Chaim Grade: Facts of a Life

Susanne Klingenstein and Yehudah DovBer Zirkind


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. 1 1 Repub­lish­ing and even quot­ing from Grade’s work had been dif­fi­cult, because on Jan­u­ary 13, 1995, and on Sep­tem­ber 25, 2001, Inna Grade secured the copy­right to all of Chaim Grade’s works how­ev­er cre­at­ed, whether pub­lished or unpub­lished” for fifty years fol­low­ing Grade’s death. H.R 524 (104th) and H.R. 2971 (107th). For the relief of Inna Heck­er Grade. The two bills con­tain a list of 58 pub­lished works. https://​www​.gov​track​.us/​c​o​n​g​r​e​s​s​/​b​i​l​l​s​/​107​/​h​r​2971​/text , last accessed, Jan­u­ary 272021

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.” 2 2 Joseph Berg­er, In Yid­dish Author’s Papers, Poten­tial Gold.” The New York Times May 17, 2010. 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. 3 3 Since Inna Grade died child­less and intes­tate, her estate fell to the Pub­lic Admin­is­tra­tor of Bronx Coun­ty. A bat­tle for the estate ensued. Erich Her­schthal, Fight Over Grade’s Archive Gets Messier.” New York Jew­ish Week Sep­tem­ber 21, 2010; Joseph Berg­er, Researchers Tack­le Yid­dish Writer’s Papers.” The New York Times August 31, 2010. Ste­fanie Halpern, Direc­tor of the YIVO Archives, email to Susanne Klin­gen­stein, Novem­ber 23, 2020. Five hun­dred books were cat­a­logued togeth­er as the Chaim Grade Memo­r­i­al Library.” 4 4 Mori­ah Kennedy (a cat­a­loger at YIVO) and Lyud­mi­la Sholokho­va (the head librar­i­an at YIVO) select­ed these five hun­dred books because they were some­how unique and gave insight into Grade’s biog­ra­phy. The remain­ing books are cur­rent­ly stored in a ware­house in New Jer­sey. Ste­fanie Halpern, emails to Susanne Klin­gen­stein, Jan­u­ary 19 and 28, 2021; emails exchanged between Mori­ah Kennedy and Cecile Kuznitz, Decem­ber 24, 2021. 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. 5 5 The Estate of Chaim Grade and Inna Heck­er Grade, Col­lec­tion Iden­ti­fi­er: RG 1952 https://​archives​.cjh​.org/​r​e​p​o​s​i​t​o​r​i​e​s​/​7​/​r​e​s​o​u​r​c​e​s/556 , last accessed Novem­ber 12, 2021. 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. 6 6 The major­i­ty of the archival research was car­ried out by Yehu­dah DovBer Zirkind. The authors want to thank Yos­si New­field for con­nect­ing us. 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. 7 7 A longer ver­sion of this essay that also cov­ers Grade’s lit­er­ary devel­op­ment appeared in Ger­man under the title Chaim Grade” as the after­word in Chaim Grade, Von Frauen und Rab­bin­ern: Zwei Erzäh­lun­gen. Trans­lat­ed by Susanne Klin­gen­stein (Berlin: Die Andere Bib­lio­thek, 2020), 339 – 418. Sev­er­al fac­tu­al errors in the Ger­man essay are cor­rect­ed in this ver­sion. 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.

*Note from the Edi­tors: We wel­come your sub­mis­sions that enable us to become a repos­i­to­ry of ref­er­ence resources (like this one) for Yid­dish stud­ies schol­ars and teach­ers. Please send such sub­mis­sions to pedagogy@​ingeveb.​org.

