CHAIM GRADE (June 4, 1910-June 26, 1982)
He was born in Vilna, the son of a Vilna follower of the Jewish Enlightenment and a Hebrew teacher, R. Shloyme Mortkhe Grade, and Vella, from the Blumenthal family. In his early childhood, during WWI, he was raised initially in the Vilna Children’s Dormitory and later in the Workers’ Children’s Home. He studied in the yeshivas of Vilna, Bielsk, Olkeniki, and Bialystok with followers of the Noveredok (Novaradok) Musar movement, and seven years with the Ḥazon Ish. He studied secular subjects in the Vilna secular schools, and largely on his own. With great diligence he acquainted himself with Hebrew, Yiddish, and world literature. At age twenty-two, he left the yeshiva and began writing poetry. He published his first poems in 1932 in Vilner tog (Vilna day), edited by Zalmen Reyzen. His poems were soon well received in the world of writers. One can sense in them a resolute step of a distinctive talent. He was later embraced by the Yung-vilne (Young Vilna) group, and subsequently became one of its most distinguished representatives. Grade’s poetic talent grew quickly and forcefully. He acquired a reputation for his robust and momentous poems deeply rooted in Jewishness, which he published in the publications of Young Vilna: Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves) in Warsaw; Tsukunft (Future), In zikh (Introspective), and Zamlbikher (Anthologies), published and edited by H. Leivick and Yoysef Opatoshu—in New York.
“The group ‘Young Vilna’ was unlike all of the other literary groupings until that time in Yiddish literature,” wrote Meylekh Ravitsh. “It was the natural offspring of Yiddishism generally and Vilna Yiddishism specifically. It was secular but deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and foundational Jewish knowledge. In this sense, Chaim Grade was the most important member of this group. His language—rich and flexible—was completely absorbed in learning and immersed in all sources of classical Jewish literature. Even his earliest poems were stunning for their maturity in form and content. His cadence, fully classical, were rhymed—just as naturally integrated in the logic of the composition as they were original and new. His first book, Yo (Yes), with its optimistic title and thoroughly pessimistic content demonstrated that we are contending with a coming poet of considerable capacity. Already his first poems were an indication of Grade’s balladic-narrative style of writing poetry, the initial signs of an emerging prose writer. There were also indications in his first poems of emerging, frequently social as well as universal motifs.” “Grade’s poetry,” noted B. Rivkin, “if it had not yet bumped up against it, will hit the edges of the eternally Jewish, visionary creativity, which shape the faces of the people.” “Chaim Grade’s poetry is replete with ecstatic hymns to nature,” wrote Shmuel Niger. “He anthropomorphizes nature…. He loves to paint it when it is in a state of agitation, unchained.”
During WWII, over the years 1941-1946, Grade lived as a refugee in Russia. After the war ended, he returned to Poland. He spent roughly a half year there, and then moved to France. He played an extraordinarily important role in reorganizing Jewish cultural life in Paris, especially among the war refugees who had come to Paris at that time with the goal of finding for themselves some sort of place of rest. He served as chair of the Paris Jewish Literary Association, and he worthily represented the experienced Yiddish writers both vis-à-vis the French Jewish community and before the agents of the organized Jewish cultural and literary life in the lands of the West.
In 1948 Grade traveled to New York as a delegate to the World Jewish Culture Congress. Afterward he traveled through all the major Jewish communities in North America and gained fame as a speaker and lecturer. He wrote a great deal and published longer poetic works in Tsukunft (Future) and in the holiday anthologies brought out by Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter). In America Grade also began to use the medium of the artistic novella, primarily as background for his memoirs. He published prose works in Morgn-zhurnal (Morning journal) in New York, and later on a weekly basis in the joint Tog-morgn-zhurnal (Day-Morning journal). His essay “Mayn krig mit hersh raseyner” (My quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner ) was translated into English and published in the English-language Jewish monthly magazine Commentary (New York, October 1954); and it was included in the English anthology A Treasury of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1955). Some of his poetry appeared as well in Shimshon Meltsar’s Hebrew-language collection Al naharot (By the rivers). Grade’s poems were translated into several languages, among them Hebrew, Turkmen, and Tadjik (the latter two in Soviet Russia).
