Their Promised Land: My Grand­par­ents in Love and War

Ian Buru­ma
  • Review
By – January 7, 2016

Bernard and Winifred Schlesinger, born and bred in Eng­land, came of age in the era of Down­ton Abbey and lived to the 1980s in hap­py and com­fort­able cir­cum­stances. In their let­ters they sound as British as P. G. Wode­house, chat­ting about what’s awful­ly jol­ly” or rip­ping,” but as Jews they can’t entire­ly fit in. Some jobs were closed to Bernard, a physi­cian, and Winifred felt an anx­i­ety always to be on her best, nev­er to stick out, to avoid embar­rass­ment at all costs.”

Bun” and Win” began writ­ing to each oth­er dur­ing their courtship, and con­tin­ued over Bernard’s ser­vice as a medic in both World Wars. Though he could have been an offi­cer in World War I he served as an enlist­ed man, car­ry­ing out the wound­ed on stretch­ers in the midst of com­bat. Like his rel­a­tives who remained in Ger­many, Bernard want­ed to show that his loy­al­ty to his coun­try was above sus­pi­cion; he went out of his way to do more than was asked.

Win­nie made equal­ly stren­u­ous efforts, enrolling at the age of 18 in a course in First Aid so that she would qual­i­fy to be a nurse in the Vol­un­tary Aid Detach­ment. She end­ed up in her own milieu, part of a most­ly Jew­ish staff at a Eng­lish con­va­les­cent home that encour­aged its patients to spend time gar­den­ing and play­ing crick­et. At the end of the war Win­nie con­tract­ed influen­za there, dur­ing the great epi­dem­ic that claimed fifty mil­lion lives.

Win knew that Bernard was the love of her life, and they final­ly became engaged in 1922 and mar­ried in 1925. This book is the work of their grand­son Ian Buru­ma, the much admired essay­ist and nov­el­ist. Over the past 35 years he has writ­ten engag­ing­ly and idio­syn­crat­i­cal­ly about love, his­to­ry, cul­ture, and mar­gin­al peo­ple across the globe. Their Promised Land touch­es on all those sub­jects, but most of all it is a love sto­ry: an epis­to­lary romance that is less about falling in love than about shar­ing a life togeth­er in times of hope and peri­ods of near-despair.

The Schlesingers were not reli­gious. Their two sons had no bar mitz­vah. Winnie’s broth­er Wal­ter joined the Church of Eng­land. Their daugh­ter Hilary con­vert­ed to Roman Catholi­cism. Anoth­er daugh­ter, Wendy — the moth­er of the author — mar­ried a Dutch Mennonite.

Like their neigh­bors, the Schlesingers enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly cel­e­brat­ed Christ­mas — in a grand­ly Dick­en­sian fash­ion, no less, com­plete with mistle­toe, hol­ly, stock­ings, and an immense tree heavy with orna­ments. Yet Win and Bun, adher­ing to no par­tic­u­lar faith, nev­er con­tem­plat­ed aban­don­ing their Jew­ish identity.

Anti­semitism often remind­ed them who they were. After com­plet­ing his stud­ies at Cam­bridge, Bernard applied for a job at Great Ormond Street Hos­pi­tal in Lon­don, and was giv­en a non-per­ma­nent posi­tion in spite of an anti-Semit­ic intrigue.” Years lat­er, when he failed to get a bet­ter posi­tion at St. Thomas’s Hos­pi­tal, Bernard con­clud­ed that the obsta­cle was the same: It is the old, old sto­ry. The senior job is not for me at any price.”

Nonethe­less they felt pride in their ori­gins and their class. And despite the social cost of being overt­ly Jew­ish in mid-cen­tu­ry Britain, Bun and Win took a deci­sive step of breath­tak­ing courage and gen­eros­i­ty: they saved and housed 12 Jew­ish chil­dren from Nazi Ger­many. For Buru­ma, those chil­dren were vir­tu­al­ly mem­bers of his extend­ed fam­i­ly, and he fol­lows the course of their lives. Many years lat­er, he recalls, pic­tures of Bernard and Win were still dis­played in their homes.

