Chaim Grade: Facts of a Life

Chaim Grade: Facts of a Life

Photo: Jung-Vilne literary group: Chaim Grade is stand­ing in the top row to the left, the poets Shmerke Kacz­er­gin­s­ki and Abra­ham Sutzkev­er are seat­ed in the mid­dle. YIVO archives

by Susanne Klingenstein and Yehudah DovBer Zirkind, In Geveb, December 15, 2021


When on May 2, 2010, Inna Hecker Grade passed away at the age of eighty-five, a sigh of relief, unkind and hard-edged, coursed through some corners of the Yiddish literary world and a small circle of scholars and archivists tensed with expectation. For twenty-eight years, since the passing of her husband Chaim Grade on June 26, 1982, the literary legacy of one the most important Yiddish prose-stylists and documentary story­tellers to emerge from the ashes of Vil­na, had lain concealed in the couple’s Bronx apartment, guarded by his angry widow who deemed the world unworthy of her husband’s genius. After a brief foray into the publishing world, she had withdrawn into a tomb filled with her husband’s treasures.

The sepulchral metaphor was first used by Ralph Speken, the psychiatrist who had taken care of Inna Grade during the last months of her life. On the eve of breaking the seal, Speken pleaded: ​“They should take over that apartment as if they were taking over King Tut’s tomb.” Scholars and readers expected the discovery of manuscripts in drawers and closets that would speedily be published, perhaps in critical editions, and bring Grade back to literary life. No new work, no critical edition or biography has yet appeared.

In February 2013, Grade’s papers, photographs and his library, comprising twenty thousand volumes, were jointly acquired by the National Library of Israel and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. It is at the latter institution that his estate, 75 linear feet of material in 150 5‑inch archival boxes, has physically come to rest. Five hundred books ​“were chosen to be catalogued together as the Chaim Grade Memorial Library.” Initial sorting of the material was completed in 2014. Archival processing of the papers began in 2016 and was completed in March 2020. At that time, 35 linear feet of material had been digitized and were made available online. A significant portion of the papers was now accessible even from afar and it became possible to establish the basic facts of Chaim Grade’s life by combing through the documents and studying the scrawled pages in Grade’s notebooks. Our essay offers the first fruits of laborious research in Grade’s papers. It offers for the first time information verified by documents about Grade’s home and education, his escape to and sojourn in the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945, his return to and departure from Vilna in 1945, and his subsequent moves to Łódż, Paris and New York. While our essay can now serve as a reliable reference text establishing a solid time­line of Grade’s transition from Vilna to New York, more work on his papers needs to be done to flesh out his biography. The footnotes indicate in which folders the information we cite can be found. There is much more material than we can present here.

Full article here.