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Diamonds in the Rough

Your Vox Tablet preview

Julie Subrin
September 23, 2011
(Eric Molinsky)
(Eric Molinsky)

Chaim Grade is considered by some literary scholars to be one of the most important Yiddish writers of the twentieth century. And yet, after he died in 1982, virtually no one was able to access the notes and manuscripts he left behind in a Bronx apartment. His widow, Inna Grade, was fiercely protective of all he had written (even during his lifetime), and rebuffed virtually all who approached with an interest in translating or publishing his work. Finally (and, quite frankly, to the elation of some), Inna Grade died last year, and now the archive lies in a different sort of limbo. Legally, it is under the jurisdiction of the Bronx Public Administrator, who must decide who may inherit it; physically, the boxes upon boxes of papers and books are being held in temporary custody by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. No scholar has yet had the opportunity to see what’s there.

There is a more intimately heart-breaking side to this story, which pertains to the condition in which the Grade apartment was found after Inna’s death. It was virtually impassible; papers and books cloaked in a thick layer of dust occupied every surface and spilled out of cupboards and drawers. There were signs of pest infestations. Paramedics apparently struggled for hours to make a pathway so they could remove Inna’s body. YIVO executive director Jonathan Brent is one of the few people who was allowed limited access to the apartment in the immediate aftermath of Inna Grade’s death, and the impoverishment and decay he saw depressed him immensely. And yet alongside that decay were also clear signs of the vibrant minds that once occupied the place, and that, too, has stayed with Brent. Brent is the guest of Monday’s episode of Vox Tablet. He speaks passionately with host Sara Ivry about Chaim Grade’s importance as a writer, and of his legacy. Here, Brent recounts one of the discoveries he made in perusing the Grade bookshelves during a visit:

Related: Keeper of the Flame [Tablet Magazine]

Julie Subrin is Tablet Magazine’s executive producer for audio.