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Our migratory world

Books | May 2016

Ian Jack on Ian Buruma

Our migratory world

By Ian Jack

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War

by Ian Buruma

Atlantic Books £18.99

Oldie price £16.99 (+p&p)

Call 01326 555 762 to order

‘How marvellous it is to be British,’ Winifred Schlesinger wrote to her husband Bernard in May 1945. ‘What a grand, humane country this is. How quiet and modest & temperate are our leading men, in moments of direst peril or of most glorious triumph.’ The war in Europe had ended and Churchill had just spoken on the radio. Winifred – Win as her family knew her – wrote from a country house in Berkshire to a husband who was serving as an army doctor far away in India. Read today, her patriotism strikes a slightly scripted note. But that may also have been true when she wrote it. As Ian Buruma says of Winifred and Bernard, his maternal grandparents, they were ‘English in the way their German Jewish ancestors were German, and that was, if such a thing were possible, more so, or at least more self-consciously so, than the “natives” ’. 

They corresponded for nearly seventy years, an exchange that began in 1915 before Bernard left school and continued until he died, only a few years before his wife, in 1984. Out of the hundreds of letters they left behind, their grandson has put together an absorbing and tenderly drawn portrait of a sixty-year-long marriage – an account that, through human particulars rather than historical generalisation, brings to life one of the great questions of our migratory world: how, and with what success, do minorities from elsewhere find a way of belonging to their adopted country? Can outsiders become insiders? Can they be both? 

Win and Bernard led what the author describes as ‘a full and exceedingly comfortable life’. Their fathers – Buruma’s great-grandparents – left Germany in the late 19th century to make their fortunes as London stockbrokers, and both acquired Hampstead villas of dark red brick. It was, Buruma writes, ‘the old immigrant story, assimilation as the sign of higher education and prosperity’. Anything that suggested difference with mainstream British life was discarded and the poorer and more obviously Jewish Jews, then arriving in large numbers from Eastern Europe, were disdained – a snobbery that earned German Jews the name Yekkes. (In Germany, says Buruma, ‘It was typical Yekkes who thought the Nazis would never touch them, because they had fought in the Great War and had the medals to prove it.’)

Bernard boarded at Uppingham School and then, after a bloody interval as a medical orderly in Flanders and Salonika, studied medicine at Cambridge. Win learned the violin at music school in Hampstead and then found a place at Oxford. The drawl of the tennis club fills their letters: ‘fearfully amusing’, ‘frightfully bucked’, ‘awfully decent’. ‘You are a little brick,’ Bernard writes to Win after she forgives him for a too-physical moment of courtship. When their engagement is announced in the Times, almost every letter of congratulation comes from an address within a twenty-minute walk of Finchley Road station. Married and with their own big Hampstead house, they hold musical soirées and fancy-dress balls, spend their holidays in grand European hotels, play golf and go horse-riding. They have no faith. ‘If only either of us or both of us could believe!’ writes Win. But in its place comes an almost spiritual devotion to the English countryside, to which they and their five children eventually move, and a reverence of German music, particularly Wagner and Brahms.

Buruma writes that, contrary to the belief of bigots, nobody ‘clings more tenaciously to newly planted roots than the patriotic immigrant or his offspring, on condition, of course, that they feel accepted’. But even Anglophiles like the Schlesingers sometimes found that acceptance hard to come by. In the letters, the number 45 is their ambiguous code both for Jews and the prejudice against them. Failing to land a senior hospital job as a paediatrician, Bernard writes, ‘It is the old, old story. (45). The senior job is not for me.’ A country neighbour tells them he doesn’t like their name and he doesn’t like their money. At one point their eldest son, John, considers that a change of name might help his career (and then decides otherwise, depriving us of a celebrated film director called John Slesinger or Slazenger). References to ‘the name’ are the closest his parents’ letters come to acknowledging British prejudice. 

Of course, compared with the shrill anti-Semitism of other countries, this is no more than a background hum; nonetheless it isn’t surprising to learn that ‘no matter how she [Win] revelled in the Englishness of her surroundings, she could never shake off a slight sense of unease, a fear of rejection…’

She had a remarkably generous spirit. Several months before anyone had heard the word Kindertransport, she had made plans to take in twelve refugee children and set up a hostel for them in Highgate; another refugee child went to stay with the family in Berkshire. Then in 1946, with the war over, she and Bernard contacted a German PoW camp near Newbury to invite two of its inmates to spend Christmas at the Schlesingers’ home, despite, as Buruma writes, ‘all their talk in wartime letters of the hateful Germans, whose targets of mass killings would, if they had been able to reach them, have included Bernard and Win and all their children…’ The open-mindedness that lay behind this behaviour could almost be described as provocative; it reached dizzying heights when the entire Schlesinger family travelled to Bayreuth in the early 1950s to celebrate the reopening of Hitler’s favourite opera house. (But why not, when the Siegfried Idyll was their favourite piece?) 

Buruma is fond but never hagiographic: we understand that, for all their generosity and culture, Win and Bernard aren’t flawless or immune to the common intolerances of their time. Suffering prejudice is no proof against being prejudiced. In India with the army, Bernard thinks Indians are best treated like children. Decades later, he complains about the number of ‘dagos’ who staff the London to Edinburgh train. And the couple’s fierce love for each other and for their version of England has consequences for their children. ‘I shall literally burst with pride when I go to Uppingham to watch my husband play for the Old Boys against our son,’ Win writes, long before they are married or have children. But John turns out to be a boy who loves theatricals and dressing up as Carmen Miranda, and when he duly follows in his father’s footsteps to Uppingham, he hates it. In his mother’s eyes, he becomes ‘the laziest, most selfish and feckless boy I have ever come     across … I’m afraid I must sadly say that our eldest son is a washout.’

The author says he has ‘contrived to produce a kind of novel in letters, with myself as a kind of Greek chorus’. In fact, his role as the selector and subtle interpreter of the letters, and as the historian of their context, is more solo than chorus. He has written a wonderful book.

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now