During my extensive interviews with my father about our family, he would occasionally add the phrase “Mayne reyd zoln nisht tsu shver zany” — “May my words not be too heavy” — a traditional expression used when you say something critical about someone who has died. But there arose some moments during our talks when his criticism was so sharp that we had to laugh when he invoked that expression, since it was clear that one simply could not smooth over or cover up what was just said by invoking it.
This interaction crossed my mind when I heard that Inna Hecker Grade, widow of acclaimed Yiddish writer Chaim Grade, had died on May 2 at the age of 85.
It is hard to describe without bitterness a personality who caused such troubles in the Yiddish cultural world, so much heartache for all. She threatened everyone with her lawyers, and cursed everybody with great vulgarity. Her worst sin, however, was the refusal to allow the printing of her husband’s works in Yiddish after his death in 1982. Chaim Bass, director of the Congress for Jewish Culture at that time, told me that the galleys were all ready for two volumes of Chaim Grade’s collected poetry, but because of Grade’s widow, he could not proceed with the publication. Then I had heard that after the organization Nusach Vilne gave $10,000 to complete the works, the volumes were indeed published, but nobody saw them. The boxes of books disappeared; they were either given away or destroyed.
From a folkloric perspective, I have to admit that the massive amount of gossip, “legends” and anecdotes that swirled around her caustic character will be missed. With time, no doubt, these oral texts will become fixed with their own variants, just as occurs to folksongs, folktales, and jokes.
The whole world found out about Inna Grade’s unique character in a New York Times article published June 17, 2004, about the Yiddish world’s view of Isaac Bashevis Singer, in which she is quoted as saying: “I despise him especially because he is dragging the Jewish literature, Judaism, American literature, American culture back to the land of Moab… I profoundly despise all those who eat the bread into which the blasphemous buffoon has urinated.”
Talking to her Bronx neighbors, one could easily gather enough material for a book. Grade was called the “black witch,” because after her husband‘s funeral she hardly left the apartment, and if she did, then only at night, dressed in black. It is said that she still kept her husband’s clothes on a chair, as if “Chaimke” were still alive and ready to get dressed.
In fact, when Chaim Grade died no one knew about it: She kept it a secret. The day he died, the Yiddish youth group Yugntruf had prepared a meeting with Parisian Yiddish translator M. Litvin, who was visiting New York. Earlier, Grade had called me, since I had arranged the event, and said he would like to come even though he was not well, and introduce his old friend. The event took place in the backyard of Mordkhe Schaechter, a professor of Yiddish, and his wife, Charne. Everyone was there on a beautiful day, but Chaim Grade never showed up. We waited and waited and eventually called. We found out later that he was on his way to being buried.
Inna Grade told everyone that her husband had gone to Boston. She then called a friend, whom she told to wait for her in front of her house in the Bronx so she could come pick her up and they could look at the new cover for her husband’s two volumes. The friend waited outside, and Inna Grade picked her up in a hearse and took her to the cemetery. They were the only ones there when Chaim Grade was buried. Certainly one of the greatest Yiddish writers deserved a more honorable funeral than this.
Inna Grade knew no Yiddish from home, but was skilled at learning languages, including Yiddish, to the point where she became her husband’s translator. She was very young, just 17, when she and Chaim met and got married in Moscow. Chaim Grade had left behind a wife and child in Vilna, who later perished in the war.
One infamous scandal involving Inna Grade happened at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, when Chaim Grade and fellow Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb received awards. When Rosenfarb came down from the stage, Inna Grade attacked her and pulled her hair in front of the entire audience.
“I have no wife, I have a child” is how Chaim Grade described his home life. This past April was 100 years since his birth. Now that the opposition of Inna Grade no longer exists, let us hope that we can focus again on her husband’s important literary legacy.
Itzik Gottesman is managing editor of the Forverts, where a longer version of this story originally appeared in Yiddish.