1. Home

Shloyme-Mordkhe Grade, a Hebrew teacher and Zionist in Vilna, was a widower with five sons when he married Vela Blumenthal (b. 1890), a rabbi’s daughter only half his age. On April 4, 1910, their son Chaim was born. By 1913, two girls had followed, one of whom died shortly after birth. The First World War brought hunger, typhus, and tens of thousands of refugees to Vilna. Shloyme-Mordkhe lost his job and the family moved into a basement on Zawalna Street and shortly afterwards into a ground floor apartment in the courtyard at 15 Jatkowa Street. Instead of paying rent, Shloyme-Mordkhe agreed to work as night watchman for his court. During the day, he peddled metal goods (knives, scissors, razors, watch chains). In 1919, he collapsed in the street under his burden. While he recuperated in the hospital, his six-year-old daughter Ettele died. Vela went to work in her sister’s store. She was partly paid in midday meals she ate at her sister’s house during the week. On Shabbat she came for the midday meal with her son Chaim. By then, three of Chaim’s five half-brothers had already emigrated to America. 8 8 Abraham, Grade’s oldest half-brother, born June 5, 1887, arrived in New York on March 5, 1906, four years before Chaim was born. He started to work as an umbrella maker, married Clara Kabakow on October 12, 1907, and moved to Chicago, where he worked as a laundry driver before becoming an accountant. This information is based on Abraham’s “Petition for Naturalization” (dated December 27, 1913) and his marriage certificate. We want to thank David R. Kuney for sending us scans of these documents. See also, David R, Kuney, On Rockingham Street: Reclaiming My Family’s Jewish Identity - Our Journey from Vilna to the Suburban South (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2021), 53-54. Mosey, the oldest, had married and moved to Snipishok. 9 9 The only currently available source of information on the name of the oldest brother is Grade’s memoir Der mames shabosim, where the author uses the spelling מאָסײ. Chaim Grade, Der mames shabosim (Chicago: L. M. Stein, 1955), 49. Around 1921, Vela’s sister and her family emigrated, and Vela turned to fruit peddling, eventually selling the cheapest kind of fruit, frozen apples, and acquiring her own fixed vendor’s spot — a privilege — at the outer door of the courtyard at 15 Jatkowa. Since she could not afford the rent, her one-room apartment was divided lengthwise by a curtain. The larger front part was occupied by the workshop of a blacksmith who paid the rent. In the back, in a dark sliver of the room, Chaim Grade lived with his mother until the late 1930s. Avrom Sutzkever famously described the clutter and hellish noise in the front and the perpetual, book-lined darkness in the back, where Grade tore through modern literature by candlelight. 10 10 Avrom Sutzkever, Baym leyenen penimer (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1993), 59-60; Grade describes the room in an interview, conducted in Montreal on February 1, 1955: “Chaim Grade a shmues mit Avrohom Tabatshnik”,, 20:27-21:30, last accessed September 17, 2021. The suggestion in the German version of this essay that Grade may have moved to Kolejowa Street is wrong. In November 1935, Daniel Tsharni (Charney) and Zalmen Reyzen issued a subscription call for a volume of poetry by Chaim Grade. Since Reyzen lived at 17 Wielka Pohulanka (today Basanavičiusa), the address printed at the bottom of the subscription „W. Lewin, Wilno, Kolejowa 15/3“ is most likely Tsharni’s. It is not Grade’s as the German version claims. The Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections. RG3 F2000,, accessed May 30, 2020.

Shloyme-Mordkhe, partially paralyzed since his collapse in the street in 1919, and suffering from congestive heart failure, was living with his oldest son. But when Mosey died in 1927, following heart surgery in Berlin, Vela had to collect her husband in Snipishok and bring him into the dark space behind the curtain. Shloyme-Mordkhe fell into despair and died on September 22, 1927. 11 11 Upon returning to Vilna in October 1945, Grade copied the inscription on his father’s headstone. The day of his passing was stated as 25. Elul 5687: Grade’s Notebooks, 1941-1943, 1940s, Container: Box 1, Folder: 12. The Estate of Chaim Grade and Inna Hecker Grade, RG 1952. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. , accessed June 2, 2020.

2. Education

    During the First World War countless orphans were stranded in Vilna. The German occupiers picked them up and delivered them to orphanages. Chaim, a lively boy who roamed the streets unsupervised, was also picked up. He was sent to the kinder-internat and eventually to the arbeter kinderheym, where Yisroel Marshak was his teacher. When his first volume of poetry appeared in 1936, Grade went to see his former teacher and inscribed his copy of Yo (Yes): “Tsum lerer yisroyl marshak di eyntsike likhtike dermonung in mayne finstere kinderyorn.“ 12 12 “For my teacher Yisroel Marshak, the only ray of light in my dark childhood.” Liba Augenfeld, Interview with Christa Whitney. Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, MA;, Minute 14:30-15:23; accessed May 18, 2020. A report card from the religious school Yavne for the year 1921/1922 shows that he did well in school. 13 13 The Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections. RG3 F2000,, accessed May 30, 2020. Against Shloyme-Mordkhe’s wishes, Vela insisted that Chaim attend a yeshiva. She chose the kind with the most exacting demands on students’ moral conduct, the Musar yeshivot of Novaredok, and thus planted the seed of a perpetual theme in Grade’s literary works: the tension between the need for and destructiveness of severe strictness in Jewish observance. For at least two formative years during his adolescence, between 1924 and 1926, Grade studied in the navaredker yeshives in Bialystok, Bielsk-Podlaski, and Olkenik (Olkieniki, Valkininkai). 14 14 Letter from Chaim Grade to Joseph Opatoshu, July 15, 1936. YIVO Archives, RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu Collection, folder 56. Also published in Hyman B. Bass [Khayem Bez], Oyf di vegn fun der yidisher literatur (Tel Aviv: Y. L. Peretz, 1980), 457. Zaynvl Diamant, „Grade, Khayem.“ Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur. Vol. 2 (New York: Alveltlekher yidisher kultur-kongres, 1958), 336. Grade’s emotional intensity, his melancholy, impatience and irascibility, his readiness to engage in bitter disputes and to fight to the end, were fostered in the Novaredker environment. He felt oppressed and curtailed by its intellectual narrowness and read Yiddish literary works on the sly. He was punished when a copy of Joseph Opatoshu’s novel In poylishe velder (1921) was found in his valise.