Among his books: Yo (Yes), poetry (Vilna, 1936), 82 pp., second edition (1937); Musernikes (Vilna, 1939), 74 pp.; Has (Hatred), poetry (Moscow: Emes, 1943), 32 pp.; Doyres (Generations), poems (New York, 1945), 220 pp.; Oyf di khurves, poeme (On the ruins, a poem) (Lodz, 1947), 29 pp.; Farvaksene vegn (Overgrown pathways), poetry (Paris, 1947), 148 pp.; Pleytim, lider un poemes geshribn in ratn-farband in 1941-1945 (Refugees, poetry written in the Soviet Union, 1941-1945) (Buenos Aires, 1947), 188 pp.; Der mames tsavoe (My mother’s will), poems (New York, 1949), 189 pp.; Shayn fun farloshene shtern (The glow of extinguished stars), poetry (Buenos Aires, 1950), 192 pp.; and Der mames shabosim (My mother’s Sabbath days), his first work of prose, stories (Chicago, 1955; second printing, New York: CYCO, 1959), 473 pp. He also selected and compiled the volume Geklibene verk (Collected writings) of Yona Rozenfeld (New York: Tsiko, 1955), 329 pp.; Der shulhoyf (The synagogue courtyard), appeared in print (New York, 1958), 378 pp.; Di agune, roman (The deserted wife, a novel) (Los Angeles: Yidish-natsyonaler arbeter farband, 1961), 326 pp., Hebrew edition, Haaguna (Tel Aviv: Am oved, 1962), 238 pp., Russian edition, Aguna, bezmuzhyaya zhena, roman (Jerusalem, 1983), 332 pp.; Der mentsh fun fayer, lider un poemes (The man of fire, poetry) (New York: CYCO, 1962), 159 pp.; Yerusholaim shel mayle un yerusholaim shel mate (Jerusalem on high and low) (Jerusalem: Jewish National Fund, 1964), 24 pp.; Tsemekh atlas, di yeshive (Tsemakh Atlas: The yeshiva) (Los Angeles, 1967; New York, 1968), 2 vols., Hebrew translation by E. D. Shapir, Tsemaḥ atlas (Tel Aviv, 1968); Af mayn veg tsu dir, lider un poemes; Bedarki elayikh, shirim ufoemot (On my way to you, poetry), Hebrew translation by Yosef Aḥai (Tel Aviv: Peretz Publ., 1969), 179 pp.; Musernikes, poeme; Mayn krig mit hersh raseyner (Musar followers, poem; My quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner) (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1969), 124 pp.; Milḥemet hayetser (“The Moralists”), Hebrew translation by E. D. Shapir (Tel Aviv, 1970), continuation of Tsemekh atlas; Di kloyz un di gas, dertseylungen (The synagogue and the street, stories) (New York: Shulsinger, 1974), 364 pp.; Der shtumer minyen (The quiet minyan) (New York: Shulzinger, 1976), 250 pp. His book Musernikes won an award in 1939. For his work Der mames tsavoe, he received the Bimko Prize from the World Jewish Culture Congress in 1950, and for Der mames shabosim he received the Louis Lamed Prize in 1956. In 1967 he received an award from the American Academy for Jewish Research; 1969, the Remembrance Award from the Association of Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp Survivors; 1970, the Leivick Prize from the Cultural Congress; 1970, the Manger Prize. He received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary and from Union College in New York. The Yiddish Department at the Hebrew University introduced a Grade seminar in 1969 and published a collection of the poet’s work for the graduating students. In the last two decades of his life, Grade published in Goldene keyt (Golden chain) in Tel Aviv poems, some of them previously published and frequently a but changed—the numbers below are those of the journal: “Der shlangenveg” (The snakes’ way), “Tsvey froyen” (Two women), “In tol” (In the valley), “Vu shabes hert men bloyz di beymer sharkhn” (Where one hears the Sabbath only in the rustling of the trees), “Az vu ikh gey tsu dir” (Going to you), “Bistu mit eyn trot vayter” (Are you one step further), and “Antplekte in zunshayn” (Exposed to subshine)—all in no. 54; “Di vant” (The wall) in no. 62; “Der