Emanuel Litvinoff: Poet and writer who chronicled his Jewish East End upbringing

By Martin Childs
Sunday 23 October 2011 18:51

Emanuel Litvinoff encountered and endured all of the usual deep-rooted discrimination and persecution that a Jew could encounter in London from the 1920s to the 1950s, but he was stoic enough, with the strength of character, to fight back. He took on the literary establishment, wrote about the plight of impoverished and displaced Jews before and during the war, and brought to the world's attention the atrocities being perpetuated against Jews in the Soviet Union after 1945 through his editorial work on the newsletter Jews in Eastern Europe.

Although a huge admirer of TS Eliot, Litvinoff had been dismayed by his anti-Semitism, especially in the poems he published in 1948, in the aftermath of the Holocaust: "The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot" he wrote in "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar". Litvinoff wrote a response, "To TS Eliot", which he read in front of Eliot at the Institute of Contemporary Arts' inaugural poetry platform in 1952. There was dismay and indignation, though Eliot was heard to mutter, "It's a good poem."

Born in Whitechapel in London's East End in 1915, Emanuel Litvinoff was the second of four children of Jewish émigrés who had fled Odessa two years earlier to escape the pogroms. They travelled in steerage hoping to reach New York but funds prevented them making it beyond Spitalfields.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Litvinoff's father went back to Russia to fight but never returned. His mother remarried and had five more children. A dressmaker taking in work, she brought up her nine children in a gaslit, two-room tenement.

For Litvinoff the local library at Bethnal Green was a second home, though he failed to get into grammar school due to nerves in the exam. "It was the only way of escape from the misery and poverty and unemployment," he recalled. "If you didn't go to a grammar school, you went to a factory, and the factory was your doom."

He was forced to get a trade, but many avenues were closed to him as a Jew. It was at the Cordwainers Technical College (serving the shoe industry), where Litvinoff, the only Jewish boy, experienced his first "serious" prejudice. From the first roll call, the headmaster pretended to have difficulty saying his name, which became "Litpotskyoff", "Lavatoryoffsky" and, finally, "Pissoffsky". Litvinoff soon left and later wrote the story Enemy Territory based on his experiences.

He took on a series of menial jobs during the Depression, sleeping rough and applying to the Jewish Board of Guardians for a pair of boots. He ended up working in the fur trade; he also joined the Young Communist League and became a leading figure at branch level but was expelled for his Trotskyism. In 1939, Litvinoff had thoughts of being a conscientious objector but instead joined the Pioneer Corps, who sent him to Glasgow and Northern Ireland. His first poems were published in an anthology, Poems from the Forces. Shortly after, he was sent to Officer Training School following a visit from a Brigadier who said, "We can't have educated men doing cookery, we're desperately short of officers".

He served in Africa and the Middle East and was demobbed with the rank of Major. His first collection, The Untried Soldier, was published and he met Irene Pearson, an ATS chauffeur. After a courtship of seven weeks, the couple married in Nottingham in 1942.

After the war the family moved to a basement flat in Hampstead. Litvinoff struggled as a freelance writer working for the likes of The Guardian and the New Statesman. Irene, under the name Cherry Marshall, a surname borrowed from the post-war Marshall Plan, worked as a model then established a modelling agency. Litvinoff took a job on the Zionist Review and became deputy editor on the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review.

In 1955, he organised an unlikely fashion show in the USSR for his wife and her agency and in doing so he "walked 50 yards into the Jewish problem". He was confronted with former Jewish prison-camp inmates who were being left to fend for themselves. He set about making their plight known to the world, lecturing and securing donations. His work made a substantial contribution to the legislation that permitted Jews to leave the Soviet Union for Israel.

Following a trip to Berlin, Litvinoff's first novel, The Lost European (1959) was published and widely translated; he went on to write plays for television and radio and another 20 books, the best known of which is Journey Through A Small Planet, a Penguin Modern Classic chronicling the inter-war years of his working-class Jewish childhood in the East End – next to the City but worlds apart in culture and spirit.

Towards the end of his life, when Litvinoff became ill, the local authority's home support recommended by his hospital doctors was withdrawn. "It seems the same as 1931 all over again," he said. "This is a depression caused by financiers and bankers, but it's the poorest who are paying for it."

Emanuel Litvinoff, writer and poet: born London 5 May 1915; married 1942 Irene Pearson (divorced 1970, died 2006; one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased), secondly Mary Mc-Clory (one son); died London 24 September 2011.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments