Emanuel Litvinoff, who has died at the age of 96, is perhaps best known for his memoir of the Jewish East End into which he was born, the son of recently arrived Russian émigrés, in 1915. Written in the 1960s, Journey Through a Small Planet has accurately been described as a “memoir-in-stories”. It testifies to the teeming world that was once crammed into a few streets around Brick Lane in Whitechapel.  The Jewish settlement was only yards from the City of London, but  ‘people spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs’.  It was a world of absent men, many of whom had returned to Russia in the First World War, encouraged by the British authorities to enter the Tsar’s army.  Litvinoff’s father was among those who were never seen again. The sound of the sewing machine with which his mother supported her four sons remained with him for life.

Having repeatedly failed the scholarship examination that might have opened more conventional prospects, Litvinoff drifted downwards. By the mid-thirties, he was wandering the streets with dreams of becoming a great writer. He owed his first poem to intoxicating fumes from a furniture factory glue pot, and he also set out to write an epic novel which would match the American Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and The River. He had to reach for a dictionary when the Bulgarian born writer, Elias Canetti , who moved to London from Vienna in 1938, visited him in his room on the Finchley Road and described him as a ‘schizophrenic’ writer. 

When he volunteered for military service, Litvinoff saw the coming Second World War as a straightforward battle against Nazi evil. However, his view was complicated by a shocking event that occurred in 1942, when he was serving with the Pioneer Corps in Ulster. An old cargo boat named the Struma had left Romania in December 1941, packed with nearly eight hundred Jewish men, woman and children, desperate to escape the Nazis.  After breaking down at sea, the ship was towed into Istanbul harbour.  Its passengers hoped to travel overland to Palestine, but they were forbidden to disembark unless the British agreed to admit them to Palestine. The British authorities in London rejected their request and, after weeks of deadlock, the Struma was towed out into the Black Sea and left to drift. A day later, on 24 February 1942, it exploded and sank, leaving only a single survivor.

It would emerge, much later, that the Struma had been torpedoed by a Soviet submarine.  But for Litvinoff, the British were responsible.  The disaster ‘blurred the frontiers of evil’ in a way that left him reluctant to describe himself as “English”, or to seek the kind of assimilation achieved by other Jewish writers in Britain.  After the war, Litvinoff found work as a ghost writer for the popular Anglo-Jewish writer, Louis Golding.  In the most interesting of these works, To the Quayside (1954), he  takes Golding’s characters (who  were accustomed to a comparatively  genial life in the pre-war suburbs of Manchester)  and propels them through the traumas of the Holocaust and the early years of the new state of Israel. In his own books, Litvinoff would pursue the same wider European story. The Lost Europeans (1960) is concerned with a number of Jews who go back to Berlin soon after the Second World War.  His trilogy, Faces of Terror (1968-75), tells the story of the Russian revolution and its aftermath, retold partly through the lore of Jewish anarchists in Whitechapel.  

In England, Litvinoff became known as a questioning, sometimes abrasive figure.  His most famous collision with the mainstream occurred in 1951, when he challenged T.S. Eliot for allowing some of his anti-Semitic lines to be reprinted in a new selected edition of his poems.  Such attitudes may have been more or less commonplace in England before the war, but Litvinoff  was outraged to see them reprinted without adjustment or comment after Auschwitz. He returned to the issue of English anti-Semitism in the novel The Man Next Door (1968), which follows the campaign of mayhem and murder unleashed on the family of a successful Whitechapel lingerie manufacturer (‘Alluriste Ltd.’) who moves into the English countryside to become the neighbour of an unemployed and crazed vacuum cleaner salesman. 

