In the closing days of 2002, the Forverts dedicated its page on Jewish poetry to Chaim Grade on the occasion of his 20th yahrzeit. Born in Vilna in 1910, he won recognition by admission to a select literary group that called itself Yung Vilna. In 1948, he came to New York. Although, Grade (pronounced grah-de) dealt with many themes, his great preoccupation was poetry that revolved around the Holocaust as well as the oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union.
In one poem, dealing with Stalin’s execution of prominent Jewish poets, Grade tackles a difficult theme. The victims of Stalin’s antisemitic madness were not outspoken opponents of the regime. They were liquidated despite the fact that they had been accommodating themselves to the exigencies of the moment. Grade seeks in this poem to understand just what kind of men these martyred poets really were. The transliteration is by Goldie A. Gold, and the English version is by Gus Tyler.
Ikh veyn oyf aykh mit ale oysyes fun dem alef-beyz,
Vos ir hot im farnutst tsu zingen hoferdike lider.
Ikh veys fun ayer ayngeredter hofnung —un veys
Fun ayere tseflikte hertser, vi an alte sider.
Ikh hob bay aykh in hoys genekhtikt oyf mayn navenad
Un fun mayn shlof in ayer hoyz hob ikh gehert dos shorkhn
Fun oyfgelebte shotns in a tsayt fun gzeyre-shmad
Gedenk ikh es, vi ayer khesed fun hakhnoses-orkhim.
Vi ikh gedenk dem Rus vos hot derlangt mir broyt baym shvel,
Vi ikh gedenk zayn heymland vos fargeyt in zayne blutn
Mit breytkeyt fun dem step, mit engshaft fun a tfise-tsel,
Mit lider oyf der Volga un geboygnkeyt far knutn.
Deriber hob ikh shtendik nokhgezukht oyf aykh a skhus,
Nit makhmes ayer toyt hob ikh oyf aykh gefunen skhusim
Bay ayer lebn nokh in land fun rakhvesdikn Rus
Hob ikh gevust, as in der tif fun harts zayt ir anusim.
* * *
I weep for you with every letter of the alphabet
The letters that you used to sing your courtly song.
I know about your self-deceiving dreams — you bet,
That do like pages in a crumbling book belong.
In my many wanderings, I did spend some nights with you.
And while I slept there in your home I heard a haunting sound
Of those once forced to change their faith and now must change anew.
So, thanks unto your hospitality that is what I found.
I think about the Russ who handed me a piece of bread
I think about his native home that penetrates his blood
Expansive as the steppes and narrow as a prison bed
Singing on the Volga, lying under whips in mud.
That’s why for you a moral rationale I sought
Your sad, sad death is not enough to make us honor you.
You paid the price, a life of ease and wealth you bought
You were Marranos: goy outside, inside a Jew.