LONDON — Ian Buruma’s maternal grandparents, Bernard and Winifred Schlesinger, were very, very British. In fact, they wanted to be more British than the British.
This sense of their shared — and at times exaggerated — patriotic feeling is evident throughout the book, “Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War” by their grandson, the acclaimed writer and academic, Ian Buruma.
In it, Buruma gives an account of his grandparents’ enduring love, as told in their letters, through the terror and separation of two world wars. Part family memoir, part social history, the book is an evocative and affectionate portrait of two people whose intimate correspondence expressed how they saw themselves in relation to the tumultuous world in which they were living.
During a brief trip to London (he has lived in New York since 2003), Buruma explained to The Times of Israel how he first came across the letters in the late 1990s when he was working on a book, “Voltaire’s Coconuts, Or, Anglomania In Europe.” He found them in a stack of steel boxes amid piles of mouse droppings, photographs and other papers in the barn of a UK country house owned by his uncle — the successful filmmaker John Schlesinger. At the time he had thought, vaguely, that he wanted to do something more with them.
“It was such a rich trove and I didn’t know quite what to do with them,” Buruma said. “I thought writing a novel would, in a way, be a pity because the material itself is so interesting. On the other hand, I didn’t want to simply edit the letters either. So I had to work out how to do it.”
Buruma’s grandparents came from similar backgrounds: Both their fathers were German-Jewish émigré stockbrokers, who came to England in the late 19th century. Bernard and Win were born in London and grew up in Hampstead — a wealthy, upper-middle-class north London suburb. They were highly cultured, educated, mostly secular, assimilated Jews who met as teenagers at a musical gathering in Hampstead, in 1915. Their correspondence begins in that year, when Bernard volunteered for army duty while still at boarding school and Win studied music in London. Bernard later qualified as a doctor and they eventually married in 1925.
Buruma grew up in The Hague, Holland — the son of a Dutch father (a lapsed Protestant) and British mother — but says he was partly shaped by his “grandparents’ England.” The country became a place that he too idealized and their old vicarage home in Berkshire, south-east England, was a pastoral idyll for him. He spent many school holidays there, where he developed a love of cricket, Airfix models of wartime bombers and Viyella shirts.
The Schlesingers defined themselves largely in terms of culture, which was entirely English. “[It was] the only identity they wanted,” said Buruma. “Like the French bourgeois Jews, or the Hungarians of the same milieu. A lot of this has to do with class. The more educated and so on, the more inclined they were to assimilate” into the majority culture around them.
Classical music, including the work of Richard Wagner, was one of their shared passions. Despite Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism, to them, he was first and foremost a great composer, a view shared by many German Jews. In a recent article in the Financial Times, Buruma argued that although this may seem strange, “belief in the supremacy of music was part of a German-Jewish tradition, passed on to an Anglo-Jewish family.”
Bernard’s father had been Orthodox but Bernard gave up any religious faith; Win never had any religious upbringing or faith to give up. “She had no [Jewish] tradition in her background. She didn’t know anything about [Judaism] because her parents were secular,” said Buruma. In fact later, her brother converted to Christianity.
Although Bernard and Win never denied their Jewish background, they did not draw attention to it either. But in 1938, months before Kristallnacht and prior to the Kindertransport, they decided to save 12 Jewish children from Berlin, bringing them over to London and caring for them until adulthood. They insisted that the children were from a similar background to themselves, as they wanted them to fit in. They set up a hostel in north London for them, even securing the services of a rabbi to look after their spiritual needs.
Buruma is unaware why they chose to do it when they did but believes, “there was a sense of solidarity. I think it was part of their human decency really.”
There are some surviving hostel children, Buruma said, now in their 80s.
“We grew up with them, too. We didn’t see them all the time but we were very aware of them. Their gratitude gets weirdly reflected on me when I meet them, as though I had anything to do with it,” he said.
‘Their gratitude gets weirdly reflected on me when I meet them, as though I had anything to do with it’
Bernard and Win’s loyalty towards Britain may have been extreme, but Buruma said it also came from a sense of gratitude: Britain did not turn on its Jews as Germany had done.
It is difficult to know how much anti-Semitism they encountered, said Buruma. One of the few examples is in a letter written by Bernard in 1938. He makes a direct reference to anti-Semitism — it appears to be the reason for his failed attempt to get a particular job at a London hospital. He writes that, “It is the old, old story. The senior job is not for me at any price.”
For some, their decision to take in 12 immigrant Jewish children may seem contradictory, but Buruma does not judge them. In the book he attempts to explain what it was to be British and Jewish during this period, giving particular consideration to their backgrounds, writing: “Now their kind of melting into the Gentile world might be considered a form of denial… But I refuse to see their lives in that light. Who is to say what anyone’s true identity is anyway?”
Most of the communication is in the form of love letters — some are written from the trenches where Bernard served as a stretcher-bearer in the Battle of the Somme during World War I, others when they were studying at university in the 1920s, Win at Oxford and Bernard at Cambridge.
But their greatest separation came during World War II when they were apart for three years as Bernard was stationed in India as a military doctor. They wrote to each other every day, regardless of the fact that the letters would take weeks, if not more, to arrive.
In the letters, Bernard comes across as the more affable of the two, but Win does show herself to be “the more interesting character.” Despite revealing her social insecurities and inner vulnerabilities to Bernard, Buruma believes that, “there must have been some steeliness there too.” Outwardly, she kept up appearances by being strong and stoic — she did not want to let him down.
Through wartime privation, she managed, alone, the responsibility of their large extended family. During 1940, when the prospect of a Nazi invasion was acute, she wrote, “I love my mother & my brother & sister & my large flock of children, but none of them mean to me what you do, who after all these many years are still my dear, devoted love.” For Win, Buruma writes, her safest shelter was “always their island of two.” This depth of feeling never diminished.
‘I love my mother & my brother & sister & my large flock of children, but none of them mean to me what you do’
The letters chronicle their lives. As well as information about family, gardening, music and how much they missed each other: “The world is mentioned, especially in her [Win’s] letters but as asides.” Yet, says Buruma, “I think she was more aware of it than many other people were.”
In 1942, Win tells Bernard the news that people they knew in Germany and Holland had been deported, to face certain death.
Bernard and Win were married for more than 60 years and died in the 1980s. Buruma always had a very close relationship with them and so, for him, writing the book was a kind of tribute. But obviously the letters were never intended for publication.
“The idea of them being made public would have certainly horrified her [Win],” he said. “There’s no way this could have ever been published while they were alive. They would not have liked that. But if they’re watching from heaven I think they’d be appalled on the one hand and probably been proud on the other.”