Having found his cause, Litvinoff became a campaigner as well as a writer. In 1956, he and his first  wife, Cherry Marshall, who then ran a successful fashion modelling agency, decided to widen the repertoire of “cultural diplomacy” as it was then being conducted between Britain and the Soviet Union.  At one of their parties, the actor, David de Keyser, who had just returned from visiting Moscow with the Old Vic theatre company, announced that women in the USSR had ‘absolutely nothing’ in the way of fashion, and were ‘starving for a glimpse of the western world’. Enquiries followed, and when the Russian Chamber of Commerce in London declared itself enthusiastic about the  idea of staging a British  catwalk in Gorky Park, Marshall and six of her models boarded a plane, quickly dubbed “Cleopatra’s barge” by the onlooking press. The show was a spectacular success, but Litvinoff, who had squeezed himself onto the delegation as Marshall’s “business manager”, had other business to attend to. He had been approached by the Dr Nahum Goldmann, the recently elected President of the World Zionist Organisation, who asked him to take a letter to the Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Frustrated in his attempts to deliver this missive through the British embassy, Litvinoff made his own way to the city’s main synagogue, where he found the Rabbi hemmed in by goons and muttering platitudes about how marvellous Soviet Russia  was for its Jews. Meanwhile,  starved and ragged figures tottered on the steps outside hoping for charity – these spectral survivors  whispered of Siberia, reminding Litvinoff of other recent instances of Soviet anti-semitism: Stalin’s murder of Jewish writers and intellectuals, the blatantly anti-semitic trial of Slansky in Czechoslovakia, and the alleged “Doctor’s Plot” of 1953.  Horrified by what he had seen, Litvinoff came home and launched the international  campaign for Soviet Jewry.  In 1958, he published the first edition of the newsletter that came to be known as Jews in Eastern Europe, which he edited for years from an office in Fitzrovia. The journal, which was assembled with information from Israeli sources, traced the persistence, or resurgence, of ancient blood libels in various parts of the USSR, and the loathsome campaigns against ‘parasites’ and ‘cockroaches’.   Litvinoff devoted much energy to arguing his way through the suspicions of those who thought any criticism of the USSR was a concession to Western anti-Communism. In 1973, he served as a witness at the Paris prosecution of the editor of the Soviet embassy’s French- language publication U.R.S.S., convicted of ‘incitement to racial hatred and discrimination’. As he wrote then, the persistent of anti-semitism among extremists was one thing, but its ‘resurrection as an instrument of policy’ by a great power formally opposed to such discrimination, seemed barely credible.

Litvinoff was close to the Zionist cause, and yet here too he remained a man of independent judgement.  In 1966 he visited Israel for a symposium of Anglo-Jewish and Israeli writers, and argued fiercely with Moshe Shamir and other Israeli writers who promised that Israel would ‘liquidate’ the diaspora, and that no Jew could be anything but rootless outside Israel. When the assault moved on to insist that Hebrew must replace Yiddish, as if the latter was merely a debased victims’ language, Litvinoff spoke up for the Yiddish he had known when growing up on  Brick Lane: ‘a yeasty language, alive with experience of sorrow, exile, the knockabout humour of the market place’. His more or less friendly argument with Israel continued into his last novel, Falls The Shadow (1983). Here Litvinoff adopted the theme of the Nazi Jew, already familiar in popular fiction.  His book tells the story of a Nazi murderer who has escaped to Israel and apparently become a model citizen. The novel was written not long after the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in Lebanon, and there was no Israeli edition.

For Litvinoff retirement meant sitting in a small flat high up on the east side of Mecklenburgh Square, itself at the eastern edge of Bloomsbury. He lived here with his second wife Mary McClory – having long since managed to secure this unlikely perch in a building otherwise used to accommodate overseas post-graduate students studying at the University of London.  He enjoyed looking out into the plane trees, which had once inspired the American Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle, who lived in this London square during the First World War. When asked why he had put down his pen after completing Falls the Shadow in the early eighties, he declared that he had always found writing books very wearing, and he had worried  that the strain of another might kill him. He had good reason to preserve his energies. In 1986, and to his own delighted astonishment, he and Mary had a son, Aaron.  So he spent many afternoons in the square garden, watching children play and smiling, as he did a lot in his last years. He lived to see Aaron graduate earlier in the summer.



Emanuel Litvinoff

by Patrick Wright

Monday 3rd October 2011