The great Jewish writer Emanuel Litvinoff's greatest novel has just been republished
Emanuel Litvinoff was born in the slums of Whitechapel in 1915. His parents were refugees from Odessa’s pogroms. Came the October Revolution and his father deserted the family to return and join the fun, leaving his dependents destitute. Emanuel was, by a good decade, the eldest of that extraordinary army of deprived but talented young Jewish writers and artists who fought their way out of their poverty-stricken East End ghetto in the 1930s. They then helped to invigorate and redefine British culture in the post-war decades. Litvinoff lived on quietly to the ripe old age of 96, his journalism and scriptwriting, his poetry and ghost writing all but forgotten.
Now with the republication after 60 years of his one great novel, The Lost Europeans, his time may finally have come.
I hope so. For that extraordinary book alone, he should be up there alongside Pinter, Kops, Wesker, Wolf Mankowitz and the rest: very Jewish — secular Jewish — very socialist, often Communist, but also very attached to their immigrant parents’ new homeland. With the death of my — admittedly difficult — friend Arnold Wesker, that movement has finally come to an end. It cannot be long before the next, very different wave — cultivated Jewish refugees who had thought they were “assimilated” Germans, a cut above east European ghetto Jews, but still had to flee Nazi Germany — follows them into the history books.
Litvinoff’s self-imposed task was to bridge the gulf dividing the generation of pogrom-escaping Jews from the later Holocaust survivors. In his forties, he determined to learn more about the latter. In 1957, he took himself off to Berlin when people — especially Jewish people — didn’t go there unless they had to. Germans were still widely regarded with suspicion, if not disgust, although logically no Germans then under the age of, say, 25 could bear any moral guilt for the sins of their fathers. And many Berliners regarded Jews with a queasy mixture of shame, guilt, embarrassment and resentment. It would take another five years, the Berlin Wall and Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech to turn glitzy, consumer capitalist (West) Berlin into an officially recognised island of freedom, populated by heroes, not Huns.
So it was a weird and now forgotten Berlin in which Litvinoff immersed himself for many months and which was faithfully recorded in journalistic detail in The Lost Europeans. The devastating horrors of defeat and destruction were long gone. The 1948-49 airlift was just a memory, replaced by the gradual emergence of two Cold War Berlins. Money, big but often dodgy money, was already starting to slop around the West, although many people still lived in poverty in cellars and semi-derelict buildings. Feral gangs of murderous youths loitered in the back streets and you could find the occasional ragged old lady pulling a wooden handcart full of reclaimed bricks. A discreet version of the louche Weimar cabaret culture, often gay and disproportionately Jewish, had emerged. A cold clammy blanket lay across the Soviet Zone. But crossing between them was still easy. Thousands did it every day, to work, shop or to see friends and family.
Nazis were quietly reinventing themselves as decent democrats who simply hadn’t noticed what was going on between 1933 and 1945. Tens of thousands of POWs turned slave labourers in Stalin’s gulag were finally returning. Most amazingly, as Litvinoff chronicles, Jews were returning too. Some were camp survivors, too wrecked to move on. Others were so assimilated that they still felt more at home in Berlin than they had done as refugees in London or New York. Others were back from Israel, secretly hunting for potential aliyah-makers — or hidden Nazis.
Into this stew steps our hero, lawyer Martin Stone, née Silberstein, son and heir of a Berlin banking family who had got out just in time, though of course they lost their bank. Old enough to remember his happy and luxurious Berlin childhood, young enough to have become thoroughly Anglicised at a grand public school, he is back to start the lengthy legal proceedings needed to claim compensation. His father is furious; he won’t touch German “blood money”. Martin is more pragmatic but still steeped in understandable bitterness and suspicion.
The story of his adventures on the way to (partial) reconciliation with heirs of the Third Reich make this book a thriller well worth reading. But its real value is as a record of postwar Berlin at a unique tipping point in the city’s history.