This day in Jewish history / The poet who called out T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism is born
The celebrated British poet Emanuel Litvinoff wrote eloquently about his life between the World Wars and advocated fiercely for Soviet Jews.
May 5, 1915 is the birthdate of Emanuel Litvinoff, an English-Jewish poet and writer who defended the Jews again and again throughout his long career. Most famously, Litvinoff is remembered for an evening in 1951 when he read publicly a new poem harshly criticizing T.S. Eliot for the anti-Semitism evident in his poetry – in the presence of Eliot himself.
Emanuel Litvinoff was born in London’s Whitechapel section, the second of four children to a mother and father who had emigrated from Odessa, Ukraine. They had hoped to make it to New York, but didn't get further than London’s East End. When Emanuel was 2, his father went back to Russia to fight with the Bolsheviks – and never was heard from again. His mother, a seamstress, remarried and had five more children, and the family lived in great penury.
As the only Jewish child at Cordwainer’s Technical College in London, Emanuel was subjected to frequent taunting and beatings by classmates and teachers, and left school at age 14. He took on menial jobs and later reported, “I was so often so hungry that I would hallucinate. We fought every day for our lives.” He found work as a “fur nailer’s apprentice,” was active in Communist activities and, briefly, tried to organize a youth group of the local Zionist Revisionist movement. He succeeded in recruiting only a younger brother.
When World War II began, it was Litvinoff’s intention to declare himself a conscientious objector, until he considered what a successful German invasion of the British isles would mean for the Jews. He wrote to the War Office, asking to be called up. He was, but because of poor eyesight, he was assigned to a civilian position in the Pioneer Corps. It was during this time that his first collection of poetry, “The Untried Soldier,” was published. When a local officer familiar with Litvinoff's poetry discovered him working as a cook in Northern Ireland, he decided he should be sent off for officers training, which is how Litvinioff ended up overseas, in both North Africa and the Middle East. By the end of the war, he had reached the rank of major.
Litvinoff considered himself – until the end of his life –an admirer of T.S. Eliot. But in 1948, when Eliot published a collection of “Selected Poems,” and included his 1920 poem “Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar,” the younger poet was shocked. Eliot’s poem included the following description of a character he called Bleistein: “A saggy bending of the knees / And elbows, with the palms turned out, /Chicago Semite Viennese. / A lustreless protrusive eye / Stares from the protozoic slime / At a perspective of Canaletto. / The smoky candle end of time/ Declines. On the Rialto once./ The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot./ Money in furs. The boatman smiles. ...”
Litvinoff recognized that in the 1920s, when that poem was written, anti-Semitism was socially acceptable in English society. In 1948, after a world war and the revelation of the horrors of the Holocaust, that was no longer the case, he felt. When Litvinoff was invited to present a new poem at the inaugural evening of a poetry series at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, he decided to read a work called “To T.S. Eliot.”
As Litvinoff was called to the podium to read his new poem, the evening’s host, Sir Herbert Read, who knew only that the verse was about Eliot – a tribute, he apparently believed -- noticed that none other than Eliot himself, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature three years earlier, had just entered the hall. Read commented to Litvinoff that “Tom” had just arrived.
Litvinoff was unnerved, to say the least, but proceeded to read the poem to a shocked audience. It included the following lines: “I am not one accepted in your parish./ Bleistein is my relative and I share/ the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page/ in Stuermer, and, underneath the cities,/ a billet somewhat lower than the rats./ Blood in the sewers. Pieces of our flesh/ float with the ordure on the Vistula.”
The poem continued, “Let your words/ tread lightly on this earth of Europe/ lest my people’s bones protest.”
When Litvinoff finished, members of the audience shouted out angrily at him for daring to attack the eminent T.S. Eliot. The catcalls continued until, from the back of the hall, a voice was heard to say, “It’s a good poem. It’s a very good poem.”
That voice came from T.S. Eliot.
In the years that followed, Litvinoff worked as an editor on the Zionist Review and several other Jewish journals. He lived for some time in Berlin and then wrote a novel, “The Lost European,” about a Jew who returns to that city after the war, and began writing plays for production on television. He published more than 20 books, including his most well-known, a memoir called, “Journey Through a Small Planet,” about his own life in the East End between the wars. Another work, a story called “Enemy Territory,” described his schooling at Cordwainer’s, where the teachers were no less prejudiced against Jews than the pupils.
Litvinoff’s first wife, Irene Pearson, was a successful English fashion model, who went by the name Cherry Marshall. (She was said to have the smallest waist in London.) In 1955, he accompanied her to a fashion show he had organized for her in the Soviet Union, thus walking “50 yards into the Jewish problem,” as he later put it. Litvinoff subsequently became deeply involved in publicizing the plight of Soviet Jews.
Emanuel Litvinoff died on September 24, 2011, at the age of 96.