Journey Through a Small Planet, Paperback Book
5 out of 5 (1 rating)


In Journey Through a Small Planet (1972), the writer Emanuel Litvinoff recalls his working-class Jewish childhood in the East End of London: a small cluster of streets right next to the city, but worlds apart in culture and spirit.

With vivid intensity Litvinoff describes the overcrowded tenements of Brick Lane and Whitechapel, the smell of pickled herring and onion bread, the rattle of sewing machines and chatter in Yiddish.

He also relates stories of his parents, who fled from Russia in 1914, his experiences at school and a brief flirtation with Communism.

Unsentimental, vital and almost dream like, this is a masterly evocation of a long-vanished world.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Memoirs
  • ISBN: 9780141189307

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If you've ever wandered through the back streets, alleyways, and courtyards of old Spitalfields and Whitechapel in London's East End; sensing the dim and now somewhat distant presence of a bygone era and an old world Jewish culture now all but vanished from its precincts, and wondered what life would really have been like for the working class immigrant families who lived and worked there - this book will draw you as vivid a picture as any other book or film I've yet encountered.Emanuel Litvinoff was born and raised in the heart of that London - when the community there was at its inter-war period 'zenith' (if such a word were appropriate) of the 1920s and '30s. His stories convey wonderfully, with vigour and laconic humour the sights and sounds and smells of that lost world. Having grown up and served in the army during the Second World War, he moved out of the neighbourhood he'd grown up in. Across the decades following the war so too would most of the other Jewish neighbours - Londoners established enough by then to move away from the grotty tenements and filthy market streets, out to the suburbs and beyond.In the opening pages' "Author's Note" Litvinoff explains how early in the 1970s he found himself revisiting the old streets again with a friend. The cover photo above was taken at that time:"...In Old Montague Street, the very heart of the original Jewish quarter, nothing was left of the synagogue but a broken wooden door carved with the Lion of Judah.The tenement I grew up in had somehow survived shrunken by time but otherwise unchanged - the same broken tiles in the passage, the same rickety stairs, the pervasive smell of cats. I took my friend up to the first floor landing window to show him the small yard with its overflowing dustbin. That, too, had not changed. Quite suddenly, a vivid memory returned. I was twelve years old: the news had come that once again I had failed the scholarship. Outside it was raining. I sat on the window ledge and carved my initials in the wood. When I looked they were still there, jagged and irregular, 'E.L.'The door of my old apartment opened and for one moment I expected to see that same unhappy, resentful boy emerge to wander disconsolately into the street. A shabby, elderly man came out carrying a bucket full of refuse. He stared at us mistrustfully.'Are you gennelmen from the Sanit'ry Department of the Tahn 'All?' he asked.I felt indescribably bereaved, a ghost haunting the irrecoverable past. That evening, when I returned to Hertfordshire I began a memoir, 'My East End Tenement'. This book has grown out of that beginning."With chapters such as "Uncle Solly's Sporting Life", "The God I Failed", and "A Charity Pair of Boots", Litvinoff charmingly weaves his coming-of-age tale amid the poverty and the 'sweating shops', and the ever-present fug of stale cigarette smoke and the smell of pickled herrings and frying onions."The tenement was a village in miniature, a place of ingathered exiles who supplemented their Jewish speech with phrases in Russian, Polish or Lithuanian. We sang songs of the ghettoes or folk-tunes of the old Russian Empire and ate the traditional dishes of its countryside. The news came to us in Yiddish newspapers and was usually bad..."The tales of Emanuel's childhood pass and he soon must join the working masses, and make a contribution to the household. He finds employment at Dorfmann's "rat-infested fur workshop":"'Don't you want to improve yourself anymore?' my mother said in her suffering voice.She stood at the stove ladling soup into my plate, the latest baby squirming in the crook of her arm. A man's cardigan hung shapelessly on her body, but her belly was seen to be big again. We were ten already, the largest family in the buildings, and nothing helped - not whispered conferences with neighbours, nor the tubes and syringes concealed among the underwear at the botttom of the wardrobe, and certainly not Fat Yetta, who sometimes lifted the curse of fertility from other women but only left my mother haggard with pain and exhaustion.'Manny,' she said, 'I'm talking to you!'"I loved this book, and the imagery that was brought to my mind by Litvinoff's atmospheric writing. This is the real world that existed behind such stories as Wolf Mankowitz's A Kid For Two Farthings, and the tales of characters who my grandparents probably knew. It was a pleasure to visit this particular small planet.

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