    In 1926, a meeting with the Chazon Ish (R. Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz) in Olkenik prompted Grade to leave the yeshiva by the fall of that year and return to Vilna. 15 15 It is unclear when exactly Grade met the Chazon Ish. It is likely that they first met in 1925. But Grade continued studying at the yeshiva until a decisive meeting with the Chazon Ish probably in the summer of 1926 in Olkenik, which Grade describes in his novel Tsemakh atlas. Records of the Vaad Hayeshivot show that Chaim Grade as well as his half-brother Emanuel were enrolled at the yeshiva in Olkenik in the summer of 1926. Whereas Emanuel continued to be enrolled in the fall semester of 1926 and the spring semester of 1927 (5687), Chaim no longer appears in the list of students. This accords with his assertion that he left the yeshiva to return to Vilna to study privately with the Chazon Ish. The Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections, RG25: Vaad Hayeshivot, Series IV Administrative Records, Subseries 2 Questionnaires filled out by Yeshivot; Folder 1144: Olkieniki, entries on page 2, 3 ‚4 , 6, 9, 10. Digital access:!id__rg-25-s4-f1144*col__v , last accessed on October 26, 2021. Yehudah Zirkind is preparing a thorough study of Grade’s relation to the Chazon Ish in a chapter of his master’s thesis at Tel Aviv University under the working title: “Passion, Piety, and Poetry: A Portrait of Chaim Grade as a Young Man” (expected completion, July 2022). The Chazon Ish accepted him as his personal student, allowing him occasionally to stay overnight, not because Grade was an especially gifted student, but because he was a needy youth. The Chazon Ish had no children of his own. But teaching Torah constitutes spiritual parenthood and is a merit, and young Grade was clearly a soul in search of a home. 16 16 Grade records in his notebook that the Chazon Ish wanted to draw him close to Torah. YIVO RG 1952, folder 828. The Chazon Ish regarded the extreme ascetic strain in the musar movement as a form of arrogance. 17 17 Lawrence Kaplan, „The azon Ish: Haredi Critic of Traditional Orthodoxy.” Jack Wertheimer, Hg., The Uses of Tradition (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992), 145-173 (especially 160-163). He opposed the musar movement’s severe approach to ethics and especially Novaredok’s unforgiving view of human nature. In particular, he disagreed with the notion that one must purge oneself of all vestiges of self-interest when performing good deeds, a notion central to the self-abnegation cultivated in the yeshivot of Novaredok. 18 18 The Chazon Ish also opposed Novaredok’s blatant disrespect for the Rabbinic establishment and its critique of Torah scholars, which to the Chazon Ish meant undermining the authority of Torah and its scholars. Regarding the debate between the Chazon Ish and Novardok, see Chazon Ish, Faith and Trust [Emunah UBitachon], translated by Yaakov Goldstein (New York; Judaica Press, 2009), chapter 3, nos. 28-30 and chapter 4, no. 14; and Benjamin Brown, The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer and Leader of the Haredi Revolution (Jerusalem: Magness Press, 2011), 130-170 [in Hebrew]. Chaim Grade, Tsemakh atlas: di yeshive, vol. 1 (New York: CYCO, 1967), 362-4. These ideas found their way into Grade’s fiction. In the years 1925 to 1933, Grade would usually spend at least the month of Elul and the High Holidays at a Novaredker yeshiva, usually at the merkaz, the main yeshiva in Bialystok. His long poem Musernikes (1939) is set there, as is part of his first prose work “Mayn krig mit hersh raseyner” (1951).

    While it may seem as if Grade turned away from the world of faith and observance to embrace secular Yiddish literature in the course of 1932 – but at the very latest on July 1, 1933, when the Chazon Ish left for Eretz Israel, 19 19 Brown, The Hazon Ish, 59. a scene that concludes Grade’s novel Tsemakh atlas (1967/68) - this was decidedly not the case. Just as Grade had never truly belonged to the yeshiva world, neither had he never fully turned away from it. He was incapable of clean breaks and sharp decisions. He was a drifter in search of modes of belonging and ties that did not bind. 20 20 A very similar childhood narrative of growing up in extreme poverty was presented by Sacvan Bercovitch with the attendant features of indecisiveness, feelings of marginality and loose attachments (search for ties that do not bind). Cf. Susanne Klingenstein, Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930-1990 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998), 347-406. It is telling that much of Grade’s fiction, from “Mayn krig mit hersh raseyner” to the stories in Di kloyz un di gas (1974), revolves around two figures, each passionately endorsing views that are the polar opposite of the other’s, each side armed with convincing arguments. 21 21 In some stories, such as “Leybe-Leyzers hoyf” in Di kloyz un di gas, the tension between the two main characters (who argue over lenient versus strict observance) is repeated in subsets of other pairs in the story.

