Born in Maida Vale, London, he was the son of a wholesale jeweller and nephew of Rabbi Professor Sir Hermann Gollancz and Professor Sir Israel Gollancz; after being educated at St Paul’s School, London and taking a degree in classics at New College, Oxford, he became a schoolteacher. Gollancz was commissioned into the Northumberland Fusiliers in October 1915, although he did not see active service. In March 1916 he transferred to Repton School Junior Officers’ Training Corps. In 1917 he became involved in the Reconstruction Committee, an organisation that was making plans for post-war Britain. There he met Ernest Benn, who hired him to work in the publishing business. Starting with magazines, Gollancz then brought out a series of art books, after which he started signing novelists.
Gollancz formed his own publishing company in 1927, publishing works by writers such as Ford Madox Ford and George Orwell (though Orwell went to Secker and Warburg from Homage to Catalonia on). While Gollancz published The Red Army Moves by Geoffrey Cox on the Winter War in 1941, he omitted some criticisms of the USSR.
Gollancz was one of the founders of the Left Book Club. He had a knack for marketing, sometimes taking out full-page newspaper adverts for the books he published, a novelty at the time. He also used eye-catching typography and book designs, and used yellow dust-covers on books.
In addition to his highly successful publishing business, Gollancz was a prolific writer on a variety of subjects, and put his ideas into action by establishing campaigning groups. His 1943 pamphlet ‘Let My People Go’, which called for an attempt by the Allied powers to rescue Jews under threat of extermination in occupied Europe, reached a mass audience in 1943, following widespread coverage in the British media in December 1942 of the Nazi’s extermination policy. A subsequent pamphlet, published by Gollancz later on in the war, failed to reach a mass audience. By then the British media had almost entirely ceased coverage of the story of the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry, after it had become clear that the western powers were unwilling to respond to popular British sentiment at the end of 1942 and early 1943 in favour of an attempt to rescue Jews in occupied Europe, which would have meant siphoning resources from the war effort. Along with Eleanor Rathbone, Gollancz was the foremost British campaigner during the Second World War on the issue of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry.
After the war, he set up a campaign to send food and clothing from a Britain still subject to rationing to occupied Germany and Italy in 1945, and recruited Peggy Duff to organise it; she also worked with him on the National Campaign to Abolish Capital Punishment in the 1950s.
In 1960, he received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, being the first and, so far, only British person to receive this award. He was knighted in 1965.
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