A family history of surpassing beauty and power: Ian Buruma’s account of his grandparents’ enduring love through the terror and separation of two world wars
During the almost six years England was at war with Nazi Germany, Winifred and Bernard Schlesinger, Ian Buruma’s grandparents, and the film director John Schlesinger's parents, were, like so many others, thoroughly sundered from each other. Their only recourse was to write letters back and forth. And write they did, often every day. In a way they were just picking up where they left off in 1918, at the end of their first long separation because of the Great War that swept Bernard away to some of Europe’s bloodiest battlefields. The thousands of letters between them were part of an inheritance that ultimately came into the hands of their grandson, Ian Buruma. Now, in a labor of love that is also a powerful act of artistic creation, Ian Buruma has woven his own voice in with theirs to provide the context and counterpoint necessary to bring to life, not just a remarkable marriage, but a class, and an age.
Winifred and Bernard inherited the high European cultural ideals and attitudes that came of being born into prosperous German-Jewish émigré families. To young Ian, who would visit from Holland every Christmas, they seemed the very essence of England, their spacious Berkshire estate the model of genteel English country life at its most pleasant and refined. It wasn’t until years later that he discovered how much more there was to the story.
At its heart, Their Promised Land is the story of cultural assimilation. The Schlesingers were very British in the way their relatives in Germany were very German, until Hitler destroyed that option. The problems of being Jewish and facing anti-Semitism even in the country they loved were met with a kind of stoic discretion. But they showed solidarity when it mattered most. As the shadows of war lengthened again, the Schlesingers mounted a remarkable effort, which Ian Buruma describes movingly, to rescue twelve Jewish children from the Nazis and see to their upkeep in England.
Many are the books that do bad marriages justice; precious few books take readers inside a good marriage. In Their Promised Land, Buruma has done just that; introducing us to a couple whose love was sustaining through the darkest hours of the century.
Look for Ian's new book, A Tokyo Romance, in March, 2018.
Buruma (Year Zero: A History of 1945) delivers a moving, intimate portrait of his grandparents, Bernard and Winifred "Win" Schlesinger (the parents of film director John Schlesinger, of Midnight Cowboy fame), through a close reading of their correspondence from 1915 to 1945. In a fluid, novelistic narrative, Buruma not only captures a remarkable marriage, but also a particular segment of English society assimilated, upper-middle-class Jews. He shows his grandparents as "outsiders who were insiders too," whose enthusiastic embrace of English culture, if seemingly excessive at times, reflected gratitude that England, unlike their parents' birthplace of Germany, didn't betray its Jewish citizens. The excerpted letters depict Bernard and Win during their first courtship, interrupted by his service in France in WWI; during her days at Cambridge and his at Oxford; and during their later separation during WWII, when Win saw how life carried on as usual in London even as England's fate "was being decided in the skies," and Bernard, an Army doctor, witnessed the Empire's waning days in India. Buruma depicts his grandparents "with all their doubts and contradictions" as well as their "generosity of spirit," which extended to their rescue of 12 Jewish children from Nazi Germany and hosting two German POWs for Christmas in 1946. This illuminating story of cultural assimilation and identity will resonate with many readers.