Joan Rodker: Political activist who acted in Ukraine, campaigned for the Rosenbergs and organised postwar peace conferences

Joan Rodker was a great campaigner and manager for causes on the left. She lived through those interesting times that are supposed to be a curse. She stood for and against the events and culture of the 20th century, as John Berger says of her, like a tree (a small one, she was barely over five foot) suffering, surviving and engaging with them.

She was born in 1915 to a beauty and would-be actress, Sonia Cohen, and the poet, John Rodker, one of the Whitechapel Boys, a group of avant- garde painters, artists and publishers, all of them children of Jewish escapees of the European pogroms of the 1880s. Marriage was too bourgeois forRodker, and the relationship didn't last, so Sonia, an unmarried mother trying to earn a living, had Joan, aged 18 months, put into an institution, where she stayed until she was 11."It could have been worse," Joan says with her rueful smile in a filmed interview made the year before her death. She eventually returned to live with her mother.

After she failed her matric exam, it was decided she was good at languages, so her father sent her, at the age of 17 with a letter to someone she didn't know, alone by train to Prague toimprove her German. There she gave English conversation lessons tostudents who spoke mysteriously of "dialektischer materialismus" [dialectical materialism] and adopted Joan because of her iconic 1 May birthday. She notes from a diary she kept at the time that it took only three weeks to move from baffled scepticism to becoming a mistress of the socialist jargon herself.

Two years later, in 1934, she went to Moscow and joined a troupe of actors sent round the collective farms in Ukraine in order to improve culture and morale. Tragedy was not encouraged because, it was said, "the people are happy and hopeful and love a good laugh". They were not welcome, 30 of them arriving in dire times, needing to be fed. They mostly ate black bread, Joan recalled, which made them fart. At night they divided themselves between farters and snorers. Joan fell in love with Gerhard Hinze, a member of the troupe who had been a political prisoner in Germany. She remembers being heavily pregnant in a blizzard, running behind the last sled through the walls of snow on the steppe and losing touch with the wooden runner, knowing momentarily that she was lost and alone in the world, before she once again got a hand on the sled.

Joan, Hinze (who anglicised his name to Gerard Heinz) and their son Ernest returned to England when the war began. Hinze was beginning to get acting jobs when he was interned as an enemy alien and sent to a camp in Canada with Nazi prisoners of war. Joan was left alone with an infant to support. In order to get Hinze released, she took Ernest by ship to America. All she had was a first edition of Ulysses annotated by Joyce which her father, who had published it, had given her to sell, but she found work and people befriended her. Among them wasJessica Mitford, who remained a friend and correspondent until she died, whom Joan met when theycampaigned together during the Cold War against the Rosenbergs' execution and to get Paul Robeson's right to travel restored.

After she returned to England she continued to be involved in left-wing causes. If anything needed organising, Joan was called in. She helped to arrange several postwar international peace conferences, during one of which Picasso stopped her at breakfast to praise her dancing. Between 1950 and 1955 she helped to open and administrate the Polish Cultural Institute, and, with the painter Peter de Francia and writer John Berger, organised the first Soho fair. She spent an intrepid year travelling solo in Mexico, filming and writing articles, and then began to work in television. She did research with Kenneth Tynan and Huw Weldon on seminal arts programmes such as Tempo and Monitor, and commissioned writers and edited scripts with Verity Lambert and others on Thirty Minute Theatre and Armchair Theatre.

Joan and Hinze's relationship didn't survive their enforced separation and Joan found a house to rent in Kensington Church Street. Remembering the help she had received in America, she offered the upstairs room to Doris Lessing and her small son. They became friends. I met Joan in the early 1960s when I was a teenager stuck in a psychiatric hospital, and Doris, having just bought a house, invited me to live with her. Joan was ever-present and her house in Church Street remains in my memory a place of warmth, comfort and calm wisdom. She continued to support me with her firmness and friendship and a place to stay, even when I seemed to most people to be a lost cause.

Joan seemed to know everyone and told stories from all her decades with great bursts of laughter and a proper sense of the absurd. But for all her kindness, conviviality and competence she was burdened, because of that early neglect, with an ineradicable lack of confidence which meant that she could never allow her real talents for drawing (David Bomberg admired her sketches) and writing to develop. In spite of her great internal striving through psychoanalysis with Dr Aaron Esterson, she never felt that she had done her life justice on paper. She was born into a literary world where books and writing mattered above all, and she was still working on her biography just weeks before she died. In her autobiography, Doris Lessing said of Joan that her "story is extraordinary". It was, and the powerful and positive effect Joan had throughout her long life on her family and those who knew her, expressed it perfectly. She is survived by her son, Ernest, and her grandsons Oliver and Joel.

Jenny Diski

Joan Rodker, political activist: born 1 May 1915; married Gerhard Hinze (one son); died 27 December 2010.