    One of the most astonishing documents is a postcard. 22 22 The Yiddish transcription is faithful to the original letter, i.e. the Yiddish transcription has not been standardized. This post card was first published on June 19, 2011 by “Ish Sefer” on the haredi website Otsar haokhma: David Assaf reproduced it in his essay “״הסופר חיים גראדה כותב לחזון איש on his website Oneg shabbat on August 22, 2011: , both last accessed on October 26, 2021. Some notes related to the content of the letter: Shloyme refers to Shlomo Cohen, grandson of a notable Vilna rabbi of the same name, who was Grade’s friend. Both studied with the Chazon Ish. What Grade means in the letter is that Shlomo’s mindset differs from his own, and while he may succeed in the rabbinic world, he (Grade) does not have the same prospects. Shlomo Cohen would later move to Bnei Brak and edit the five-volume hagiography of the Chazon Ish (Pe’er Hador, Bnei Brak 1966-1973). As a zealous disciple of the Chazon Ish and a fervent Ultra-Orthodox Jew, Cohen was Grade’s ideological opponent. The tension between them is clearly displayed in their correspondence (Folder 1242, The Estate of Chaim Grade and Inna Hecker Grade, RG 1952. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research); The Steypeler refers to The Steipler Gaon, R. Yaacov Yisrael Kanievsky (1889-1985). Grade wrote to the Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak, postmarked April 25, 1934:

    ב"ה. לכבוד אדוני מורי ורבי!

    אַחדשה"ט. כ'שעם מיך ניט מודה צו זײן, אז איך האָב ביז איצט ניט געשריבן, װײל סאיז בפירוש ניטא אױף א קארטל. איצט הױבט זיך אָן בײ אונז די ערגסטע צײט, נאָך פסח און בפרט הײנטיקס יאָר. פון פֿיש איז מיר נאָך פֿאַר אײער קארטל אָנגעקומען צען זלאט[י]. איך האָב אים גארניט געענטפֿערט. אַז איר װעט אים שרײבן דאַנקט אים [.] כװײס ניט באמת צי איך האָב געהאַט רעכט אױף דאַס געשיקטע געלט. די מאמע האָט מיר געגעבן אױף א קאַרטל און מיר געהײסן שרײבן: רבי! עס איז שױן באלד א יאָר װי איר זײט אין א[רץ ישראל]. צי דאַרף איך װאָס װײטער האָפֿן אַלץ מער אז איר נעמט מיר אָפ אָדער מײנע קלײנע האָפֿנונגען װערן נאָך קלענער? כ'שעם זיך, אײך צו מאַטערן מיט שילדערונגען פֿון מײן לעבן, כ'װיל אװעק פֿאָרן פֿון דאנען און ראטעװן מײן גוף און נאָך מער מײן צעשרױפֿטן גײסט. די ליטערארישע װילנע האט מיך אָנערקענט פֿאַר אַ שטאַרקן דיכטער, איך האָב מיך אבער נאָך ניט אָנערקענט פֿאַר א מענטש. בכדי מציל צו זײן דאס װאס איז מיר נאך געבליבן פֿון אײער לערע מוז איך אװעק צו אײך אין בני ברק ־־ צוליב מיר און דער עיקר אױך צוליב מײן מאמע ... פאר מיר עפֿענט זיך דא ניט אַזעלכע אױסזיכטן װי פאר שלמהן. װעמענס שולד? ־ מײנע. כ'דארף זײן אין ארץ ישראל! װאו איר זײט דאָ! כ'האָב געהערט אַ איבעראַשנדע נײעס. דער סטײפעלער איז לעבן אײך. מײן מוטער געריסט אײער פרױ. װאַרטנדיק מיט פײינליכער אָנשטרענגונג אױף אײער ענטפער, פֿאַרבלײב איך אײער שטענדיק איבערגעגעבענער און בענקנדער חײם[.]

    [ב“ה] Esteemed Sir, Teacher and Master!

    Wishing you well. I am not ashamed to admit that I haven’t written until now because there was absolutely no money for a postcard. Now the hardest time begins for us, after Passover and especially this year. Even before I received your card, I received ten złoty from Fish. I have not answered him at all. If you are writing to him, thank him. I truly don’t know if I have a right to the money that was sent. Mother gave me money for a postcard and told me to write: My Teacher! It is now almost a year that you are in E [rets Yisroel]. May I continue to hope that you will take me in, or do my tiny hopes have to shrink still further? I am ashamed to bother you with descriptions of my life, I want to get away from here and save my body and even more urgently my confused mind. Literary Vilna recognized me as a strong poet, but I haven’t recognized myself yet as a human being. In order to save what has remained in me of your teaching, I must come to [be with] you in Bnei Brak -- for my sake, and mainly for my mother’s sake… The way Shloyme equips himself is not open to me. Whose fault is that? Mine. I must be in Erets Yisroel! Where you are! I heard surprising news. The Steypeler lives next to you. My mother sends greetings to your wife. Anxiously awaiting your answer, I remain your always devoted and yearning Chaim.

