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Chimen Abramsky

Raphael, aged 11, c1945From The Jewish Chronicle

(A shortened version was published on 17 January 1997)

Raphael Elkan Samuel, a distinguished social historian of England, and a wonderful man, died from cancer in London on December 9 at the age of nearly sixty-two. He left a profound mark on a whole group of ultra modern social historians in Britain, and his influence began to be felt also in America. Apart from many contributions in articles and books, which he edited, he inspired many ventures, especially among intellectuals of the Left. Two years ago he published a monumental volume Theatres of Memory, which was acclaimed as a masterpiece by the leading scholars from the academic world, irrespective of Left or Right.

He was born in London on 26 December 1934. His father, Barnett Samuel, a traditional and conservative Jew, a solicitor, came from a well- known family in Cardiff. His mother, Minna Nierenstein (later after her second marriage, Minna Keal), a gifted composer, was one of three partners of the well-known Jewish publishing house and bookshop in the East End of London, Shapiro, Valentine.

Raphael was a very precocious child, more of an adult in children's clothing. His parents marriage was an unhappy one, and after his father came out of the army, they divorced. His mother brought him up, and after attending various unconventional schools, he went to the progressive King Alfred's School.

As a result of the rise of fascism in Europe and the Second World War many Jews joined the communist movement. This had a major influence on the young Raphael. He absorbed many communist ideas on equality. As a youngster he took part in demonstrations and helped to distribute leaflets.

In 1952, at the age of 17, he won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where his chief tutor was the eminent left-wing historian of the 17th century, Christopher Hill, later Master of Balliol, and subsequently a close friend of Raphael. As an undergraduate his erudition was already formidable, and he received a starred first.

After the famous secret speech of Khrushchev denouncing Stalin in February 1956, and then the bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising by the Soviet army, the Communist Party went through a major crisis, and many people left. A large number of Jews left because of the revelations concerning violent anti-Semitism against Jewish cultural workers and writers. Raphael and his mother left also. Raphael threw himself in great fervour to launch a Left movement outside the Communist Party. He and the sociologist, Stuart Hall, founded the journal New Left Review, and also founded a meeting place, a cafe, The Partisan where left-wing intellectuals met, debated and argued about the future and present of the left. At the same time he received a fellowship in the Institute of Community Studies, founded by Michael Young, later Lord Young. From there he went to Ruskin College, Oxford, the Trade Union College, to teach sociology, and later switched to social history.

In Ruskin College, Raphael found his proper m├ętier, working with mature students from the working class. He launched the History Workshop, which attracted hundreds of people to attend sessions on Chartism, on the role of women in history, and on local histories. It was a genuine populist movement, to try to understand history in its many manifestations. The journal History Workshop became the harbinger of many new ideas in history. Its emphasis was that people, ordinary folk, are the creators of history rather than the politicians or leaders; the bricklayer is as important as the architect. For Raphael, belief