Emanuel Litvinoff obituary

Poet and novelist, born in the East End, who railed against the fate of the Jews in his work

In the early 1950s, the Jewish poet and novelist Emanuel Litvinoff, who has died aged 96, appeared at the first poetry platform at the ICA, in London. He castigated TS Eliot – whom he admired and was present at the event – for reprinting, after the Holocaust, a 1920 poem featuring the lines: "The rats are underneath the piles / The Jew is underneath the lot." From that moment, through to Emanuel's major poems, such as The Dead Sea (from his 1973 collection Notes for a Survivor), several novels and his memoir, Journey Through a Small Planet (1972), Emanuel's voice was one raised in protest against the fate of the Jews. His editorship of the monthly newsletter Jews in Eastern Europe, which gave details of the atrocities being perpetuated against the Jews of the Soviet Union, made a serious contribution to the legislation that eventually allowed Jewish people to leave the USSR for Israel.

He was born in Whitechapel, in the East End of London, the second son of Jewish immigrants who had left Odessa. His father went back to Russia before Emanuel was two, and he never returned, leaving Emanuel's mother, Rosa, to support her children by dressmaking. She later remarried and had more children, so Emanuel grew up in a large family. He never had a bar mitzvah, as his mother was too poor to afford it.

Journey Through a Small Planet is a vivid, bawdy and humorous account of growing up destitute between the wars. After being thrown out of home, he slept rough in doorways, wrapped in newspaper for warmth, and wandered the streets in a hallucinatory state from malnutrition. Somehow he found a flat above a swimming pool in the Finchley Road, furnished it with tasteful junk and wrote the inevitable Thomas Wolfe-inspired novel so vast it could barely be contained in the suitcase that was later lost on a wartime railway station platform by his wife, Irene Maud Pearson.

In 1939, he volunteered for the Pioneer Corps, was posted to Northern Ireland and went through the Officer Cadet Training Unit. In 1941, while stationed in Catterick, North Yorkshire, he and some other young officers smuggled themselves into an "other ranks" dance, where he met the beautiful Irene, a dispatch rider and chauffeur in the ATS. They married in 1941.

His first collection, The Untried Soldier, was published the following year, and he was posted to Sierra Leone, where his task was to make soldiers out of boys who had never worn shoes, never mind boots. He was there for two years. During this time, he wrote the poems that were included in his second collection, A Crown for Cain. Meanwhile, his pregnant wife had been demobbed. She gave birth to their daughter, Vida, in 1943, and wrote to Emanuel every day.

He ended the war, after further service in Alexandria, as acting major, and returned to the immediate postwar depression of a damp basement in Fitzjohn's Avenue, Hampstead, where he struggled to make a living as a writer. He worked with the novelist Louis Golding on a play based on Golding's bestseller, Magnolia Street – a spectacular flop at the Embassy theatre, in Swiss Cottage. He also worked as a reviewer and commentator for publications including the Guardian, the Listener and the New Statesman. His son, Julian, was born in 1946, by which time Irene had become the breadwinner thanks to her modelling career under the name of Cherry Marshall.

To make ends meet, Emanuel took a job on the Zionist Review (although he was not a Zionist), and became deputy editor on the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review. The Litvinoffs moved to St John's Road, Golders Green, where their daughter Sarah was born in 1953.

In 1955 he masterminded an unlikely fashion show to the USSR for his wife and the glamorous models of her Cherry Marshall Agency, and in doing so he "walked 50 yards into the Jewish problem". The experience of seeing derelict elderly Jews who had been in Soviet prison camps galvanised him into making the plight of Soviet Jews internationally known. Gradually he became a world expert on the subject, recruiting Bertrand Russell, among others, to the cause, and visiting cities in Europe and the US to lecture and drum up support.

In 1957 he went to Berlin to research The Lost Europeans, a novel about a Jew who goes back to Berlin after the war. This was published in 1959 and the film rights were quickly sold, enabling the family to buy a house in Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire. Wolf Mankowitz wanted to write the screenplay and Dirk Bogarde to play the hero. The film was never made, but Emanuel discovered a facility for writing TV plays, several of which were produced for Thames Television's Armchair Theatre. Among these was Another Branch of the Family (1967), about a man who lives with a chimpanzee; A Foot in the Door (1969), about a salesman; and Marriage and Henry Sunday (1967), which starred Warren Mitchell.

Emanuel's second novel, The Man Next Door (1969), concerned antisemitism in the suburbs. He also began a TV project about anarchists in the East End of London around the time of the Russian Revolution. From this grew a trilogy of books, The Faces of Terror, comprising A Death Out of Season (1973), Blood On the Snow (1975) and The Face of Terror (1978). In 1979 he edited The Penguin Book of Jewish Short Stories. His last novel was Falls the Shadow (1983), a thriller about a Nazi who disappears into Israel as a Jew.

I met Emanuel in 1955 and was involved with all of his work from then onwards. The stories that make up Journey Through a Small Planet were found by me at the back of drawers and in wastepaper baskets. Three of them were published in Penguin Modern Stories 2 (1969), which I edited. They were then arranged in chronological order to create the autobiographical line for the book. I was particularly happy when the book was reprinted as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2008.

He and Cherry divorced in 1970, and she died in 2006. He is survived by Julian and Sarah; by his second wife, Mary McClory, and their son, Aaron Emanuel; and by three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Vida died in 2010.

• Emanuel Litvinoff, writer, born 5 May 1915; died 24 September 2011

Judith Burnley

The GuardianTramp

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