Fight Over Grade’s Archive Gets Messier
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Fight Over Grade’s Archive Gets Messier

Israel’s National Library to send official here as YIVO pulls together conference on writer.

When Inna Hecker Grade, the wife of revered Yiddish writer Chaim Grade, died in May, at 85, scholars expressed a palpable sense of hope. For the nearly 30 years since her husband’s death, in 1982, Inna had zealously guarded his reputation.

And many believe that the papers he left in Inna Grade’s apartment might contain either unpublished works or at least invaluable information to scholars.
But nearly five months after Inna’s death, Chaim Grade’s papers remained locked up in his wife’s fetid Bronx apartment. The emergence of an old will, shoddy communication among institutions vying for the papers and accusations of scholarly neglect have turned what was supposed to be the long-awaited deposit of a legendary writer’s work into easily accessible archives into a complicated mess.

And this week, the fight over Grade’s papers was ratcheted up a notch when the Israeli institution working with a retired Hebrew University professor named in Grade’s will as having exclusive rights to the archive confirmed that it is sending a representative here to search the apartment. No date was given for the visit.

“We already have some of [Grade’s] archives or are in the possession of ones held by professor Yechiel Szeintuch,” said Haggai Ben-Shammai, director of the National Library of Israel.

Also this week, the former lawyer for Inna Grade publicly questioned the presence of Harvard’s noted Yiddish scholar Ruth R. Wisse on a recently-announced Oct. 4 panel organized by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research — one of the institutions that wants the archive — to mark the 100th anniversary of Grade’s birth.

The lawyer, Norman Liss, brought to the fore allegedly old animosities between Inna Grade and Wisse.

Liss has repeatedly claimed that Inna Grade “did not like Ruth Wisse” because Wisse did not, Liss says, adequately respect Chaim Grade. For Wisse to now be speaking on Grade’s behalf at YIVO, Liss told The Jewish Week, “is so ironic, it’s pathetic.”

For her part, Wisse is trying to avoid the name-calling. “I don’t want to get into any of that,” she said, noting only that she has long taught Grade’s work in her Yiddish courses and is currently advising a dissertation dealing with Grade’s involvement with Young Vilna, a Yiddish literary group.

And so it goes in the saga of Chaim Grade’s papers.

The biggest stumbling block so far in the decision about where to house the archive is the recent surfacing of a will left by Inna Grade, written in 1992. In it, she gives exclusive rights of all her husband’s papers to Szeintuch, the retired Hebrew University professor and longtime champion of Grade’s work. But since Inna Grade’s death, the Bronx public administrator’s office has been acting as the legal guardian of the Grade papers, under the assumption that there is no valid will.

The public administrator says that in absence of an original copy of the will — only photocopies exist — the document is not legally binding. “Our investigators have made a thorough search of the apartment, and there’s no original will,” said Jay Ziffer, the attorney acting on behalf of the Bronx public administrator.

Szeintuch and Liss, whose aggressive style has ruffled many feathers, say that the Bronx public administrator is stonewalling because it stands to profit by selling the papers. “The P.A. wants to find out how much the papers are worth, [so] there’s a monetary incentive,” said Liss, who has a signed copy of the will, dated May 24, 1992. Liss has worked on Inna Grade’s behalf intermittently since the 1980s, and began contacting the press about the will after initial reports claimed that no will existed.

The Bronx public administrator’s office acknowledges that it plans to sell the papers. “Our obligation is to see that we maximize the value of these papers,” Ziffer said, adding that “our hope is that we get an offer that we think is appropriate.” But he denied that profit was the sole motive and noted that he is working closely with YIVO to decide how best to preserve Grade’s work.

But Liss claims that the Bronx public administrator is rebuffing efforts to prove the authenticity of the will, and that he is being prevented from searching the apartment with Szeintuch’s own research assistants. “We believe the original copy of the will is in the apartment,” Liss said. He added: “If we don’t get permission to search for the will, we will bring a proceeding” challenging the public administrator’s legal claims.

The National Library of Israel has also entered the fray, at Szeintuch’s invitation. As part of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library is the institution where Szeintuch would ultimately archive the papers, if he ever received them. The National Library’s Ben-Shammai said that Szeintuch, who referred all interviews to Liss and Ben-Shammai, already holds around 700 of Chaim Grade’s letters that Inna sent to him over the years. “Our interest in Chaim Grade did not start a few months ago,” Ben-Shammai said. “It’s been going on for over 30 years.”

