How Eastern Europe came to East London

By Anthony Rudolf, August 8, 2008
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We re-read a modern Jewish classic and pay a visit to its author, Emanuel Litvinoff


Officially, Emanuel Litvinoff, at 93, is a very old man. In practice, smiling and dapper, sitting in his Bloomsbury flat with a wife young enough to be his daughter and a son young enough to be his grandson, you would never guess from appearances that he is an elder of the tribe, the grand old man of Anglo-Jewish letters. We are visiting him on the occasion of the reissue of his classic Journey through a Small Planet, one of the best books ever written, from the inside, about the East-End Jewish experience.

Even people who own the first edition of this wonderful book - about that planet which, for about 50 years, resembled a small town in Eastern Europe - may want to buy the new edition. It contains important additional material, beginning with a beautifully written, instructive introduction by Patrick Wright, one of a number of writers who have done much to raise interest in the experience of London Jews by writing about them as one of the many minorities making up London's colourful patchwork quilt.

Following the main reprinted text, there is an amazing story called The Day the World Came to an End, which had previously appeared in the very first issue of the Jewish Quarterly. Written shortly after the end of the war, it seems to echo Hiroshima, but Litvinoff denies this vigorously.

The book ends with two poems and a revealing article from the 1960s, A Jew in England. In it, Litvinoff describes his profound disagreement with the Israeli writer Moshe Shamir.

Even the trees are Jewish in Israel, Shamir insisted. Litvinoff, however, sees Jews as being typically rooted in the diaspora. One of the two poems is the famous, To T.S. Eliot, a complex assault on a poet he admires greatly, and who happened to be in the audience when Litvinoff read the poem at the ICA.

These days, Litvinoff's main preoccupation is with the Holocaust, which hit him with the force of revelation when he was about 30, having served in the war and risen to the rank of major by the age of 27. He talks about the genocide with passion and authority. On Israel, he describes himself as a non-Zionist with sympathy for the Jewish state and concern for its survival, but he is not persuaded that it supplies the answer to "the Jewish problem".

At one point his wife brings out from a drawer a prized possession: Isaac Rosenberg's pamphlet, Youth, which the poet had signed for and presented to David Bomberg.

After a brief discussion about his major contribution to making known the problems of Soviet Jewry in the 1960s and '70s, we move on to his friends and acquaintances. Manny tells us that he knew Dylan Thomas, who was his exact contemporary, and an occasional drinking companion in Soho pubs. He recalls affectionately that the poet and editor Jon Silkin "was like a younger brother". Another person he remembers is the popular Manchester writer, Louis Golding, for whom he ghost-wrote sequels in order to earn a few pounds.

It is to be hoped that Litvinoff's own novels will be reprinted soon, and that the unpublished sequel to Journey through a Small Planet will finally see the light of day.

We go down to the garden reserved for inhabitants of Litvinoff's Bloomsbury square. Manny's wife Mary escorts us to the gate. Turning round to wave goodbye, we see Manny and his son Aaron embracing. They live for the day. The affection is palpable.

Journey Through a Small Planet by Emanuel Litvinoff is published as a Penguin Modern Classic (£9.99). A radio interview with Litvinoff from 1995 can be found on www.patrickwright.net

Emanuel Litvinoff's website is www.emanuel-litvinoff.com An event celebrating his life and work will be held on September 7 at the East London Central Synagogue, 30-40 Nelson Street London E1 starting at 3pm. There will be readings from Litvinoff's work and appropriate music will be played. People interested in attending should give their names in advance by emailing: clivebettington@lineone.net or telephoning 07941 367 882.

Last updated: 12:39pm, August 12 2008