My Mother's Sabbath Days (Der Mames Shabosim)

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MY MOTHER'S SABBATH DAYS (Der mames shabosim)

Memoir by Chaim Grade, 1958

The original Yiddish title page of Chaim Grade's My Mother's Sabbath Days (1986; Der mames shabosim, 1958) classifies the work as dertseylungen— a collection of stories. An English translation appearing in 1986, four years after the author's death, bears the words "a memoir" on its cover. In fact, the work operates somewhere in between these two genres. Grade draws upon his memories to craft a series of vignettes, rich in lyricism and detached character study, linked chronologically and by the recurrence of subjects and settings, flickering between the past and present tenses and poignantly evocative of the devastation visited upon him by the events of the Holocaust.

The book is divided into three sections, representing the before, during, and after periods of Grade's wartime experience. In the first of these, eponymous with the entire volume, he summons forth from death the lost Vilna of his youth—the lives and ways of life decimated by the Nazis. His mother, Vella, is the central figure, and as a spirit pouring out of Grade's pen she radiates a loving tenderness, long-suffering poverty, and simple piety that coalesce into the emotional core of the work. Around her, as she struggles through her circumstances toward the tenuous peace of her weekly Sabbath, whirl a host of characters and concerns: goose dealers carrying on illicit affairs with butchers' assistants beneath the watchful eyes of professional gossips, aged widows calculating the quickest path to an easeful death, young men and women yearning for the new lives shimmering in dream visions of Zionism and Soviet communism, and the generational con-flicts that ensue as old religious structures crumble beneath the weight of modernity.

Though Grade writes in the first person, his own life in this era is predominately explored only in so far as it bears upon his mother's. His rejection of religious Judaism and burgeoning success as a modern Yiddish poet are reflected in Vella's anxious ruminations, the traditional mother lamenting, and even shamed by, her son's abandonment of his faith. At these moments the text shifts most obviously from memoir to storytelling, Grade the author exploring his mother's consciousness from a perspective he would not have been privy to as Grade the son. The major exception to this fixed focus on his mother is the introduction of his wife, the young nurse Frumme-Liebche, in lingering and reverent prose. With the emotional relevance of these two women firmly established, the stage is set for the agony to follow.

When the Germans invade Lithuania in 1941, following Hitler's double-crossing of Stalin, Grade flees with the retreating Soviets, leaving behind his consenting wife and mother, under the common misapprehension that the Nazis pose a mortal danger only to able-bodied men. The next four years of his life, his meager existence in the refugee limbo of the Asian Soviet republics, are covered in "The Other End of the World." He survives the arduous flight, witnessing death, degradation, the severing of families, and the chaos of the early Russian war effort, sneaking through dark, patrolled forest, and riding amidst the squalor of open railway cars. Through depictions of his fellow travelers he highlights the preoccupations of the refugees. Misha Troiman, uncertain of his wife's fate, contemplates finding comfort in the arms of a willing stranger, while eking out a dangerous living on the black market, to support the family of his imprisoned brother. Ornstein devolves into a bitter sarcasm, disabused of his earlier idealism by his experience of the poverty and repression of the actual Soviet Union. Chaim Grade wanders in a haze of guilt and longing, visited by visions of his mother and wife, who, he is to learn, have gone to the slaughter in the forests of Ponary.

He returns to Vilna after the war, and "The Seven Little Alleys" finds him haunting the ruins of the ghetto, searching for remnants of his lost loved ones and fearing what he may find. He describes the psychological strategies of other survivors: the shoemaker who dulls his pain by obliterating the evidence of his former identity and the pediatrician who speaks openly of the past out of a belief that the dead can be revived in words. Grade allows no suggestion to coalesce into a solution. In the final pages he flees from the house of worship on Yom Kippur, as the last Jews of Vilna pray for reconciliation with God, and wanders among the wreckage of other synagogues, asking only for the strength to enter at last into his mother's old dwelling. There, in the violated sanctuary, in the company of a stray cat, he murmurs the only words of understanding he can muster: "Mother has gone to the synagogue and cannot return … she will not return … will not return … "

—Binyomin Weiner