One of the foremost figures in post-World War II Yiddish literature, Chaim Grade is best known for his works of fiction. But in the 1930s he began his literary career—in the then-Polish city of Vilna—as a poet. He wrote the poem “Jewish Towns of Poland” in Paris in 1947; in it, the evidently Jewish speaker travels through what had by now become a judenrein country. To great effect, Grade populates the shtetls with biblical figures, as in the following excerpt, from a new translation by Julian Levinson:
Jewish towns of Poland, you blazed in my heart and my memory,
Like the places in the Holy Land that lit up the pages of Torah.
My childhood years were barefoot steps over a river that passed my home, which became my Jordan.
And now every wall I see is a ruin of the Western Wall,
And as once in Bethlehem, a lament rises from the streets of Krakow. . . .
Dear [Matriarchs] from the Yiddish Bibles, Rachel and Leah of the women’s prayers,
You sat on the porches with all the women of the town.
Angels who accompanied Jacob, where will you find peace?
You have become orphaned guests, condemned to wander and beg.
And you, Patriarchs from Canaan, once at home in this land of the Poles,
You who stood like a divide between barman and drunken peasants,
The way back to heaven has been closed off to you
Because you walked along our streets, wearing our clothes.
The heavens no longer recognize you, and you gaze out, terrified, from
A trampled hedge, from a ruined gate,
Like a pious old Jew from a tiny village,
Who wakes from his Sabbath nap to find the world has turned upside-down.
The boys no longer stroll with girls on the riverbank,
And no longer do buses avoid the town on Sabbath,
The uncircumcised sit like honored men at the doors of Jews,
They have torn the siding from the stores,
The holy books thrown away, the wooden synagogue destroyed.