Chimen Abramsky Kept Soviet Committee Reports, Marx and Lenin’s Old Books, and 20,000 Other Volumes in His London Home

Review: Sasha Abramsky, ‘The House of Twenty Thousand Books’

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The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that memory was "the treasure-house of the ideas supplied by Invention." They took this metaphor very seriously. To them, visualizing things in time and space was central to the art of remembrance. In the first century A.D., Quintilian developed an elegant technique that has withstood the test of time. He recommended that students imagine placing the ideas to be remembered in a space—a building or a palace, perhaps:

They place the first idea, as it were, in the vestibule, the second, let us say, in the atrium, and then they go round the open areas, assigning ideas systematically not only to bedrooms and bays, but to statues and the like. This done, when they have to revive the memory, they begin to go over these Sites from the beginning, calling in whatever they deposited with each of them, as the images remind them. Thus, however many things have to be remembered, they become a single item, held together as it were by a sort of outer shell

To Chimen Abramsky, constructing a palace of memory was no mere exercise: it was his life’s work. A scholar, teacher, book dealer, and collector, over the course of sixty-six years, Abramsky collected more than 20,000 volumes, all sorted and stacked in double rows along the walls and on the surfaces of Hillway, his cramped North London home. In "The Citadel" of his bedroom he kept books personally annotated by Marx and Lenin, the typed manuscript of Rosa Luxemburg’s doctoral thesis, and a box of William Morris’s copies of the Socialist League. The hallway was lined with the complete proceedings of the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, histories of 19-century European revolutions, and books stuffed with his personal correspondence (also about books). And in the "jungle room" of Chimen’s study were illuminated manuscript treasures of Judaica that had survived the expulsions and conflagrations of medieval and early-modern Europe.

The House of Twenty Thousand Books, Sasha Abramsky’s memoir of his grandfather, is replete with things that will delight any bibliophile: crumbling paper, cracked vellum, gilt lettering, dim light, and the smell, the heft of old books. Chimen Abramsky was born in Byelorussia during the First World War and was raised during the upheaval of the Russian Revolution. When he was a teenager, his father Yehezkel, a prominent rabbi, was imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp for the twin treasons of editing a Talmudic journal and speaking to an American human rights mission. While Yehezkel languished in the gulag, reciting the Jewish prayers for the dying each morning in the event that he did not survive another day, his young son Chimen was becoming a Marxist.

The timing of—and reasons for—this ideological transformation are unclear. On one hand, the author claims that it was only after moving to London that "Chimen became involved in left-wing politics, and surreptitiously acquired and read copies of Karl Marx’s writings with the glee of discovery and youthful rebellion." On the other, he writes that Chimen "acknowledge[d] that he had become an intellectual Marxist as a teenager while he was still living in the Soviet Union." Whatever the case, Chimen Abramsky’s teenaged infatuation with Marxism matured into decades of activism and leadership within the British Communist Party. He remained a loyal party member throughout the Second World War, during which he was "ferociously pro-Soviet."

But why? The Soviets had imprisoned Chimen’s own father, held his elder brothers hostage, and forced the exile of his family to England. In 1950 Chimen cryptically explained, "my parents are very reactionary. For a short time my father was imprisoned in Russia." Surely Chimen could not have thought that beatings, torture, and starvation were a just punishment for dissent, could he? The author suggests that Chimen was such an ardent apologist for the Soviet Union because, "despite their many other crimes, before and during the Second World War the Soviets were not anti-Semitic: Their imprisonment of religious proselytizers such as Yehezkel in the 1920s and ‘30s had been anti-religious, not anti-Semitic per se. They did not tar all the Jews as enemies nor, as had the Nazis, declare that the Jewish race as a whole was inherently foreign." The Soviets might have been butchers, but at least they weren’t anti-Semites. This is, of course, only half true.

By the late 1950s, Abramsky’s Soviet apologism had become wholly unsustainable. Kruschev’s disclosures of Stalin’s atrocities, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and the fracturing of the British communists made it impossible for him to hold on to his old political ideals. It was then that Abramsky’s collection of Judaica began to flourish. His most important acquisitions, undertaken on behalf of Eric Estorick, a London gallery owner, were the Torah Scrolls of Prague, a collection of 1,564 scrolls that had been spared destruction in the Holocaust. Tucked inside some were notes pleading for divine intervention; others were stained with blood. Some had survived thanks to the intervention of Jews but others were saved because Nazi ethnographers had planned to display them at the Jewish museum in Prague.

It was also during the 1960s that the tone of Chimen’s "salon slowly reinvented itself, without the uncritical attitude to the political systems that claimed to operate in his name which had previously reigned at Hillway." But giving Isaiah Berlin a place at the table alongside Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill does not explain the deeper contradictions of Chimen’s existence. A man who had repudiated communism had become one of its leading historians; a man who was a sworn atheist had become an authority on Judaic texts. But what, if anything, did Chimen believe?

One gets the sense that as Chimen filled Hillway with books, manuscripts, and remembrances of the past, the collector himself was hollowing out. After communism, he had no intellectual core. Whereas he had once co-authored a book on Marx and the early labor movement in England, his contributions to scholarship became much like his contributions to the world of letters: curatorial. He edited two books of scholarly essays, one on the Jews of Poland and one in honor of Edward Hallett Carr, the historian of the Soviet Union. Otherwise his writings and reflections after the 1950s are scant. He left no meaningful record of his mission to Prague, perhaps because the realities of communism were too ugly to commit to paper. His diary entries grew telegraphic in their brevity. Of the attacks of September 11th he noted: "2pm ring urgently Arthur Hertzberg." When his beloved wife, Miriam, died, Chimen simply wrote: "7.40am, Miri passed away."

In the forward to a book of scholarly essays dedicated to Chimen Abramsky, Isaiah Berlin wrote,

Fortunate indeed is the scholar whose field of enquiry is intimately bound up with his own roots, with the world in which he was born and bred, a society the traditions and culture of which have shaped his mind and outlook so deeply that he is able to understand it and interpret it with the inner eye of a participant.

Like that of his grandfather, Sasha Abramsky’s field of inquiry is intimately bound up with his own roots. The affectionate grandson writes with the inner eye of a participant in his ancestor’s life. But ultimately one is left with the inescapable sense that the house and its inhabitant are just outer shells, like Quinitilian’s palace: cramped repositories of unreconciled memory.

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