vald in mayne fentster harget feygl” (The forest in my windows kills the bird) in no. 75; “Fun dayne hor in kuperroyt” (From your hair in copper-red) and “Der shtiler bleterfal” (The quiet fall leaves) in no. 78; “Tunkl-royte fayerlekh vos rufn fun der vaytn” (Dark red fire that beckon from afar) in no. 84; “Simfonye fun klingevdike nervn” (Symphony of sonorous nerves) in no. 87; “Talmide-khakhomim in der lite” (Scholars in Lithuania) in no. 90; “Elegyes” (Elegies) in no. 91; “Talmide-khakhomim in lite,” continuation, in no. 94; “Unter di gevelbte toyern” (Under the arched gateway) in no. 97; “Egiptologye” (Egyptology) in no. 99; “Sholem aleykhem” (How do you do) in no. 100; “Men vet nit far mayn orn efenen dem shulhoyf toyer” (No one will open the gate to the synagogue courtyard before my coffin) in no. 102; “Unter di gevelbte toyern,” continuation, in no. 104; “Der shvartser malekh” (The black angel) in no. 105; “Unter di gevelbte toyern,” continuation, in no. 106; “Dray shtet” (Three cities) in no. 108. In 1980 he began to publish in Forverts (Forward) in New York a novel about the Vilna ghetto, entitled Fun unter der erd (From under the ground). With his sudden death, the novel was interrupted and remained unfinished and in manuscript. He was living in New York at the time of his death.
Sources: B. Rivkin, in Tsukunft (New York) June 1937); N. Mayzil, Doyres un tkufes in der yidisher literature (Generations and eras in Yiddish literature) (New York, 1942); Mayzil, Forgeyer un mittsayler (Forerunner and contemporary) (New York, 1946); Y. Yonasovitsh, in Bafrayung (Munich) (January 28, 1949); G. Pomerants, in Undzer lebn (Bialystok) (September 23, 1938); M. Dayen, in Undzer lebn (July 8, 1938); Z. Diamant, in Undzer vort (Paris) (April 22, 1948); D. Leybl, in Di goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 12 (1952); Y. Bronshteyn, Yo un nisht neyn (Yes and not no) (Los Angeles, 1953); D. Tsharni (Charney), A litvak in poyln (A Lithuanian in Poland) (New York, 1955); A. Vogler, in Di goldene keyt 23 (1955); Sh. Meltsar, Al naharot (Jerusalem, 1956); Yankev Glatshteyn, In tokh genumen (In essence) (New York, 1956), pp. 348-54; B. Y. Byalostotski, Kholem un vor (Dream and reality) (New York, 1956); Shmuel Niger, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (February 6 and July 3, 1955); Dr. A. Mukdoni, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (April 8, 1956); Der Lebediker, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (May 20, 1956); A. Oyerbakh, in Tsukunft (December 1956); Dr. Sh. Bikl, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (December 23 and 30, 1956); M. Osherovitsh, in Forverts (New York) (May 27, 1956); Dr. Sh. Margoshes, in Tog-morgn-zhurnal (December 15 and 29, 1956), English column; Sh. Slutski, Avrom reyzen biblyografye (Avrom Reyzen’s bibliography) (New York, 1956), nos. 4871, 5280-5285; Y. Ivri, in Hadoar (New York) (February 8, 1957); Y. Rapoport, Oysgerisene bleter (Torn up pages) (Melbourne, 1957); Khayim Leyb Fuks, in Undzer tsayt (New York) (1957); A. Grinberg, in Di goldene keyt 27 (1957).
English translations of his works would include: The Well, trans. Ruth Wisse (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1967), 276 pp.; The Seven Little Lanes, trans. Curt Leviant (New York, 1972), 111 pp.; The Agunah, trans. Curt Leviant (Indianapolis: Twayne Books, 1974), 265 pp.; The Yeshiva, trans. Curt Leviant (Indianapolis: Twayne Books, 1976), 2 vols.; Rabbis and Wives, trans. Harold Rabinovitz and Inna Hecker Grade (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1982), 307 pp.
[Additional information from: Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), cols. 169-70.]