Books: Self-consciously British

The personal story of an assimilated Jewish couple who rescued 12 Jewish children from Hitler’s Berlin.

Winifred and Bernard Schlesinger’s wedding in 1925 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Winifred and Bernard Schlesinger’s wedding in 1925
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To most people, the words “Promised Land” refer to the Land of Israel. For Winifred and Bernard Schlesinger, however, the Promised Land was England.
In an engrossing and thought-provoking memoir, journalist Ian Buruma, the Schlesingers’ grandson, brings the reader into his grandparents’ lives and shows us why England was their Promised Land.
Buruma tells the story of a loving couple who remained deeply devoted to each other throughout their marriage, including the long years of separation they endured during the darkest moments of the two world wars. Yet Their Promised Land is also his own story, the story of the grandson who remembers his grandparents with nostalgia, love and admiration.
Buruma, who was born in Holland and educated in both Holland and Japan, explores his grandparents’ story with the talent of an experienced journalist and the affection of a grandson. He had the good fortune to find a cache of letters that his grandparents – who called each other “Win and Bun” – had written to each other during the years they spent apart when Bernard served in the British Army.
For a writer, finding such letters is finding a treasure chest containing both history and love, which is exactly what this fascinating book offers the reader.
The letters are filled with feelings, thoughts, stories and anecdotes. The early letters were written when Winnie and Bernard were young and their relationship just blossoming. Then World War I began, and Bernard joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and was sent far from home. Win got swept up in the national spirit and decided to train as a nurse so that she could care for wounded soldiers returning to England. When Bernard returned from the war, the two were reunited and their feelings for each other grew. Bernard studied medicine and they married in 1925.
The letters resume during their second long separation throughout World War II, while Bernard served as a physician in India. This time Win was a mother of five, taking care of a hectic household on her own.
Throughout the book, Buruma deftly weaves excerpts from his grandparents’ letters with his own observations and interpretations of their lives. The result is an intriguing and novel view of not only their personal story but also of England during the two world wars, what it meant to be Jewish in England at that time, and the wars themselves.
The Schlesingers were Jewish, but they were not believing or practicing Jews.
They saw themselves as completely British, despite the fact that their parents were German Jews. For them, England was the one and only Promised Land, and in many ways, being British was their religion.
They never denied their Jewishness but neither did they celebrate it or try to understand it. They celebrated Christmas as good citizens of England do, yet they never converted to Christianity (although some family members later did).
For them, being Jewish was an unfortunate reality, yet they did not deny it. They had a code for being Jewish – “45” – and often wondered if a new acquaintance was “45.”
Yet despite their lack of any real identification with Judaism, they decided to save 12 German Jewish children during World War II, bringing them to safety to England and caring for them as members of the family.
Both Bernard and Win grew up in a part of London populated with German Jews who had moved to England in the late 19th or early 20th century and became fiercely loyal to England and everything English. Both their families were considered upper-middle-class and were serious devotees of classical music, something that was common among the assimilated German Jews in their social circle. They did everything they could to behave and appear as British as possible, just as their ancestors had tried to be as German as possible.
Buruma has warm and loving memories of his grandparents’ home at St. Mary Woodlands House in Berkshire, where the family would gather for Christmas and many other happy occasions. He remembers their extravagant Christmases with tall, shiny trees, stockings packed with gifts for the children, presents piled high and huge delicious meals prepared by their beloved live-in cook.
In the first chapter of Their Promised Land, the author reminisces about the time he brought a friend to his grandparents for a visit after they had already moved from the house he remembers so fondly.
“I once introduced an American friend to my grandparents, years after they had moved from St. Mary Woodlands to a more manageable cottage nearby. It must have been sometime in the late 1970s....
My friend, Jim, said that my grandparents were the most English people he had ever met. Their home, he said, was like something out of Agatha Christie.”
The paragraph that follows is Buruma’s response to this memory. “And yet the Englishness of my grandparents was not as clear-cut as it seemed. For they, too, aspired to a kind of idyll. They also lived up to an ideal... my grandparents, Bernard Schlesinger and Win Regensburg, 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.’” Their Promised Land is a meaningful treatise on Jewish identity and the historic conflict of Diaspora Jews who integrate into local communities and gentile society while remaining Jews, no matter what their level of observance.