Chaim Grade’s name may not ring a bell, but experts have called him one of the most important Yiddish writers of the post-Holocaust era.
The New York-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the National Library of Israel have digitized a collection that includes Grade’s literary manuscripts, lectures, speeches, essays, newspaper articles and personal notebooks.
The writer’s papers are now available publicly, as are items from his wife Inna Hecker Grade. The novels The Yeshiva and The Agunah are among Grade’s best-known works. (An agunah is a woman who cannot marry, either because her husband’s whereabouts and status are unknown, or he refuses to divorce her.)
“Only Chaim Grade had the profound learning, personal experience and Dostoyevskian talent to animate in fiction the destroyed Talmudic civilization of Europe,” said Ruth Wisse, emerita professor of Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard University. “The moral intensity of his work now overpowers a new generation of readers.”
According to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, Grade was born in Vilna in 1910. His father died when he was young, and his mother sold apples. Grade was a stellar Jewish student but abandoned his studies to work as a secular poet. He was a founding member of the literary group Yung-Vilne, known for left-leaning politics.
When the Nazis approached Vilna in 1941, Grade fled for other parts of Soviet territory. He left his mother and wife, believing they would not be harmed. Neither survived. He and his second wife, Inna, moved to the U.S. in 1948. Grade died in 1982; she died in 2010.
“From his earliest literary efforts to his late in life masterpieces, Chaim Grade wrote like a man possessed,” said Jeremy Dauber, professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture at Columbia University. “Possessed, first, by the spirit of the yeshiva world he’d left behind; then possessed by the spirits and memories of those who’d been murdered by the Nazis.”