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My Grandfather Built a House of 20,000 Books From the Ashes of War

Ociacia / Shutterstock

In July 1920, when my grandfather Chimen was nearly four years old, the town of Smalyavichy, in which his father Yehezkel was the rabbi, was besieged. It had changed hands several times during the civil war that had broken out following Lenin’s October Revolution. This time, it was a triumphant Red Army that readied itself to push Polish nationalist soldiers, allied with the pro-Tsarist White Armies, out of the town and the broader region. As the Polish soldiers retreated, they set fire to large parts of the town, especially in the Jewish quarters, indulging in a last frenzied bout of pogrom-like brutality.

Yehezkel was not present as the flames rose skyward—he had an appointment in the nearby city of Minsk. But his wife Raizl was at home, and so were his four young sons. The flames caught hold of their house, and Raizl barely had time to grab her children, rush them out into the street, and run for safety before the fire began reducing their home to ash. Inside, Yehezkel’s books, as well as his large personal correspondence with the leading rabbis of Byelorussia and Lithuania, went up in smoke.

Yehezkel, who had lived on bread and water during the Russian-Japanese war, was no stranger to deprivation and loss. Yet even with such a training and a history, and even knowing that in rabbinic lore the words from burned holy books and scrolls find their way up to Heaven, losing the bulk of his library must have been a bitter blow. Perhaps it was the story of the fire, repeated in subsequent years around the family dinner table, which triggered in Chimen his life-long obsession with collecting books.

I do not think anyone ever counted the number of books in Chimen’s house, although he made partial efforts over the years to catalog his collection, and various book experts, some flown in from New York and others from London, spent weeks studying it after he died. Looking at the shelves, I estimated that there were probably close to 20,000 volumes in the house at the time of Chimen’s death. My father believed it was more like 15,000. Whatever the exact number of books at Hillway, it was staggering. And what made it more staggering was their quality. Chimen did not simply aim for numbers; he collected books and editions that were extraordinarily hard to find and, by extension, were worth their weight in gold. More important, they were the stuff of rebirth, ways to bring vanished pasts to life.

Enter into this secluded suburban household and a diorama of revolutionary images—from Russian peasant communes and revolutionary committees, to the more sedate imagery of Victorian English radicals—was there for the viewing. Chimen himself was not a particularly good storyteller—he frequently gave away the punch line of humorous anecdotes too early or, with more serious stories, got bogged down in too many details. Yet he knew so much about history and was so precise with his usage of names, his memory of places and dates, of who knew whom and who feuded with whom, that with a bit of imagination one could create one’s own vivid, three-dimensional plotlines to accompany his scholarly historical conversation. He provided the raw materials and empowered his guests or students to imagine the rest for themselves.

In his library the great dramas of generations of revolutionary struggle were tucked away. Take, for example, the small purple book, surprisingly heavy for its size, titled The Revolution and Siege of Paris, With the Elections and Entry of the Prussians, in 1870–71, by an anonymous author referred to simply as “An Eye Witness” (but subsequently identified as Percival J. Brine, a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge), which my brother chose for himself after Chimen’s death. Detailing the Prussian occupation of Paris that followed the Franco-Prussian War, Brine noted that “The streets were only too tristes. The fortifications were entirely deserted in those parts of the city allotted to the Prussians. The houses, shops, cafes, hermetically closed all day and night, not a soul at the windows, not a thing to be bought for love or money; in fact, it was like a city of the plague, that the people had deserted.”

Or ponder the little book, with the dull red cover, that occupied shelf space nearby. Embossed with the gold-lettered title Paris During the Commune, 1871, it was a blow-by-blow eyewitness account, by a now-forgotten Victorian Methodist minister named William Gibson, of the great revolutionary upheaval that, for a few weeks during the heady spring of 1871, delivered Paris to a workers’ revolutionary committee after the French military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and which, quickly and brutally, was obliterated by the army. “This day (Saturday),” he wrote in one of the letters to the Watchman and Wesleyan Advertiser that was collected in this volume, “has been a day of great excitement in Paris. Having occasion to go to the Northern Railway Station at six o’clock this morning, I heard the National Guards in all directions being [sic] the rappel, and knew something must be brewing.” Gibson matter-of-factly reported that there were bodies lying in the street, and that the injured were being dragged away by their comrades. “11 p.m.,” the letter concludes, “we hear the roll of cannon, but hope, nevertheless, to sleep in peace.”

Chimen spent a lifetime insulating himself from the flames, surrounding himself with so many books and so much knowledge, that something could be guaranteed to survive out of the ashes, out of the chaos of history. ‘When it came to books’, his friend Dovid Katz, a Yiddish scholar whom Chimen had first met when Katz enrolled to study with him in 1976, believed, ‘there could be no left or right, no good or bad, for Chimen: they were part of a magical sphere of life that he had command of like no other. How he loved to show the works of a rabbi and a radical philosopher on the same shelf, showing how the bookshelf is the true territory of human harmony’.

To me, my grandparents’ house, so ordinary from the outside, was my school, my university, my library, my sanctuary when the going got tough at home. I’d walk down the dull-red brick front garden path, between my grandmother’s rose bushes, and climb the three steps to the door. I’d ring the doorbell, and there Chimen would be: ‘Ah, Meester Sasha’, he’d announce, pretending to be surprised. ‘Miri, it’s Meester Sasha. Come on in’. And he’d kiss me quickly on both cheeks, his breath slightly stale, then pull me into the House of Books and close the door behind me.

Copyright © 2014 Sasha Abramsky. All illustrations are courtesy of the author and his family. Published in the United States by New York Review Books.