[The] work of Chaim Grade, by its vision and scope, establishes him … as one of the great—if not the greatest—of living Yiddish novelists. Surely he is the most authentic.
If we take as premise that for the contemporary Jewish writer to write means to testify, then we may affirm that Chaim Grade fulfills his mission with much talent and devotion. His … poetry and prose depict a world that is no more. (p. 5)
Every literary creation aims to correct injustice. In this case to remind the killer of his crimes, to affect the memory of the onlooker, to rebuild communities murdered and burned to ashes. What other writers have done for Warsaw or Sighet, Grade does for the town of his childhood: Vilna. His tales, his obsessions, his experiences always lead back to it—for that is where his roots are. Vilna, this fabulous and dazzling city that was so Jewish that it was given the surname of Jerusalem of Lithuania. And that is where the action of "The Agunah" unfolds. The time: some 15 or 16 years after World War I, when, far away, the reign of the executioner is about the begin. (pp. 5-6)
Will the uninitiated non-Jewish reader understand this so profoundly Jewish novel? I hope so.
True, Grade's universe seems closed to external events; it offers no opening to the outside world. All his characters, even the least important, are Jewish: the house-painters, the grave-diggers, the beggars, the revellers, the ladies' men, Grade's gaze never leaves them. I hope the reader will follow him; Vilna transcends Vilna. As is the case for many artistic endeavors, this singularly Jewish novel becomes universal because of its very singularity.
Furthermore I believe that in this particular work the absence of external history is deliberate. One can almost feel the killers' ominous shadow loom on the horizon. As though the author wished to tell us that while Jewish scholars engaged in passionate discussions over the faithful interpretation of a divine law, 3,000 years old, on the other side of borders, entire peoples readied themselves to solve the question of Jewish solitude and waiting—and all other questions—in their own way: by erecting an altar of flames, the darkest in history. (p. 6)
Elie Wiesel, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1974.