The Sec­ond World War’s impact on ordi­nary peo­ple can be glimpsed through the Schlesingers’ expe­ri­ences. The dis­lo­ca­tions and pri­va­tions of wartime Britain are evi­dent in Win’s let­ters and those of her chil­dren, who were sent to the coun­try­side to avoid the Blitz. News trick­led out of Ger­many in let­ters from rel­a­tives that spoke of friends and fam­i­ly being deport­ed to the east. Bernard mean­while was post­ed to hos­pi­tals in India dur­ing the last years of the war, where — though Amer­i­cans may not remem­ber — three mil­lion Ben­galis per­ished of famine in 1943.

Their Promised Land is many things: a his­to­ry of its times, an extend­ed per­son­al essay, a con­sid­er­a­tion of the Jew­ish con­di­tion in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, a love sto­ry, and a vivid depic­tion of the far-flung places where Bernard’s mil­i­tary ser­vice took him. Above all, though, it is a devot­ed trib­ute to the author’s beloved grand­par­ents. Bernard and Win’s mar­riage set an almost impos­si­ble stan­dard,” he con­cludes. I loved them.”

Relat­ed Content:

    Inter­view with Ian Buruma

    by Bob Gold­farb

    InTheir Promised Land, Ian Buru­ma tells the extra­or­di­nary sto­ry of his own grand­par­ents: British Jews who were apart dur­ing the World Wars and stayed in touch by writ­ing let­ters across the dis­tances that sep­a­rat­ed them. His book is part his­to­ry, part mem­oir, part love story.

    Bob Gold­farb: When did your grand­par­ents’ let­ters first come into your hands?

    Ian Buru­ma: The first time I read some of them was in 1999, when I was work­ing on Anglo­ma­nia,a book about Euro­pean Anglophil­ia in the Unit­ed States. I knew where the let­ters were — in a fam­i­ly archive, in a barn, in a coun­try house that belonged to one of my uncles. I thought for a long time that it would make a book of some kind. But it was only a year or two ago that I brought them to America.

    BG: What prompt­ed you to make this a book?

    IB: I thought the mate­r­i­al was very rich and told a sto­ry, not just about them but also about the his­to­ry of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. A nov­el came to mind, but I felt that would be a waste of the mate­r­i­al, because the let­ters them­selves are so inter­est­ing. Sim­ply edit­ing my grand­par­ents’ cor­re­spon­dence was also not quite the way, either. So I had to feel my way towards a form, and the idea came to me around the ear­ly 2000s.

    BG: You seem to have a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in the world as it was just before you came into it.

    IB: When you think of fam­i­lies of peo­ple my age, there are fam­i­lies where the par­ents had expe­ri­ences of World War II. In some fam­i­lies it was nev­er spo­ken about, part­ly because it was too painful for the par­ents, or because they chil­dren weren’t inter­est­ed. For me that was nev­er the case; I was always inter­est­ed. Adults in my fam­i­ly would talk, from when I was a boy. So, yes, I was always inter­est­ed in that. I don’t know why. Per­haps it’s because it was so fright­en­ing that a world that seemed so set­tled, like Europe after World War I, could sud­den­ly erupt in a kind of night­mar­ish hell.

    BG: Your grand­par­ents seem to have been aggres­sive­ly assim­i­lat­ed into the larg­er cul­ture in which they lived. Can we draw con­clu­sions today from the lives they lived then?

    IB: They came from a tra­di­tion that had been assim­i­la­tion­ist since at least the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. So their grand­par­ents would no longer have lived in the Juden­gasse in Frank­furt where the fam­i­ly lived orig­i­nal­ly. They had been very Ger­man already, one of those fam­i­lies that had a his­to­ry of liv­ing in Ger­many longer than most so-called native” Ger­mans. My grand­par­ents were fol­low­ing in that tra­di­tion even though they were British rather than German.