    Grade did not go to Bnei Brak. He began to move with Vilna’s literary set. Yet the Chazon Ish and Novaredok retained a strong emotional grip on him, and the moral concerns of the observant Jewish world came to constitute the core and fiber of all of Grade’s postwar fictions. On October 5, 1962, the eve of Shabbat Shuva, Grade visited the grave of the Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak. His teacher remained a presence in Grade’s life as the road not taken, but perhaps less intensely so after Grade had completed his novel about the Yeshiva world, Tsemakh atlas, in 1968. 23 23 Klingenstein, “Chaim Grade,” 338, n407; Asaf, „הסופר חיים גראדה כותב לחזון איש“ (note 14).

    In 1934 Grade’s most intense desire was to become a poet. On March 16, five weeks before sending his postcard to the Chazon Ish, he published his first poem in the Vilner Tog. 24 24 Chaim Grade, „Brent in midber.“ Vilner tog (March 16, 1934). Space does not permit a sketch of Grade’s literary development on the margins of Yung Vilne. A full treatment of this topic remains one of the desiderata of Yiddish literary studies. 25 25 Justin Cammy’s dissertation “‘Yung-Vilne’: A Cultural History of a Yiddish Literary Movement in Interwar Poland” (Harvard University, 2003) has not been published and remains inaccessible. Grade published his first works (Yo, 1936; Musernikes 1939), moved out of the small space he had shared with his mother (1935), got married to Frume-Libe Klepfish (1937), won a literary prize (1939), and may very well have gone on to live fruitfully as a good poet in Vilna.

    3. Flight

    On Sunday, June 22, 1941, the Soviet occupiers abandoned Vilna. Grade and his wife left in the wake of the retreating Soviets. They planned to walk to Minsk. In Rukon (Rukainiai), ten miles southeast of Vilna, Frume-Libe realized that she would not make it. She returned to Vilna under the illusion that the Germans would not touch women and children. 26 26 Grade, Der mames shabosim, 289, 291; My Mother’s Sabbath Days. Translated by Channa Kleinerman Goldstein and Inna Hecker Grade (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 241, 243. In the second part of his 1955 memoir Der mames shabosim, Grade describes his flight through the Soviet Union. Although he mentions only one specific date, 14. April [1943], his journey can be verified by the notebooks in which he recorded his new poems along with the year and place of their composition. 27 27 The richest source is folder 65, a seven-page handwritten table of content for a new book, listing 83 poems: Documents Relating to Grade’s Early Period, 1941-1943, Container: Box 1, Folder: 65. The Estate of Chaim Grade and Inna Hecker Grade, RG 1952. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. , accessed June 2, 2020.

    Grade reached the Polish-Soviet border on foot. Since he had applied for a Soviet passport during the Soviet occupation of Vilna, he was able to cross and was told not to go to Minsk, where the arrival of German troops was imminent, but to proceed to Borisov (Barysaw) where he would be processed. Around that time, Soviet guards near Borisov shot four hundred exhausted prisoners they had evacuated from Vilna. Among them was Zalmen Reyzen, who had published Grade’s poems in the Vilner tog. 28 28 Michael C. Astour [Mikhl Astur], “Zalmen Reyzen.” Afn shvel (October 1985): 4.

    In Borisov, Grade boarded a freight train packed with refugees. They traveled east to Orsha and Smolensk, then south to Bryansk, Oryol and Kursk, and east again, via Voronezh, to Saratov on the Volga. In August, Grade worked on a kolkhoz in Kistendey (Saratov oblast). When the harvest was done, he was paid in dried fruit, honey, and bread. He was put on a train to Saratov which was diverted to Penza, because Saratov refused to take more refugees. Eventually, a train left Penza for Syzran and Grade was back at the Volga. He was traveling with Polish Jews. They did not know what was happening in Poland and were frantic with worry. A man whom Grade called Lev Kogan wanted to drown himself. Grade constructed a magic formula: If Kogan does not jump into the river, then Frume-Libe made it back to Vilna. 29 29 Grade, Der mames shabosim, 367; My Mother’s Sabbath Days, 301.

    After a long wait, Grade was put on a freight train headed east to Orenburg, and then south across the steppes of Kazakhstan to Tashkent, where he wrote “Kazakhstaner midber“ in September 1941. In October 1941, he was in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan near the border to Iran. Since Grade had both a Soviet passport and a membership card of the Union of Soviet Writers (Союз писателей СССР), he received a ration card and a residency permit. He joined the Turkmenian Writers Union and stayed for eight months. In May 1942, he was transferred to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, then called Stalinabad. “I lived there a year and a half, also on the strength and fact that I was a writer.” 30 30 “A Conversation with Chaim Grade.” Harold U. Ribalow, The Tie that Binds: Conversations with Jewish Writers (San Diego, CA: A. S. Barnes 1980), 51. Yet his greatest so-called privilege as a member of the intellectual elite was not being drafted into the army. In his memoir, he describes the city’s park as full of amputees, prostitutes, and Jewish refugees. When Grade spied the bookbinder from Mogilev taking a stroll in the park in a black frock-coat and white necktie, he knew it was Shabbat. 31 31 Grade, Der mames shabosim, 375; My Mother’s Sabbath Days, 308.

