with 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.

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