    As you know, a lot of this has to do with class. The more peo­ple move up and become pros­per­ous, the more they let go of the cul­ture of the old coun­try. They are very much a man­i­fes­ta­tion of that — not just them, but also their par­ents. To me one of the most inter­est­ing pas­sages from Their Promised Land is the exchange between my great-uncle and Franz Rosen­zweig. Rosen­zweig was so impressed by the Pol­ish Jews he met dur­ing World War I — he felt they were more at ease in their skin because they had a clear­er sense of who they were.

    BG: Your grand­par­ents defined them­selves large­ly in terms of cul­ture, espe­cial­ly clas­si­cal music. What was there about clas­si­cal music in particular?

    IB: So many Ger­man Jews loved Wag­n­er. To wor­ship at the shrine of Bayreuth was to take part in a kind of mys­ti­cal sense of being Ger­man with­out hav­ing to be Christian.

    The oth­er thing is, it’s easy to see why Ger­man cul­ture dove­tailed with a cer­tain Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. The Ger­mans didn’t have a state of their own until very late, and they had to dis­tin­guish them­selves from the ratio­nal­ism of France and French phi­los­o­phy. The rea­son that music can play such a pow­er­ful role is that it’s abstract, so you can feel you’re tak­ing part in a high cul­ture almost in a reli­gious way, with­out con­vert­ing to a faith. My grand­par­ents were part of that tra­di­tion, where clas­si­cal music defined you as a per­son of high culture.

    BG: Did you ever feel you were intrud­ing when you were read­ing their letters?

    IB: Yes, of course. I would nev­er have dreamed of doing this if they’d still been alive. But I do feel that once peo­ple are gone, and their expe­ri­ence — even their inti­mate lives — are of his­tor­i­cal inter­est, then it’s legit­i­mate to let it be known. I made very sure that my aunt, the last sur­viv­ing mem­ber of my mother’s gen­er­a­tion, read it, so that I wouldn’t do it behind their backs. My main con­cern was not so much what they would have thought, because they are no longer there, but rather to make sure I didn’t hurt those who are still alive.

    It’s very inter­est­ing when you are writ­ing about fam­i­ly, peo­ple who are close to you. It’s always very dif­fi­cult, because oth­ers who felt equal­ly close to them will have a slight­ly dif­fer­ent pic­ture. It’s very rare that you can do some­thing like this and please one’s sib­lings, or peo­ple who were also close, because it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly the image they have. The great­est skep­ti­cism has come from peo­ple who knew them — from my sis­ter, and my father, and so on.

    BG: You’re not afraid at some points to talk about events that were per­son­al, even per­son­al­ly embar­rass­ing episodes about yourself.

    IB: I don’t think they were embar­rass­ing because it was a long time ago. Once some­thing becomes a sto­ry, it’s not like a con­fes­sion — and I’m not by nature a con­fes­sion­al per­son. I’ve just fin­ished read­ing a mem­oir writ­ten by Stephen Spender’s son about his par­ents, and he goes into the sex lives of his par­ents, and his own. I could nev­er do that. I could nev­er imag­ine want­i­ng to do that.

    BG: Do you find writ­ing a sto­ry like this very dif­fer­ent from writ­ing fiction?

    IB: Yes, because you don’t have to make any­thing up! The struc­ture here is still slight­ly nov­el­is­tic; it is a way of telling a sto­ry. But I do find it eas­i­er apply­ing a cer­tain nov­el­is­tic tech­nique to some­thing that is fac­tu­al­ly true than to mak­ing up a story.

    Bob Gold­farb is Direc­tor of Insti­tu­tion­al Affairs at the For­ward. He lives in New York.

    Relat­ed Content:

    Discussion Questions