    Grade lived in Stalinabad from June 1942 to September 1943. It is unlikely that he learned of the destruction of the ghettos in Warsaw, Bialystok, and Vilna until he reached Moscow in late 1943. The Jewish writers vouched for him and his adherence to party-lines. His membership in the Union of Soviet Writers proved useful once more. In April 1944, Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman put together a short Black Book in Yiddish, called Merder fun Felker. A second volume followed in September. 32 32 Ilya Ehrenburg, Merder fun felker: Materyaln vegn di retsikhes fun di daytshishe farkhaper in di tsaytvaylik okupirte sovetishe rayonen (Moskve: Melukhe-farlag ‘der emes’, 1944). Nora Levin, The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917: The Paradox of Survival. Vol. 1 (New York: New York University Press, 1990), 434-438; Yaacov Ro’i, “Black Book” in: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe: , accessed September 17, 2021. It is very likely that Grade, who had access to the inner circle of the Jewish writers, knew these volumes and was thus informed about the extent of the destruction. In his description of his return to Vilna, Grade wrote that he was prepared for ruin and devastation. But as Marcel Proust wrote about Charles Swann‘s contemplation of the worst possibilities, “reality has no connection at all to possibilities.“ 33 33 “La réalité est donc quelque chose qui n’a aucun rapport avec les possibilités.” Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu. Tome 1 (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1954), 363.

    4. Return

      In August 1945 Grade traveled by car from Moscow to Vilna. On the road from Minsk to Vilna he became nervous. Volozhin was destroyed, but Oszmiana appeared untouched. In Rukon he looked for the house where he had parted from Frume-Libe but did not enter it. “Tsu vos? Nokh in moskve hob ikh zikh dervust inmitn der milkhome az frume libtshe iz yo dergangen aheym un zi hot gelebt in vilner geto biz der likvidatsye fun der geto.” 34 34 “What for? I already knew in Moscow in the middle of the war that Frume-Libche made it back home and lived in the Vilna Ghetto until the liquidation of the ghetto.” Chaim Grade, typescript (likely from 1955) describing his return to Vilna: Tsurikker in Vilne, undated, Container: Box 16, Folder: 201. The Estate of Chaim Grade and Inna Hecker Grade, RG 1952. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. , accessed June 2, 2020 (the quote appears on fol. 3r). The date August 1945 for Grade’s trip to Vilna appears in RG 1952, Series II: Chaim Grade in his American Period, 1947-2006, Letter „פ“, Folder 191, fol. 2r (in blue ink). They arrived in Vilna after nightfall and Grade was glad that he could not see anything. In his stirring memoir of Vilna, Der mames shabosim, Grade compressed the experience of his return into four symbolically charged scenes.

      Grade spent the summer and fall of 1945 in Vilna. Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski had been living there since July 1944, retrieving the papers and books they had smuggled into the ghetto as forced laborers for the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg. 35 35 David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers (Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, 2017), 137-163, 171-183. Grade fictionalized his stay in Vilna in Froyen fun geto. The stories he assembled under this title were serialized in the Tog-morgn-zhurnal in 1961/1962. The passages about Kaczerginski in Vilna appeared on June 30, 1961, January 12 and 19, 1962. Kaczerginski’s identity certificate for Grade is in Container: Box 40, Folder: 1080. The Estate of Chaim Grade and Inna Hecker Grade, RG 1952. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. , accessed June 3, 2020. Box 40, Folders 1072-1081 contain identity documents from the years 1945 and 1946. On October 21, Kaczerginski issued Grade a certificate of identity. Grade had already contacted Yiddish writers in New York as well as his half-brother Abraham in Chicago. His book Doyres [Generations] appeared in 1945. It contained his Vilna publications Yo, Yekheskel, and Musernikes, poems from Central Asia, such as “Tadzhikistaner harbst“ and “In vaytn ashkhabad“, and his first literary responses to the murder of the Jews, such as the now canonical poem “Mit dayn guf oyf mayne hent. 36 36 Chaim Grade, Doyres: Lider un poemes (New York: IKUF, 1945). Publication of the book was probably funded by Grade’s half-brothers Abraham, Joseph (Joe) and Jacob (Jack). It featured a pious memorial to their father (but not to Chaim’s murdered mother) on the verso of the title page: “In likhtikn ondenk fun foter shloyme-mordkhe grade, geshtorbn oygust 1927 in vilne“.

