On June 26, 1982, Chaim Grade – widely considered one of the finest and most important Yiddish-language writers of the 20th century – died in New York at age 72. Grade was a prolific poet, novelist and short-story writer, who combined deep Jewish knowledge with a secular sensibility. He offered readers a subtle portrait of a society nearly completely destroyed by the Holocaust.
Perhaps the most bizarre element of his career is that the executor of his estate – none other than his wife – stymied most attempts to translate or publish his work in other languages, even after his death.
Chaim Grade was born on April 5, 1910, in Vilna, in the Russian empire (today, Vilnius, Lithuania). He always told people he was descended from an officer in Napoleon’s army who, after being wounded in battle, was nursed back to health by a Jewish family in Vilna, which resulted in his converting to Judaism and marrying into the family.
Chaim’s father, Shlomo Mordechai Grade, was a maskil (student of the Jewish enlightenment), a Hebrew teacher and Zionist, who died when his only son was young. He and his mother, Vella, then survived on what she could bring in from selling apples on the street.
Escaping from his own skin
Chaim had a traditional Jewish education. Starting at age 13, he began learning at one of the so-called Novardok yeshivas, which adopted the austere style of the Musar movement, where his interest in secular literature was strongly discouraged.
Although he eventually gave up the pious life of a religious man, deciding at age 22 he was going to be a writer, he wasn’t without affection for the experience of his youth. The conflicted feelings of a young man caught between his Enlightenment father and his yeshiva teachers was a theme that worked its way into much of Grade’s writing.
Grade became associated with a group of avant-garde writers and painters calling themselves Yung Vilne, and began to publish poetry in local newspapers. His first collection, from 1936, was called “Yo,” meaning “yes,” from a line in one poem that reads, “Yes! That is the answer of my youth when it needs to escape from its own skin.”
That book was followed, in 1939, by an epic poem called “Musarnists,” a semi-autobiographical work about life in a Vilna yeshiva, which carries what seems to be a premonition of the approaching disaster of the Holocaust.
Too much faith in the Nazis
When the Germans invaded Lithuania in June 1941, Grade was urged by his mother and his wife, Frume-Libe, to flee into the Soviet Union. Laboring under the common misconception that the Nazis would not persecute women, that’s what he did.
When he returned at the war’s end, he learned that both women had died. He moved around over the next few years before immigrating, in 1948, with a new wife, Inna Hecker, to the United States. They settled in the Bronx, New York, spending the next 35 years living in the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative.
When Inna Hecker Grade was hospitalized, shortly before her death in 2010 (following his by 28 years), emergency medical workers had difficulty opening the door to her apartment, so packed was every corner with his manuscripts and papers. She had denied publishers, translators and scholars almost all access to his work, even after his death in 1982 – which, by the way, she also initially kept secret.
Since Inna left no will, however, and the couple had no heirs, it was the State of New York that determined the fate of the estate. After several years of deliberations, in 2013 it turned control of Chaim Grade’s literary estate over to the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research in New York, and to Israel’s National Library. They have announced their intention to make all of the material available online.
Overall, Grade published nine volumes of Yiddish poetry, most of which have not been translated. Two novels, “The Agunah” and “The Yeshiva” were both published in English, as was a memoir, “My Mother’s Sabbath Days.” Now, with the question of his estate resolved, there should be much more to look forward to in the coming years.