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My Grandfather Built a House of 20,000 Books From the Ashes of War By Sasha Abramsky
n 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.