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Grade, Chaim

(1910–1982), Yiddish poet and novelist. Chaim Grade ranks among the most important Yiddish writers of the post-Holocaust period. His unsentimental depictions of rabbinic high culture and life on the Jewish streets of Vilna both describe memorable characters drawn from different strata of society, and dramatize the contest of ideas and moral impulses that defined his community in the interwar period. Though today Grade is best remembered for the richness of his prose, he is also the author of nine volumes of poetry.

Grade was born in Vilna, where his father, an outspoken maskil (enlightener) and Hebraist who clashed with the rabbinic authorities, died when Chaim was a young boy. The writer’s mother, Vella, who is the heroine of many of his poems and stories, sold apples in the city’s alleys to eke out a living; she and Grade lived in poverty in a blacksmith’s cellar. Beginning at the age of 13, Grade was shuffled between various outposts of the Novaredok Musar yeshiva, receiving a particularly extreme form of religious education that strove to educate the moral personality through self-abnegation and intense self-analysis. Though Grade excelled as a student, he was denounced for secretly reading secular literature and for trying his hand at poetry. He was also deeply influenced by his experience as a student of Avraham Yesha‘yahu Karelits, better known as Ḥazon Ish, the outstanding Talmudic scholar who was beloved in Vilna due to his scholarship, modesty, and compassion. Much of Grade’s later writing negotiates his conflicted allegiances to the models of his maskilic father and orthodox teachers.

At age 22, Grade abandoned his studies to embark on a career as a secular poet. This sudden shift away from the extreme moral education of the Musar movement provoked constant introspection. He wrote in one lyric, “I see in my weakness the pain of my generation and its shame.” Grade soon found companionship and inspiration within the ranks of Yung-Vilne (Young Vilna), a Yiddish literary group that sought to synthesize secular Jewish culture, progressive politics, and influences from world literature. His breakthrough came with the publication of Yo (Yes; 1936), a volume that included intimate lyrics about his family (his mother is held up as a model of pious devotion), leftist political lyrics, metapoetic works that explore his poetic calling, and the cycle Ezekiel that attracted attention for its apocalyptic prophetic voice. The volume’s title poem was an act of defiance designed to proclaim the poet’s creative independence from clerical coercion by his adoption of an entirely new affirmative vocabulary: “Yes! That is the answer of my youth when it needs to escape from its own skin. . . .”

The epic narrative poem Musernikes (Musarists; 1939) explored the education of students in the Novaredok yeshiva through the semiautobiographical figure of Khayim Vilner. Its melancholy, sometimes terrifying, portrait of the struggle for moral perfection was composed in the language of the study house, a rich pastiche of Yiddish and Hebrew-Aramaic. The students’ confrontations with their teachers and the outside world, and the intensity of their wrestling with their individual lusts and spiritual self-doubt, provide one of the finest windows into this corner of Jewish spiritual life in all of Yiddish literature. The Yidisher Kultur Farband (Yiddish Culture Association; YKUF) in New York acknowledged the volume with a prestigious award, immediately propelling Grade into the leading ranks of young Yiddish writers.

The Soviet occupation of Vilna was a particularly precarious time for Grade and his young wife, Frume-Libe, who was the daughter of Zionists. Local Jewish communists were eager to denounce the couple to punish Grade for his rejection of the radical cause in his lyrics and personal politics. However, when the Nazis marched on Vilna in June 1941, Grade fled to the Soviet interior, believing that the Germans would not harm women. Both his wife and mother were killed. In 1945, he published Doyres (Generations), an anthology that included the poems previously published in Yo and Musernikes, and also more recent poems of rage and raw memorialization of lost family and friends. Grade remained in Soviet Central Asia until 1946, then lived briefly in Poland and Paris, where he helped revive Yiddish cultural life. In 1947, he published Farvoksene vegn (Overgrown Paths), whose title underscores the poet’s desire to recover those people and places that the forces of history had already begun to cover over. That same year he published a volume of poems composed in the Soviet Union, Pleytim (Refugees), that included the section “Mit dayn guf oyf mayne hent” (With Your Body in My Hands), dedicated to his murdered wife. Through the expression of personal loss, he gave voice to national tragedy and collective mourning, emerging as one of the defining Yiddish voices of a postwar canon of writing that would later come to be known as Holocaust literature.

