Saturday, March 21, 2015

Chimen Abramsky – A man fleeing his past
It is seldom that I read a book that touches me because I recognize something of myself in it. Sasha Abramsky's warm, uncritical, loving tribute to his grandfather, Chimen Abramsky, scholar, book collector, ideologue and secular Talmudist, The House of Twenty Thousand Books is such a book. I read it slowly, savouring it, delighting in the people I met on the way, people known to me by repute. Chimen, son of one of the great rabbinical authorities of his generation, Yehezkel Abramsky, embraced communism during the depression of the 1930s. With Capitalism in disarray, it was an obvious choice for many. That his father was imprisoned and tortured by the Soviets, and that his life was spared only because of his great international fame, did not shake the faith of the young communist in the communist utopia. Joining the British Communist Party once he became a British citizen in 1951 was his ticket to acceptance by Left Wing intellectuals. It took him a long time to see the terrible flaws of Communism and renounce his allegiance to the cause. Reading this I recalled my belief in Communism, Zionist Communism, as a teenager. I grew up during the war and came to adulthood in the aftermath of the Second World War. I saw in the Cold War only as unjustified warmongering. The Korean War, the Malayan rebellion, the Vietnam War were colonialist adventures. I marched to Parliament alongside Douglas Lilburn, the famed composer, protesting New Zealand's participation in the Vietnam War. Khrushchev's revelations of Stalin's crimes might have opened my eyes somewhat, but I thought that suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 was justified. For me the uprising was an attempt to restore the Fascists, or at least Right Wing elements, and I saw the persecution of communists and security officers as a further manifestation of Jew hatred. It took Chimen and me a lifetime to abandon faith in a doctrine that we had believed in. Unlike Chimen, I don't claim to be a scholar of note, at best I have a curious inquiring mind. But I appreciate his search for wisdom that he believed resided in his twenty thousand books. I applaud his grandson, Sasha, for telling Chimen and Miriam Abransky's story with so much affection, and through their story painting a vivid portrait of an age that is vanishing.