2023.03.19 10:00

‘Even the fireplace was full of books’. Digitised archive to help rediscover Nobel-nominated Litvak writer

Mindaugas Klusas, 2023.03.19 10:00

In February, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York finished digitising the archive of Chaim Grade, one of the most renowned Litvak writers of the 20th century, and his wife Inna Hecker Grade. The entire archive is now publicly available online.

Grade made his debut as a poet in interwar Vilnius. After the Second World War in the US, he turned to prose, writing short stories, novels, and memoirs.

“While living in New York, he became known as one of the main chroniclers of Jewish Vilnius. His prose reconstructs a world destroyed by the Holocaust,” said Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, a literary scholar, researcher, and translator of Litvak literature.

“He is a true Vilnius resident – he was born here, and here is where he started his literary career. He was incredibly close to specific places in the city,” he added.

Kvietkauskas notes that Vokiečių Street or the courtyard of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius are the settings for his main prose works.

However, the writer’s widow fiercely guarded her husband’s literary legacy, archive, and copyrights after his death in 1982.

“On the one hand, she was very concerned about the writer’s recognition and preserved his work, but on the other hand, agreeing on his copyright was quite complicated,” said Kvietkauskas, adding that the scholars have not been to fully appreciate Grade’s work for a long time.

The widow died in 2010 without leaving a will or direct heirs. The couple’s apartment passed to the Bronx public administrator.

In 2013, Grade’s personal documents – a library of 20,000 volumes, literary manuscripts, and publishing rights – went to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the National Library of Israel.

It took nearly a decade to organise Grade’s papers – manuscripts, photographs, correspondence, lecture notes, speeches, and essays. The archive consists of 105,000 pages of documentary material.

According to Jonathan Brent, head of the YIVO Institute, the recovery of Grade’s archive was perhaps the most important literary event in the post-war history of the institution.

The digitised archive makes the entirety of the writer’s work accessible to literary scholars and translators around the world. The archive also contains the manuscript of his unpublished last novel.

Grade’s widow had acquired a negative reputation in the US for being too involved in the publishing of her husband’s works. She was often accused of keeping some of it out of the public eye, Brent said.

But, according to the head of the YIVO Institute, she impeccably protected her husband’s legacy. She even preserved Grade’s typewriter with the last page he wrote.

“Thanks to her, we now know the last words written by Grade,” Brent said, even though the writer died in 1982 and YIVO staff first saw the typewriter in 2013.

Books everywhere

Brent did not know the family of Grade, having first entered their apartment in the Bronx shortly after the widow’s death.

“There were books everywhere. You open a drawer in the kitchen, where you expect to see knives and forks, and there are books, manuscripts. You open the cabinet in the bathroom and there are even more books,” he said. “I don’t understand how she lived there. Even the fireplace was full of books.”

“One could suspect that she was out of her mind. But when you read the letters between the two of them, you realise that she was a wonderful, intelligent woman,” Brent added.

According to him, the relationship between Grade and his wife “balanced between love and hate”.

“On the one hand, she deserved the greatest admiration for what she had done for her husband, but on the other hand, she was the devil – she kept people away from his work, arbitrarily changed the titles of his books, and so on,” Bren explained.

Need for biography

Inna was Grade’s second wife. The writer was born in 1910 in Vilnius. During the Nazi occupation in 1941, he managed to escape to the Soviet Union with the Red Army. His mother and first wife remained in Vilnius because they thought that the Germans only targeted Jewish men.

It was a fatal miscalculation. During the Second World War, around 195,000 Jews, out of 208,000 who lived in Lithuania before the war, were killed. Grade found neither his mother nor his wife alive. The loss of the close women haunted the writer for the rest of his life.

Inna was born in Ukraine in 1925. She met Grade in Moscow during the war, and they got married in 1945. They emigrated to the US in 1948. There, Inna studied literature, received a master’s degree from Columbia University, and often translated her husband’s works.

As the American journalist Andrew Silow-Carroll writes, Grade earned his reputation as a talented poet, playwright, and novelist before the war. The English translations of his novels Aguna and Yeshiva earned him recognition in the US.

Grade’s biography has not been written so far. However, his digitised archive now makes it possible, according to the head of the YIVO Institute, who has already spoken to someone who would be willing to finance this work.

“A biography is simply essential. It should cover not only the years spent in the US but the whole of his life from the time he was born,” Brent said.

The writer did not finish his last novel called The Old House. But it has already been translated into English and is about to be published by Schocken Books in New York. According to Brent, his greatest ambition is to publish a collection of Grade’s works.

“If any Lithuanian publishing house approached us wanting to translate and publish Grade’s work, we would immediately sign a contract with them,” he said.

Incentive to translate

Grade was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. But according to the literary scholar and translator Kvietkauskas, there are only a few of the author’s short stories translated into Lithuanian. The digitisation of the archive, however, provides a good incentive to translate other works.

“I will definitely do it. This is one of the authors who must be translated into Lithuanian,” Kvietkauskas said.

He recalls how the poet Czeslaw Milosz referred to Grade as the Balzac of Vilnius.

“He is a realistic writer who accurately describes everyday life in Vilnius and has a very good grasp of the psychology of the characters,” Kvietkauskas said.

According to him, Grade is relatively well known in the US, but the digitalisation of his archive “will probably help to rediscover the author internationally”.

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