Grade married his second wife, Inna Hecker, and immigrated to the United States in 1948. His major collections of postwar poems about Vilna and Polish Jewry include Der mames tsavoe (My Mother’s Will; 1949) and Shayn fun farloshene shtern (The Glow of Extinguished Stars; 1950), the latter of which offered lyrics about former shtetls in Poland, Ezekiel in Auschwitz, the pogrom in Kielce in 1946, and a metaphysical exploration of memory in “Der gilgl fun ruinen” (The Gilgul of the Ruins). Der mentsh fun fayer (The Man of Fire; 1962) includes a moving elegy for the murdered Soviet Yiddish writers, lyrics about the American landscape, and the haunting voice of the dead who impress upon him the obligation to keep their memory alive. The volume Af mayn veg tsu dir (On My Way to You; 1969) offers redemptive impressions of the Israeli landscape.

Grade’s turn to prose after his arrival in America carved out the creative space he needed to portray the lost world of his youth and young adulthood in more expansive detail. His novels and stories capture the moral pitch and material condition of Lithuanian Jewry, dramatize ideas, probe spiritual struggles, and explore simple acts of piety and charity among ordinary Jews.

Grade took up the theme of his break with Musar twice after the war as a way to continue his exploration of the tension between religious faith and skepticism. In the philosophical essay “Mayn krig mit Hersh Raseyner” (1951; translated as “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner”), an accidental meeting between two survivors provides the setting for one of the most pitched debates about the nature of identity in all of Jewish fiction. The Holocaust has only reinforced the humanism of the secular Yiddish writer, Khayim Vilner, and the strict religious observance of his former Musar teacher, Hersh Rasseyner. Hersh contends that in light of the destruction of European Jewry the question should not be how people of faith can continue to believe in God but rather how secularists can continue to believe in human beings. His attacks are countered by Khayim’s criticism of the Musar movement’s demand that its adherents withdraw from the world, and its contention that independent of the Torah all human beings will eventually be led down a path of degeneracy. The monumental, two-volume novel Tsemakh Atlas (1967–1968; translated as The Yeshiva) is Grade’s richest work about the Musar world and its attempt to shape the ethical personality. Through the memorable character of Tsemakh Atlas, a tortured teacher of Musar who is trapped between its self-abnegating demands, the enticements of the secular world, and his own elemental desires, readers enter a universe of high religious ideals, intellectual and moral debate, and intense spiritual struggle.

The memoir Der mames shabosim (1955; translated as My Mother’s Sabbath Days) uses personal experience as the basis for collective history and memorialization. Its three sections include vivid details about the material and political life of Vilna Jewry in the late 1930s as filtered through the life of his mother, the story of Grade’s own experiences as a war refugee in the Soviet Union, and a haunting description of his return to a landscape of destruction after the war. Though Grade’s other prose works also explore the traditional world of Lithuanian Jewry, they are more focused on capturing the day-to-day experience of ordinary Jews. The three novellas of Der shulhoyf (The Synagogue Courtyard; 1958) contrast the dire material condition of Vilna’s working poor against the beauty of their simple piety. Di agune (1961; translated as The Agunah) and the stories of Di kloyz un di gas (The Study House and the Street; 1974; translated as Rabbis and Wives, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) and Der shtumer minyen (The Mute Prayer Quorum; 1976) explore the coexistence of the sacred and the profane in everyday prewar Jewish life. Through depictions of religious scholars caught up in their own vanities and ambitions, folk superstition, earthy, practical women, eager merchants, and fiery revolutionaries, Grade emerged as the most important prose elegist of Vilna Jewry, one who reveled in mining its social complexities. At the time of his sudden death in 1982 he was at work on an unfinished novel about his hometown on the precipice of its destruction.

