This is a notice of a book I have just read, called The house of twenty thousand books, by Sasha Abramsky.
I don’t remember how I came to find out about this book. As far as I can recall, I was interested in book collecting, and whether anyone had written much about that. Reader, they have! There were bibliomanes with larger collections than Chimen Abramsky’s, but his story seemed interesting. This book was available in the Boroondara Library network — the link above points to their record — so I took a punt on it.
Chimen Abramsky grew up in the Soviet Union, the son of a rabbi. His father, Yeshevel, was arrested under Stalin’s regime, and the family was exiled to Britain when Chimen was 15. Despite this early experience of totalitarian rule, Chimen became interested in Marxism, and joined the British Communist Party. After the war he and his wife bought a house in Hampstead Heath (for 12 pounds!), which became a kind of left-wing salon. Thinkers including Eric Hobsbawm and Isiah Berlin were guests. At the same time Chimen maintained his Jewish cultural links, working in a Jewish bookstore, which also sold religious artefacts. He became a collector of books and memorabilia relating to Socialism and Hebraica, and helped develop the auction market for the latter area in particular. As this market expanded, he become an advisor to Sotheby’s in Hebraica. Chimen also had a later career as Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College, London — this without holding a formal degree.
The book had several themes of interest to me. As well as his book collecting and trading activities, Chimen was a leading British Jewish left-wing intellectual. After the war, Socialism was an article of faith to many idealists and progressives (including, at this time, my father). Socialism appeared to promise a fair, equitable, and peaceful society free from discrimination and exploitation. Of course, as the saying goes, someone who is not a socialist under the age of 21 has no heart, and someone still a socialist after that age has no head. Chimen’s political views evolved in the direction of liberalism, prompted by the the persistence of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union as well as the revelations about the show trials and prison camps.
(This isn’t specifically mentioned in the book, but I have noticed that many who were attracted to socialism at this time also either identified as Christians, like Graham Greene, or grew up in a religious family like Orwell. There was no shortage also of adherents to Communism from a Jewish background like Chimen’s. Perhaps the structure and discipline of Party membership gave the same feeling of security that religious belief had provided. For some, belief in a Socialist “heaven on earth” was not mutually exclusive of belief in the traditional life after death. In other cases, Socialism became their new religion. Chimen ceased believing in Judaism in a religious sense when he became interested in Marxism. He did not, however, wish his family to realise his apostasy, and maintained Jewish cultural traditions such as wearing the yarmulka and keeping a kosher kitchen.)
The Jewish aspect of the book was of personal interest also. Judaism has had a peripheral role in my life. As family readers will know, my father was half Jewish, originating on his father’s side. Judaism being a matrilineal religion, orthodox Jews would therefore not regard me as Jewish. My father had no religious faith, and was completely uninterested in Jewish cultural traditions. So I grew up as neither a religious nor a cultural Jew. Nevertheless, I was conscious, when growing up in the largely white-bread Australia of the 1960s, of having origins in a minority group. This was reinforced by Jews being the butt of many jokes and other stereotyping. By now people have largely stopped using “Jewish” or “Ikey” as a synonym for meanness. (This is complicated, however; the best Jewish jokes I ever heard were told to me by Dad’s friend Lionel Cohen.)
Chimen’s was not an interesting life in its external aspects. His collection, which came to take over his and his wife Miriam’s house, is now scattered between the individuals and institutions to whom it was sold. His ideological and personal journey, however, provide a window onto the development of post-war Britain. Sasha Abramsky is the author of books such as The American way of poverty and Inside Obama’s brain . He tells Chimen’s and Miriam’s story with love, but also with the detachment and objectivity of an experienced author. Abramsky’s book is both an act of devotion to a great bookman, who happened to be his grandfather, and a fascinating record of a tumultuous time.