      On November 20, 1945, Grade obtained a copy of his birth certificate from the director of the city archive and a certificate in Russian, attesting that he had lived in Vilna in 1938 and was hence a Polish citizen. 37 37 YIVO RG 566 Box 14; see also: YIVO RG 1952, Box 40, Folders 1074 und 1080. With these documents in hand Grade traveled back to Moscow to marry Inna Hecker on December 25, 1945. Inna, born in Dnipropetrovsk on January 25, 1925, had studied at the Pedagogical Institute in Chelyabinsk from 1942 to 1945).38 Grade probably met her in Moscow in the spring of 1945. Upon her marriage to Grade in December 1945, she became a Polish citizen and was thus able to leave the Soviet Union based on the agreement of July 6, 1945 between Poland and the Soviet Union that allowed Polish Jews return to Poland. On February 8, 1946 Chaim and Inna Grade applied to the Polish-Soviet Committee for the Evacuation of Polish Jews for the certificates required for their emigration to Poland. 38 38 The date of Inna’s marriage to Grade in Moscow is mentioned on her “Statement of Facts for Preparation of Petition” accompanying her “Application to File Petition for Naturalization” submitted in September 1954 (the petition was rejected because she failed to pay the required fee). The document is kept in YIVO RG 566, Box 14 (accompanied by the letter of rejection). The same box also contains the two applications (Chaim’s and Inna’s) to the “Polsko-Radziecka Komisja Mieszana do Spraw Ewakuacji” (Joint Polish-Soviet Committee for Evacuation) in Moscow, dated “8 lutego 1946 r”. About the evacuation/repatriation policy see Yosef Litvak, “Polish-Jewish Refugees Repatriated from the Soviet Union to Poland at the End of the Second World War and Afterwards.” Norman Davis and Antony Polonsky, eds., Jews in Eastern Poland and the USSR, 1939-1946 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), 227-239.

      In the spring of 1946, Grade lived in Łódż, which attracted hundreds of survivors of the camps and returnees from Russia, because help was available there. 39 39 Nathan Cohen, “Motives for the Emigration of Yiddish Writers from Poland (1945-1948).” Elvira Grözinger and Magdalena Ruta, eds., Under the Red Banner: Yiddish Culture in the Communist Countries in the Postwar Era (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2008), 157-163. A cultural life in Yiddish evolved. Already by April 1945, the newspaper Dos naye lebn began to be issued. Dozens of Yiddish books appeared, including Rokhl Oyerbakh’s crucial work of journalism Oyf di felder fun treblinke (1947), and, as a small brochure, Grade’s elegy Oyf di khurves (On the Ruins, 1947) about his return to Vilna. Polish resentment festered and led to the killing of Jews. The pogrom in Kielce on July 4, 1946 caused half of Poland’s Jews to flee. 40 40 Shimon Redlich, Life in Transit: Jews in Postwar Lodz, 1945-1950 (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2010), 61-83; Jan Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz (New York: Random House, 2007). Grade, too, tried to get away.

      In October, 1946 he received a letter from his half-brother Abraham, now an accountant in Chicago, containing documents that were to facilitate his emigration to the U.S. via Sweden. But Grade had already applied for emigration to “Italy via Paris”. He received a transit visa through the American and French zones for the period of October 25 to November 25, 1946, and a second transit visa for the period of November 12 to December 12, 1946. On December 28, the Polish Consul General in Paris confirmed that Chaim Grade was a Polish citizen. 41 41 The transit document issued to Chaim Grade by the U.S. Military Attache in Warsaw, and the letter by the Polish Consulate in Paris confirming Grade’s presence are in YIVO RG566, Box 14.

      Between 1945 and 1952, Paris was the center of Yiddish culture in Europe. Kaczerginski and Sutzkever both came to Paris in 1946 and immediately produced works of documentation and remembrance. 42 42 Sutzkever republished his book Vilner geto 1941-1944 (Paris: IKUF farlag, 1947; first edition Moscow: Emes, 1946), while Kaczerginski assembled the anthology Dos gezang fun vilner geto (Paris: Farband fun di vilner in frankraykh, 1947). The literary output of the survivors in Paris and elsewhere was overwhelming. In Buenos Aires, Mark Turkov created a semblance of order in the chaos of memorial literature with his series Dos poylishe yidntum. Between 1946 and 1966 one hundred and seventy-five volumes of memorial works appeared in uniform black binding with red lettering. 43 43 The volumes had colorful dust jackets that were also used as covers for the paperback editions. Jan Schwarz, “The Holocaust and Postwar Yiddish Literature.” Alan Rosen, ed., Literature of the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 102-117; Jan Schwarz, Survivors and Exiles: Yiddish Culture after the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015), 92-117, 253-268. Grade‘s volume Pleytim (refugees) was Nr. 17 and assembled the poems he had written in Central Asia. 44 44 Chaim Grade Pleytim: Lider un poemen geshribn in ratn-farband in 1941-1945. Dos poylishe yidntum Nr. 17 (Buenos Aires: Tsentral-farband fun poylishe yidn in argentine, 1947). That year (1947) he also published Farvoksene vegn (overgrown paths), poems he had published in journals between 1936 and 1939. They were visions of antisemitic violence: “Geveyn fun doyres“ (1936), “Dos blutike oyg“ (The bloody eye, 1937), “Khurbn“ (Destruction, 1938). A year later, in 1948, Opatoshu and Leivick published “Der mames tsavoe” (Mother’s will) in the last issue of their literary anthology Zamlbikher. The work marked Grade’s turn toward a poetics of memorialization: “Kum, mame, vi a kind oyf mayne hent / ikh vel dikh aynshtiln, un du – du vest mikh treystn.” 45 45 Chaim Grade, “Der mames tsavoe.“ Joseph Opatoshu and H. Leivick, eds., Zamlbikher 7 (1948), 114-140; Chaim Grade, Farvoksene vegn (Paris: Yidisher folksfarband in frankfraykh, 1947), [5].

