Abramsky, Sasha. “The House of Twenty Thousand Books”, New York Review of Books, 2018.
Meet Chimen Abramsky
“The House of Twenty Thousand Books” is a grandson’s elegy for the now gone world of his grandparents’ house in London and the exuberant, passionate jostling of two traditions ¬– Jewish and Marxist – that came together as he his grew up. Here is a memoir of the fatal encounter between the Russian Jewish desire for freedom and the Stalinist creed. Here is a grandson’s “unsparing, but loving reckoning with a conflicted inheritance.”
This is the story of Chimen Abramsky, a polymath and bibliophile who amassed a vast collection of socialist literature and Jewish history. For more than fifty years Chimen and his wife, Miriam, hosted epic gatherings in their house of books that brought together many of the age’s greatest thinkers.
Chimen was the atheist son of one of the century’s most important rabbis. He was born in 1916 near Minsk, spent his early teenage years in Moscow while his father served time in a Siberian labor camp for religious proselytizing, and then immigrated to London, where he discovered the writings of Karl Marx and became involved in left-wing politics. He briefly attended the newly established Hebrew University in Jerusalem until her studies were interrupted by World War II. Returning England, he married, and for many years he and his wife, Miriam ran a respected Jewish bookshop in London’s East End. When the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, Chimen joined the Communist Party and became a leading figure in the party’s National Jewish Committee. He remained a member until 1958, when, shockingly late, he finally acknowledged the atrocities committed by Stalin. In middle age, Chimen reinvented himself once more, this time as a liberal thinker, humanist, professor, and manuscripts’ expert for Sotheby’s auction house.
Journalist Sasha Abramsky re-creates his grandfather’s world and brings to life the people, the books, and the ideas that filled his grandparents’ house, from gatherings that included Eric Hobsbawm and Isaiah Berlin to books with Marx’s handwritten notes, William Morris manuscripts and woodcuts, an early sixteenth-century Bomberg Bible, and a first edition of Descartes’s “Meditations”. Abramsky takes us on a journey through our times, from the worlds of Eastern European Jewry that are no more to the politics of modernity.
I have long wanted to read an intellectual history that would answer the many questions I has about Jewry and intellectualism at the approach of the modern world. I did not get answers to all of my questions but I did get a brilliant read. This is a book that burns with “a passion for ideas, the value of history, the need for argument.” It is “a moving testimonial to the persistence of human curiosity in a world that seems to drift farther and farther from the delight of intellectual pursuits.” Here is one man’s love for the printed word. There was (and still is) an intellectual milieu that was built around old books and long evenings spent in political debate.” We are just not aware as to where to find them.
Sasha Abramsky gives us smart, concise pocket explanations of matters ranging from the effect of 18th-century French utopianism on leftist thinking to brief discourses on methodologies of Talmud study. He draws on interviews with Chis grandfather’s contemporaries and archives and this book is a sensitive and honest look at how many of the conversations at his grandfather’s house were conducted.
Sasha chooses to give us essays about the ideas, historical events and personalities that animated his grandfather and he is so vivid a writer that scenes he presents, stay with us. Here is “A narrative that tells the tale of the 20th century: communists, Zionists, fascists, fetishists, secularists and a great scene of academic intrigue. Chimen Abramsky is a worthy subject: his unorthodox intellectual approach and his awe-inspiring collection of books are both marvels to behold. While Abramsky’s grandson writes the story of his life with subtlety and affection, he also evokes the culture of the time in all its foolishness, grandeur, earnestness and ideological disappointment.” —Jeff Deutsch, Seminary Co-op Bookstore
Chimen’s friendships with Isaiah Berlin, Piero Sraffa, and other twentieth century thinkers will interest many readers but the most fascinating story is the evolution of Chimen himself—the son with a serious rabbinic family tree who rejected religion but ran two Seders a year and never served non-kosher food in his home; the Party member who eulogized Stalin, until he discovered the lies and turned in his membership card; the book dealer who spent decades collecting Socialist literature, only to become one of Europe’s leading collectors of Judaica. This is “A wonderful celebration of the mind, history, and love.” —Kirkus Reviews
I wish that I had had a grandfather that I could write a book like this and every page made my eyes open even wider. Here is a grandson’s well-written tribute to grandparents, especially the grandfather, who valued family and books and their common Jewish intellectual heritage. There are thoughts on political subjects from the end of the Russian czar, through Hitler’s reign, to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall as well as musings on what makes for a good life. Sasha even goes so far to show the role of religious symbols and traditions, even in the absence of explicit faith and this becomes one of the themes of the book.
“Chimen was like a character out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, or an antiquarian out of a Dickens novel, or an eccentric eighteenth-century salon host, or, more accurately, a chimera of them all… acknowledged as one of the world’s great experts in socialist and Jewish history.”
Chimen was born in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and, as the son of a prominent rabbi, was forced to undergo substantial deprivations and political persecution before his family was allowed to immigrate and settle in London. There, his father became the head of the country’s Jewish religious court and one of its most powerful Jewish voices. Despite his father’s religiosity and his own unpleasant experiences with Lenin’s rule, Chimen embraced communism and remained a staunch advocate for nearly twenty years. Sasha admits his discomfort at his grandfather’s seemingly willful blindness to the atrocities of Joseph Stalin’s rule over the U.S.S.R. and his belated disavowal long after the tyrant’s crimes became known to the world. Although Chimen’s disavowal of his prior political faith would be forceful, he remained enamored of leftwing causes and associated with some of the leading figures of Great Britain’s Labor Party.
However, this involvement in politics is only a secondary subject of the book, however. The main focus and most interesting parts of the book revolve around Chimen’s home and his collection of literature. Over the course of sixty years, he built up a huge collection of Marxist and Jewish history.. He owned original letters from Friedrich Engels, rare copies of the Torah from the seventeenth century as well as first editions and small printings that would cost a fortune today. He slowly became a leading expert in his field and would eventually act as an informal adviser and cataloger for the auction house Sotheby’s. Although Chimen enjoyed helping others acquire books, his greatest passion was still his own collection.
There were only two rooms in the home without books— the bathroom and the kitchen. Chimen’s dinner table became a revolving door for a number of Britain’s most prominent intellectuals. Reading over the snippets of those conversations made me wonder if with the new technology, we are losing developing the mind in the way that face to face confrontation provides (remember Ph.D. orals?). When Chimen finally died, the majority of his collection was sold off, with only a few prized pieces scattered among his relatives.
This was a book written with clear affection for its subject and Sasha Abramsky never pretends he was the clear favorite or privy to secrets of the family that no one else knew. He writes of moments of tension in familial interactions and he also recognizes such moments do not define a loving family. He keeps his focus on the vision of a man who admired the mind and who recognized the importance of books.