Since Inna Grade’s death on May 2, five American institutions have contacted the Bronx public administrator’s office expressing an interest in acquiring, or at least facilitating the archival of, Chaim Grade’s papers. They include: YIVO; the New York Public Library; Harvard University Library; the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin; and the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.

But interviews with people at each of those institutions indicate that few of them have been in contact with each other. And at least one — the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin — appears to be in active competition.

“We read about Grade’s papers in The Times,” said Thomas Staley, director of the Ransom Center, referring to initial reports in the New York Times about Inna Grade’s death. “Let me just say that we’re interested in the papers,” he said. “We have a strong [collection of Jewish literary archives] here already,” noting that material by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Leon Uris, among other renowned Jewish writers, are in the Ransom Center archives. But he said he has not been in contact with the other institutions — nor have they been in contact with him.

There have also been concerns that some institutions have an unfair advantage. For instance, the Ransom Center has deep pockets and could potentially pay more for the papers than the others. But its location in Texas makes it difficult for scholars to reach. Similar concerns have been raised about the papers ending up in Israel. (Staley discounted this claim, saying that the Ransom Center archives of other Jewish writers alone make it worth a visit.)
But the other institutions have their problems, too: neither Harvard nor the New York Public Library nor the National Yiddish Book Center have noteworthy archives of modern Jewish writers, if they have any at all. And YIVO, while already holding some of Grade’s papers, is perennially under-funded and scarcely staffed.

Still, David Fishman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary who specializes in Yiddish culture, took a more diplomatic approach, saying that many of those institutions expressing an interest were just fine. “What’s important is that this material is left in a repository that has similar collections, and there are several places that fall into that category.”

The YIVO panel for Grade on Oct. 4 will include a screening of “The Quarrel” (1991), a rare film adaptation of one of Grade’s most poignant stories, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” in which a religious and secular Jew debate whether it is possible to believe in God after the Holocaust. Speakers will include Allan Nadler, a professor at Drew University and onetime student of Grade’s, as well as Harvard’s Wisse.

Jeremy Dauber, a former student of Wisse’s at Harvard who now teaches Yiddish literature at Columbia, vouched for Wisse. He said that “Ruth Wisse has always been a champion of all things Yiddish literature, and that includes Chaim Grade.” He still has dog-eared copies of old Grade books from his graduate school days, and is almost certain he bought them for a Ruth Wisse class.

Wisse said that her own institution, Harvard, might not even be the best place for Grade’s papers because of its limited Jewish archival holding. And she said that the entire question of where the papers end up might not matter in our increasingly digitized age.

In any event, so far the most active institution in the process has not been Wisse or Harvard, but YIVO. The Bronx public administrator’s next step is to temporarily move the papers from Inna Grade’s apartment to YIVO’s Manhattan library, where scholars from the other interested institutions can then evaluate them.

Jonathan Brent, the director of YIVO, says that the process has been slowed by the sheer volume of papers left by Inna Grade, and the decrepit state they’re in.

In an interview, Brent described the apartment as looking like Miss Havisham’s ruined mansion in Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” with thousands of books, letters, newspapers, and — he hopes — unpublished manuscripts piled up in heaps.

Inna Grade lived alone for the last decades of her life, mainly busying herself with protecting her husband’s estate. Several scholars who personally knew Chaim Grade — whose novel “Rabbis and Wives” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, and whose works, though increasingly difficult to find, are on almost every Yiddish literature survey course — said that she directly caused the steady erosion of his reputation.

When a publisher would come asking for permission to translate a new edition of Grade’s work, for instance, or a director would ask to make a staged adaptation, she almost always refused. “There’s a delicious irony here,” said Nadler, who studied with Grade as a graduate student at Harvard. “She’s the single reason why [Chaim Grade’s] work isn’t better known.”

She felt that the literary establishment had disrespected her husband by swooning over his chief rival, Isaac Bashevis Singer, especially after Singer won the Nobel Prize in 1978. She also believed few were capable of translating her husband’s work. Even her 1992 will, a copy of which Liss provided to The Jewish Week, evinces some of her stubbornness.

She writes that any future translations of Chaim Grade’s “must give proof of their thorough understanding of Chaim Grade’s Yiddish with its Hebrew-Aramaic idiom [,] … their ability to understand and faithfully translate Chaim Grade’s poetic images, his highly artistic language, [and] his style of the great master [, and] … must give proof of their perfect mastery of literary English.”

In addition, she wrote, a “collegium of translators and editors should be employed … always at least two.”

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