      In April 1948 Grade had found employment as rabbi and teacher in Hénonville, thirty miles north of Paris. In the spring of 1946, when a new wave of survivors arrived in France, Maurice Enright (Moshe Unreich) bought Chateau Hénonville for the Vaad Hatzala, an organization established by Orthodox Jews in 1939, to save Torah scholars and yeshiva students. At Hénonville, the Vaad Hatzalah established a kibbutz to prepare refugees for immigration to Israel and maintained a Lithuanian yeshiva where Grade was hired to teach. He had likely indicated that he had been ordained by R. Karelitz in Vilna. 46 46 A handwritten note (on a bill of the hotel Seneca in Rochester, NY, dated March 20, 1950) in English and French describes Grade‘s employment in Hénonville and states: “Ordained at Wilno in 1937 Rabbi Moishe Karelitz.” YIVO RG566, Box 14. Shmuel Albert, “The Netzach Yisrael Kibbutz in Hénonville, France, for Survivors from Poalei Agudas Yisrael.” Hamodia 25. December 2017: , accessed on June 8, 2020. Since the kibbutz taught practical life skills, it was supported by the ORT, originally a Russian-Jewish organization that promoted artisanal education among Jews. 47 47Общество ремесленного и земледельческого труда (Obshtshestvo remeslennogo i zemledeltsheskogo truda), Society for the Promotion of Skilled Trades.

      It was through the ORT that Grade made his first attempt to get to America. On July 28, 1948, ORT leader Aron Syngalowski wrote from Geneva to the Canadian Embassy in Paris: ORT was inviting Chaim Grade and his wife, residing at 9 Rue Guy Patin, Paris, to travel to Montreal, all expenses paid, to report on ORT’s work in Paris. Grade did not go. That summer, the Congress for Jewish Culture in New York organized a fall conference at Carnegie Hall that featured Grade as one of the keynote speakers. On August 21, 1948, the travel agency Oceania confirmed the flight reservations for Chaim Grade and Inna Hecker Grade for a roundtrip from Paris Orly to New York. The flights had been paid by the Congress for Jewish Culture. On September 12, the Grades flew to New York on tourist visas. 48 48 All documents in YIVO RG 566, Box 14. Grade speaks about his emigration in Ribalow, Conversations, 52. The return tickets were never used.

      Grade had not been happy in France: “Paris is depressing,” he wrote to Opatoshu. “The Jewish way of life here is like the praying of a harried shopkeeper but without shabbes.” 49 49 Chaim Grade, letter to Joseph Opatoshu, January 29, 1947. Quoted in Khayem Bez [Hyman Bass], Oyf di vegn vegn fun der yidisher literatur (Tel Aviv: Y. L. Peretz, 1980), 460. New York was open, heterogeneous, and unapologetically a city of immigrants. In November 1948, the Grades moved into an apartment on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx and a year later into the flat at 100 Van Cortlandt Park. Inna Grade, age 23, found work at the New York Public Library, enrolled at the New School for Social Research in September 1949, and in 1951 at Columbia University to pursue a PhD in comparative literature. She did not finish.

      Ensconced at 100 van Cortlandt Park, Grade turned his thoughts to Jewish Lithuania, which he gradually populated with characters he met on his extensive lecture tours through America and Canada. Inna’s influence on Grade’s writing has never been adequately assessed. 50 50 We get a glimpse of the couple’s complex relationship in the letters Grade wrote to his closest friend Abraham Bornstein. A small selection of these letters was edited and translated by Rose Waldman in “My Dear Abe.” Pakntreger (Summer 2019/5779), , last accessed September 17, 2021. She kept her husband’s papers closed off and concealed. He was to be hers alone. Her emotional intensity holds one of the keys to Grade’s work. Inna Grade deserves a portrait of her own. 51 51 The authors want to thank Sandra (Sorele) Chiritescu and Miranda Cooper for their precise editing and empathic patience as this essay grew in depth and detail.

      Klingenstein, Susanne, and Yehudah DovBer Zirkind. “Chaim Grade: Facts of a Life.” In geveb, December 2021:
      Klingenstein, Susanne, and Yehudah DovBer Zirkind. “Chaim Grade: Facts of a Life.” In geveb (December 2021): Accessed Feb 26, 2024.


      Susanne Klingenstein

      Susanne Klingenstein is a Research Fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University. The first volume of her cultural history of Yiddish literature will be published in Berlin in 2022.

      Yehudah DovBer Zirkind

      Yehudah DovBer Zirkind is a research fellow at the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem and a graduate student of Yiddish literature at Tel Aviv University.