Times Literary Supplement
Chimen Abramsky, the radical bibliophile
Chimen Abramsky (1916–2010) was a scholar, political activist and rare-books dealer, the owner of one of the finest private libraries of Judaica in Europe, a multilingual autodidact who nevertheless became Goldsmid Professor of Jewish Studies at University College London, and then a guest lecturer and leading consultant on manuscripts at Sotheby’s. Born in Minsk to a well-known rabbi who went on to become the head of London’s Beth Din, Chimen was a committed atheist who observed the Jewish festivals, a fervent Communist who fell out of love with the Soviet Union, and the host to what his grandson Sasha describes in The House of Twenty Thousand Books as “one of left-wing London’s great salons”: an unassuming, bookishly chaotic house in Hillway, near Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate, where his illustrious friends, including Isaiah Berlin, Salo Baron, Shmuel Ettinger, Claudia Roden, Eric Hobsbawm, Krishan Kumar and Perry Anderson, would gather. “Frequently it seemed more like a traveller’s hostel than a mid-sized suburban home”, writes Sasha Abramsky. The doting grandson recalls a string of childhood visits to Hillway during which “Spinoza and Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Hegel” were quoted to him “as morality tales”. Musing on the experience of his father and aunt – Chimen’s children – Sasha writes: it “must, at times, have seemed more like a political education camp than a recognisable childhood”. And yet, the person portrayed here is anything but austere: a tiny, kindly family man who would frequently dress up and do a funny dance to amuse his grandchildren; an enthusiast for knowledge and optimist for a better society.
Chimen’s childhood in Stalin’s Russia was marked by religious high debate and persecution. He was “born into the crucible of history”, his community caught between the warring armies of the Eastern Front and later those of the Russian Civil War. Shortly before his fourth birthday, retreating Polish soldiers laid waste to his neighbourhood “in a last frenzied bout of pogrom-like brutality”. The family escaped but the home didn’t, including Chimen’s father’s library. It was a loss that “triggered [Chimen’s] . . . life-long obsession with collecting books”.
A few years later it was Stalin whom the Abramskys had to fear, after Chimen’s father, Yehezkel – who had developed a formidable reputation as a religious scholar and was hoping to secure a visa to the United States or Palestine – was arrested by the Cheka on charges of treason. A death sentence was commuted, following pressure from Yehezkel’s champions (including Maxim Gorky) to exile in a Siberian labour camp, where he composed talmudic commentaries, scrawled on cigarette papers. Two years later, Yehezkel was released and some of the family, including the teenage Chimen, were allowed to accompany him to Riga, from where he made his escape to London. Chimen later moved to Palestine, where he studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but on a visit back to England in 1939 he suddenly found himself “trapped and stateless” after the outbreak of war. And so London again became his home.
Despite his early brush with the caprices of the Soviet regime, Chimen remained a staunch supporter of Bolshevism, imbibing its doctrine with rabbinical devotion. He initially opposed the “imperialist” war against Germany (until Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa overturned the Party line) and devoted himself to the international struggle – though he was prevented from becoming a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until 1941 on account of being a foreign national. It was partly through his political activities that he grew close to another young Jewish Communist, Mimi Nirenstein, whom he had met while working at her father’s Jewish bookstore in the East End, Shapiro, Valentine & Co. The pair soon married and went on to run the shop together. Chimen’s friendship with Heinrich Eisemann, Thomas Mann’s book dealer, provided a valuable source of bibliographical advice, while the liquid books market in the wake of the Second World War provided the basis for a profitable business. Children and financial stability ensued and there ended Chimen’s major peregrinations. But his intellectual journey was really only just beginning.
The House of Twenty Thousand Books takes the form of a voyage around Chimen and Mimi’s impossibly cluttered home of sixty-six years. Each chapter is dedicated to a different room in which the teetering piles and double-stacked shelves of bibliographic booty open a window both onto Sasha’s memories of his grandfather and Chimen’s evolving scholarly preoccupations. “At a conservative guess the house contained upwards of ten tons of books, the weight of at least five large cars”, writes Sasha. “Some of Hillway’s rooms had, by the time my generation came on the scene, ceased to have any functional purpose; the bibliographic flora had simply run rampant.” An aghast estate agent advised the family to offload the whole lot “sight unseen”.
