David Aaronovitch and Jenny Abramsky have had glittering careers in the BBC and beyond. Aaronovitch, who was a BBC producer, is now a Times columnist and successful broadcaster and author. Abramsky who ran BBC Radio and went on to chair the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Royal Academy of Music is now Dame Jenny.
What they also have in common is that their mothers and fathers belonged to the same North London branch of the Communist Party during the early 1950s. The Security Service, MI5, tapped the phones of Chimen Abramsky and Sam Aaronovitch, intercepted their post and kept detailed records on their wives and families. They listened to gossip about Sam, Chimen and others inside Communist Party HQ in London via a listening device. When MI5 gained entry into the building as part of ‘Operation Party Piece’ and photographed files these included a 1950 biography Chimen had written about himself pledging that ‘I have never had any difference on policy with the Party’ (he subsequently left the party in 1956 after Hungary). When Chimen went to Amsterdam on party business Dutch authorities sent back a minute by minute timetable of where he’d gone and what he’d done.When Sam went on a demonstration about housing in North London Special Branch logged the chants he led such as ‘not a penny on the rents’. But MI5 never found any evidence that the two men or their wives were spies.Interested as they were in detecting espionage, MI5 were also focused on monitoring political activists from the far left.
The Security Service have now made public the Cold War files on the two comrades of the ‘Parliament Hill Fields’ branch as part of an annual release to the National Archives of documents about ‘Communists and Suspected Communists including Russian and Communist Sympathisers’.
The latest release raises two issues;
As a journalist and author who has made frequent use of released MI5 files with my colleague Jeff Hulbert, particularly in ‘Guy Burgess, the Spy Who Knew Everyone’ ,I welcome greater openness and accountability from the security services. The files do have value to historians which is why I am making some use of them in this post. But I also think all the families whose files are being made public deserve the simple courtesy of being told in advance. Jenny Abramsky wasn’t told. David Aaronovitch was. Often family members have asked for access to these files and had this refused, sometimes the very existence of the files has even been denied.
Secondly, while MI5 holds back many documents (over 20% of the Burgess files remain ‘closed’) does the releasing of personal details on much lesser figures serve as a useful distraction from what they are keeping secret half a century later?
Perhaps the most striking example of MI5’s surveillance of post-war Communist Party members in these particular files is dated 8.7.1954. It is no coincidence that this is the date of birth of David Aaronovitch. An MI5 internal memo of that date summarised a phone call made from Communist Party Headquarters. ‘Sam Aaronovitch phoned HAM 6333 Queen Mary’s Maternity Home to ask after his wife.He was told that she had had a boy.Both were well’. This is how MI5 got to hear about the birth of David Aaronovitch at the same time as his father.
In Jenny Abramsky’s case her birth was not spotted by the Security Service but soon afterwards MI5 picked up the news in a call between Sam and Chimen that the family ‘has a newborn daughter’. Those listening in managed to transcribe this despite the fact that sometimes ‘Chimen’s broken English makes him very incoherent’.
The two fathers both came from Russian Jewish families. Sam’s parents came to Britain at the turn of the century and he was born in Cable Street in East London, later the scene of the 1936 anti-fascist street battles with Mosley’s Blackshirts. Chimen’s father was a Rabbi who sent him to Palestine, Chimen first came to Britain in 1932 and finally settled here at the end of the 1930s.
Both became active in the post-war British Communist Party, Sam as a paid ‘party functionary’, Chimen in an unpaid role on the National Jewish Committee. They knew people who MI5 had good reason to think were connected with espionage, including two contemporaries of the Cambridge spies, James Klugman who helped recruit John Cairncross to the KGB and David Guest. But there is no evidence in the files that any member of the Aaronovitch and Abramsky families ever did anything illegal. One ‘source gained the impression that Aaronivitch might himself be in some way involved ..the impression however was based on very slender foundations’.
Espionage in those times was seen as very much a family activity.One MI5 document on Sam Aaronovitch says he was ‘connected with an espionage family through his [second] wife Kirstine Uren’. Her brother Ormond had been sentenced to 7 years imprisonment in 1943 for passing classified information to a Communist Party official who spied for Russia.
MI5 took a particular interest in families and love lives especially those of Sam who was married three times. In 1948 they asked the Deputy Commander of Special Branch for ‘any help you can give us in clearing the matrimonial tangles’ of Sam Aaronovitch. They asked for an update in 1956.
Being in the Communist Party was sometimes very much a family business. Chimen’s wife Miriam was recorded by MI5 as being a young Communist League member in Hendon who joined the party in 1937, was the secretary of Hampstead Communist Party during World War Two,l isted as ‘willing to give rooms to party colleagues in London’. According to one internal document seen by MI5, Miriam was ‘a real comrade’. Even getting a family doctor was a party matter; ‘Comrades ..should be told that they should register as an ordinary N.H.S patient with their nearest Party G.P’.
But one set of documents reveals how none of the families should ever have been in any doubt that ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin and his successors were really in charge. In 1954 there was ‘general agreement at HQ’ that Sam Aaronovitch was suitable for ‘S.C.R job’. ‘The Society for Closer Relations with Russia’ was a purportedly independent group which over the years included members such as George Bernard Shaw and H.G.Wells. But HQ knew there would be a snag which might stop Sam getting the ‘S.C.R job’. Staff were heard saying that ‘they had to expect some opposition from the Russians for political reasons and also because of his [Sam’s] name being a Russian one. Apparently they always did object to somebody who was of Russian origin or with Russian name for that kind of job’.There is no record of this lifelong supporter of Russia ever getting the job.