Inna Grade, the great Yiddish writer Chaim Grade’s feisty (and some would say meshugena) widow has died.
I tangled with her in 1994, when we published Cynthia Ozick’s translation – with permission – of Grade’s “Elegy for the Soviet Yiddish Writers.” Grade wrote this poem in memory of the 24 Jewish poets and other intellectuals who were murdered, by order of Josef Stalin, on Aug. 12, 1952, and of the many others who were killed during the so-called Black Years of 1948 to 1953. It is a beautiful, moving poem, at least in Ozick’s version, and I was proud to have the privilege of bringing it to our readers.
Little did I know that Inna Grade was standing guard against anyone who, in her view, tampered with her husband’s work. She hated the translation, and wasted no time in angrily calling me to tell me so. One cavil was that in the original, the stanzas (there are 12) are in alphabetical order – the first begins with alef, the second with bais, etc. Ozick did not follow this pattern. I could see Inna Grade’s point: The poem begins, “I weep for you with all the letters of the alphabet.” But there has to be some “give” to translation, some room for the soul of a poem and not just its bare, literal bones.
Here is the first stanza of “Elegy for the Soviet Yiddish Writers”:
I weep for you with all the letters of the alphabet
that made your hopeful songs. I saw how reason spent
itself in vain for hope, how you strove against regret –
and all the while your hearts were rent
to bits, like ragged prayer books. Wanderer, I slept
in your beds, knew you as liberal hosts,
yet every night heard sighs of ancient ghosts:
Jews converted by force. My memory kept
it all, your hospitality, and all that Russian land
that fed me, broad as its plains and confining as a cell,
with its songs on the Volga, and the anchor sunk in sand;
homeland all gone down in blood. And so I tell
your merits, have always looked to your defense, not to justify
for pity of your deaths, but for what you were when all the space
of Russia sustained you still, and you lived your deathly lie:
Marranos – your deepest self denies your face.
You can find the rest in “A Cynthia Ozick Reader” and “A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry.” Unfortunately, we have no digital archive from 1994.