Fortunately, the recommendation was ignored and the bulk now resides in collections, including a specially endowed section of the library at University College London. That the contents made it out at all is fortuitous: the paradox of Chimen’s love of books was his ill-treatment of them. The dusty, dilapidated house was a constant hazard and the largely uncatalogued collection remained insured only as general contents. Among the treasures to go missing was an original letter by Voltaire on the topic of European Jewry. “In all likelihood it accidentally ended up in one of the hundreds of rubbish bags which were filled with all the printed matter that Chimen himself could never throw away”, writes Sasha, who offers the hope that it will one day be found in the drawer of one of Chimen’s old desks in a junk shop.
Chimen’s book dealings took him on various adventures: to a New York hotel room where he was presented with a hand-written manuscript of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; to a shady assignation in Cold War Paris, where, at the base of the Eiffel Tower, he exchanged a trove of original documents from the library of Eleanor Marx – including six draft pages from Karl Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value – for a briefcase full of cash via an intermediary from the government of Chairman Mao. Many of his acquisitions were sold on; many more retained: Chimen would use his personal collection as a gauge of friendship, allowing only the most trusted of his companions privileged access to certain rooms, where they might be shown an original William Morris illustrated manuscript or a handwritten document by Lenin. Chimen’s house was his very personality: “his mansion of ideas . . . a never-ending voyage of discovery”.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The House of Twenty Thousand Books is our glimpse into this journey’s arc, as the stubborn Party stalwart “obsessed with the interpretation of history’s will” gradually lost his faith. From opposing the Second World War, Chimen went on to compile a dossier on the destruction of European Jewry, but he remained blind to Stalin’s crimes, arguing that “the days of pogroms and anti-Semitism in Russia are gone”. His obituary of Stalin in the Jewish Clarion – entitled “The Debt Jews Owe To Joseph Stalin” – was written, as Sasha states, “five years after Stalin had embarked on his campaign to eliminate Jewish intellectuals from public life”. It concludes that “Stalin’s leadership was a tremendous contribution to the ending of exploitation of man by man”. Like Martin Amis contemplating his father Kingsley’s early Communist leanings, in Koba the Dread, Sasha is deeply troubled that a man he loved so much could have ignored the evidence.
By the 1960s, however, both Chimen and Mimi had turned away from Communism. Chimen directed his energies towards social democracy, Zionism and Jewish history; Mimi supported the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. As Israel turned increasingly to the right during the 1970s and 80s, Chimen’s support for Zionism also fell away. “One after another [his] utopias were breaking down.”
There were other sadnesses: the murder of a nephew at the hands of a Palestinian sniper after Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 (Sasha misleadingly refers to the territorial war of 1948–9 as an “Arab uprising”); the early death from cancer of another nephew, the Marxist historian Raphael Samuel, which marked “a last hurrah for a dying breed of radicalism”; Mimi’s slow death and the surrender by Chimen to his own decrepitude; and, earlier, Chimen’s torn family loyalties as he hid the news of his daughter’s marriage to a non-Jew – and of Sasha’s unceremonious circumcision in a hospital – from his pious, ageing father. Ritual and tradition counted greatly for Chimen, and despite his own lack of faith, and taste for lobster, he and Mimi kept a strictly kosher home. Perhaps saddest of all was the fact that he never roused himself to complete his great projects: a comprehensive Life of Karl Marx and an autobiography, which “he simply failed to follow through”. But, then, his library was his greatest project; and Sasha has filled the hole left by Chimen’s unwritten memoirs.
And very brilliantly he has filled it. The House of Twenty Thousand Books is not without its longueurs, repetitions born of the meandering structure, which better editing might have weeded out. There is occasionally too much gilding to the prose (we find a great deal of “penning” and talk of relatives being “felled” by cancer). But Sasha Abramsky has produced a wonderful addition to the canon of Jewish grandchild literature: one that would be well worth its place in Chimen Abramsky’s now immortal house of books.
Review by Toby Lichtig, Fiction in Translation Editor at the TLS
© Times Literary Supplement 10 December 2014