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Emanuel Litvinoff, poet hit T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism

By Margalit Fox
New York Times / October 7, 2011

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NEW YORK - Emanuel Litvinoff, an English-born Jewish poet known for his scathing verse indictment of T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism and for reading it before an audience that included Eliot, died Sept. 24 at his home in London. He was 96.

His son Aaron confirmed the death.

The author of several volumes of poetry, Mr. Litvinoff also wrote well-received novels centering on the struggles of Jews in the European diaspora.

He was the author of “Journey Through a Small Planet’’ (1972), a highly praised memoir of the straitened yet vibrant Jewish community in London’s prewar East End.

Mr. Litvinoff also advocated on behalf of the rights of Jews in the postwar East Bloc.

He was the founder and editor of a newsletter originally titled Jews in Eastern Europe, which was published regularly from the late 1950s to the late ’80s.

But it was for his poem “To T.S. Eliot’’ that he was best remembered.

Written after World War II and widely anthologized, it was a response to work by Eliot that contained unapologetic anti-Semitic elements.

One such Eliot poem, “Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar,’’ included the lines:

But this or such was Bleistein’s way: 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.

The poem was first published in 1920. Before World War II, Mt. Litvinoff, who otherwise admired Eliot’s work, was prepared to dismiss it as simply another link in the venerable chain of British literary anti-Semitism.

Eliot chose to reprint the poem in his anthology “Selected Poems,’’ published in 1948. That, in the post-Holocaust world, struck Mr. Litvinoff as inexcusable.

Mr. Litvinoff was by this time established himself, his published work including the volumes “The Untried Soldier’’ (1942) and “A Crown for Cain’’ (1948).

He set to work and wrote “To T.S. Eliot.’’ Addressed directly to the poet and invoking Shakespeare, the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, and the Vistula River in Poland, it opens:

Eminence becomes you. Now when the rock is struck your young sardonic voice which broke on beauty floats amid incense and speaks oracles as though a god utters from Russell Square and condescends, high in the solemn cathedral of the air, his holy octaves to a million radios. I am not one accepted in your parish. Bleistein is my relative and I share the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page in Sturmer, 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. You had a sermon but it was not this.

In early 1951, Mr. Litvinoff was invited to take part in an illustrious public poetry reading at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. He brought the poem with him.

He had no idea, though, that just before he began reading it aloud, its subject would walk through the door.

Emanuel Litvinoff was born in the Whitechapel section of London, one of four children of parents who had fled czarist pogroms in Odessa, Ukraine. After the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Emanuel’s father returned there to fight with the Bolsheviks and was never heard from again.

His mother supported the family as a seamstress. She eventually remarried and had five more children; Emanuel was reared in the East End with his mother, stepfather, and eight siblings in two tiny rooms.

So nervous that he could not hold a pencil when he sat for the entrance exam for academic secondary school, Emanuel was relegated to trade school, where he was trained as a shoemaker. The only Jewish boy there, he endured anti-Semitic baiting and beatings, as he later wrote, at the hands of his schoolmates.

After leaving school, he held threadbare jobs, including fur nailer’s apprentice, helping to stretch pelts on boards before they were cut and sewn. He could not always afford food and often slept in doorways.

During the war, Mr. Litvinoff served with the British Army in Northern Ireland, West Africa, and the Middle East.

He began writing poetry at that time.

Mr. Litvinoff was divorced from his first wife, Irene Maud Pearson, a celebrated British fashion model known professionally as Cherry Marshall and said to have had the smallest waist in London.

He leaves his second wife, Mary McClory; their son, Aaron; two children, Julian and Sarah, from his first marriage; a half-brother, Phil; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A daughter, Vida, from his first marriage, died last year.

His other books include the novels “The Lost Europeans’’ (1959), “The Man Next Door’’ (1968), “Falls the Shadow’’ (1983), and “The Penguin Book of Jewish Short Stories’’ (1979), which he edited.

Before Mr. Litvinoff took the stage to read “To T.S. Eliot’’ that day in London, a murmur ran through the crowd, which included some of Britain’s leading literary lights: Eliot, the 1948 Nobel laureate in literature, had just entered the room.

By the time it was Mr. Litvinoff’s turn to read, he said afterward, he was keenly aware that the target of the corrosive lines he was about to utter was sitting in the audience.

His voice shook, he recalled, giving his poem unintended force.

After the opening stanzas, it continued:

Yet walking with Cohen when the sun exploded and darkness choked our nostrils, and the smoke drifting over Treblinka reeked of the smoldering ashes of children, I thought what an angry poem you would have made of it, given the pity. . . . So shall I say it is not eminence chills but the snigger from behind the covers of history, the sly words and the cold heart and footprints made with blood upon a continent? Let your words tread lightly on this earth of Europe lest my people’s bones protest.

When Mr. Litvinoff finished, as was widely reported, pandemonium ensued.

The poet Stephen Spender stood up and denounced him for insulting Eliot, prompting others in the crowd to cry “Hear, hear’’ in assent.

There was, however, a dissenting voice.

Amid the tumult, a man in the back of the room was heard to mutter: “It’s a good poem. It’s a very good poem.’’

The speaker was Thomas Stearns Eliot.