The House of Twenty Thousand BooksBook - 2014
This is the story of Sasha Abramsky's grandparents, Chimen and Miriam Abramsky, and of their unique home at 5 Hillway, around the corner from Hampstead Heath.
In their semi-detached house, so deceptively ordinary from the outside, the Abramskys created a remarkable House of Books. It became the repository for Chimen's collection of thousands upon thousands of books, manuscripts and other printed, handwritten and painted documents, representing his journey through the great political, philosophical, religious and ethical debates that have shaped the western world.
Chimen Abramsky was barely a teenager when his father, a famous rabbi, was arrested by Stalin's secret police and sentenced to five years hard labour in Siberia, and fifteen when his family was exiled to London. Lacking a university degree, he nevertheless became a polymath, always obsessed with collecting ideas, with capturing the meanderings of the human soul through the world of great thoughts and thinkers. Rejecting his father's Orthodoxy, he became a Communist, made his living as a book-dealer and amassed a huge, and astonishingly rare, library of socialist literature and memorabilia. Disillusioned with Communism and belatedly recognising the barbarity at the core of Stalin's project, he transformed himself once more, this time into a liberal and a humanist. To his socialist library was added a vast trove of Jewish history volumes. Chimen ended his career as Professor of Hebrew and Jewish studies at UCL, London and rare manuscripts expert for Sotheby's.
With his wife Miriam, Chimen made their house a focal point for left-wing intellectual Jewish life: hundreds of the world's leading thinkers, from Isaiah Berlin to Eric Hobsbawm, dined at their table. The House of Twenty Thousand Books brings alive this latter-day salon by telling the story of Chimen Abramsky's love affair with ideas and with the world of books and of Miriam's obsession with being a hostess and with entertaining. Room by room, book by book, idea by idea, the world of these politically engaged intellectuals, autodidacts and dreamers is lovingly resurrected.
In this extraordinary elegy to a lost world, Sasha Abramsky's passionate narrative brings to life once more not just the Hillway salon, but the ideas, the conflicts, the personalities and the human yearnings that animated it.