the novel. Among the unfortunate is a small boy who fled from Germany to Lithuania with his mother. In the night, he needs to relieve himself, and his mother won’t let him go outside, afraid that he will be shot. Daniel comes to his aid. “‘Come,’ I said to Wilhelm, ‘We won’t go outside . . . we’ll do it here . . . right here.’ ‘No, no,’ argued his mother, distraught, ‘that’s blasphemy.’ ‘God will forgive it,’ I said and led Wilhelm into a corner. ‘Don’t be ashamed. Go on!’”
   That is not blasphemy, it is an act of humanity. And it is only a prelude of things to come, as shortly afterward Daniel saves little Wilhelm’s life. From the shtetl, the Jews are sent to a ghetto, and the Germans launch a crackdown to round up the children and send them to their deaths. Wilhelm’s mother is desperate. She doesn’t know where to hide her son, but Daniel finds a solution. “The trucks entered the street, their merciless headlights shining into the gardens. I started to heap snow on to Wilhelm’s legs, and soon he was shackled in a white suit of armor. I stuck a nose on to him, shoved a broom under his arm, and so that he wouldn’t choke, I drilled two small holes into his snow face with a twig.”
   Daniel becomes an adult, and his child’s play becomes resistance against barbarism. Later, he saves other children from the ghetto, and although he does so with the help of Lithuanian Communists, at no point does the book become a political manifesto. It is an educational novel without the education: even at the end, Daniel is the naive storyteller he was at the beginning, and as he is growing up, he remains free from all prejudices of education. Whether the Lithuanian collaborators beyond the ghetto walls are Communists or not, whether he meets a dogmatic synagogue attendant or a Jew who has converted to Christianity—for him, they are all just people whom he confronts with his own, adolescent humanity.
   No less impressive than Daniel’s story is the development of the storyteller himself. When the fascist local policeman leads him from the cemetery to the other Jews in the synagogue, Daniel suddenly sees his deceased grandmother standing before him. “The old woman accompanied me constantly, and her presence, disembodied and invisible, suddenly took shape.” In the dark days of the ghetto, he consults regularly with her. As with Sigmund Freud, the deceased becomes the superego—and yet, this is different. With Freud, the superego grows out of feelings of guilt and therefore becomes a “nagging” conscience; the child growing up, however, has no feelings of guilt. Daniel’s grandmother, in the first chapter of the novel an imperious despot, now offers him the most generous and most tolerant thoughts, and Kanovich achieves something wonderful: Daniel is a Kaspar Hauser who discovers his education not from outside but from within—in the rhythm of his own heart.
   In the Russian original, the novel is called Candle in the Wind, and it was under this title that it first appeared in 1984 in East Germany. The publishers have preserved Waltraud Ahrndt’s beautiful translation, changing only the title. Kanovich wrote a requiem, and in Eternal Sabbath there is something of the undisturbed peace that one wishes on the dead.
Grigory Kanovich: Ewiger Sabbat (Eternal Sabbath). Novel.
Translated from Russian to German by Waltraud Ahrndt. Die Andere Bibliothek, Berlin 2014. 606 pp., hardback, €38.