Suggested Reading

Edward Alexander, “A Dialogue of the Mind with Itself: Chaim Grade’s Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” Judaism 21 (1972): 392–404; Hyman Bass (Chaim Bez), Oyf di vegn fun der yidisher literatur (Tel Aviv, 1980); Milton Konvitz, “Chaim Grade’s Quarrel,” Midstream 41.8 (1995): 19–23; Yudl Mark, “Khayim Grades Tsemakh Atlas,Di goldene keyt 60 (1967): 248–255; Nakhmen Mayzel, “Khayim Grade,” in Forgeyer un mittsaytler, pp. 408–423 (New York, 1946); Moshe Moskowitz, “Chaim Grade and the Jewish Ego,” Judaism 25 (1976): 331–340; Moshe Moskowitz, “Contra Musar,” Judaism 27.1 (1978): 115–120; Abraham Novershtern, “Yung-Vilne: The Political Dimension of Literature,” in The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman, Jehuda Reinharz, and Chone Shmeruk, pp. 383–398 (Hanover, N.H., 1989); Elias Schulman, Yung Vilne, 1929–1939 (New York, 1946); Elias Schulman, “Khayim Grade” and “Khayim Grades poeme ‘Talmidey khakhomim in der lite,’” in Portretn un etyudn, pp. 291–307 (New York, 1979); Susan Slotnick, “Chaim Grade’s Central Concern,” The Jewish Book Annual 37 (1979–1980): 106–115; Joseph Sungolowsky, “Chaim Grade’s ‘The Yeshiva,’ or the Art of the Novelist,” Yiddish 4.3 (1981): 84–89; Abraham Sutzkever, ed., Di goldene keyt 38 (1960) and 102 (1980), various articles in honor of Grade’s 50th and 70th birthdays, respectively; Yechiel Szeintuch, “Chaim Grade as Poet of the Holocaust,” The Jewish Book Annual 48 (1990): 148–155; Ruth R. Wisse, “In Praise of Chaim Grade,” Commentary 63.4 (April 1977): 70–73.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 108, Manuscripts, Collection, ; RG 1142, Joseph and Chana Mlotek, Papers, 1950-1990; RG 1186, Sara and Jacob Dubov, Papers, 1910-1950s; RG 1193, Moshe Dluznowsky, Papers, 1930s-1970s; RG 1286, Isidore S. (Yitshak) Polishuk, Papers, 1942-1964; RG 279, Moshe Starkman, Papers, 1942-1973; RG 315, H. (Halper) Leivick, Papers, ca. 1914-1959; RG 353, Jacob Glatstein, Papers, 1920s-1960s; RG 359, Joseph A. Rosen, Papers, ca. 1909-1955; RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s; RG 408, Arthur Schechter, Papers, 1940-1968; RG 421, Daniel Charney, Papers, 1920s-1959; RG 423, Berl Lapin, Papers, 1909-1954; RG 439, Chaim Gutman, Papers, 1913-1960; RG 451, Ephim H. Jeshurin, Papers, ca. 1900-1960s; RG 459, Lippa Lehrer, Papers, 1920s-1960s; RG 476, Boruch Rivkin, Papers, 1930s-1960s; RG 526, Louis Lamed Foundation for the Advancement of Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, Records, 1940-1960; RG 536, Noah Siegalovsky, Papers, 1950s-1975; RG 540, Yudel Mark, Papers, 1930s-1975; RG 556, Aaron Glanz-Leieles, Papers, 1914-1966; RG 566, Chaim Grade, Papers, 1952-1968; RG 576, Yitzhak Zemel, Papers, 1945-1950; RG 584, Max Weinreich, Papers, 1930s-1968; RG 601, Leon Feinberg, Papers, 1920s-1968; RG 609, Ephraim Auerbach, Papers, 1924-1969; RG 610, Leib Olitzky, Papers, 1940s-1960s; RG 621, William and Lisa Shore, Papers, 1933-1979; RG 650, Aleph Katz, Papers, 1920s-1969; RG 703, Kadia Molodowsky, Papers, 1950s-1960s.