It’s one of the best-kept secrets of British journalism that the Life and Arts section of the Financial Times’ weekend edition contains some of the best-written and most stimulating articles and reviews. So as we were leaving the airport of our almost next-door neighbor of Cyprus for the brief flight home on Saturday night I picked up a copy of the ‘pink’un,’ as it is known among the cognoscenti, to try to retain my connection with the best of Blighty.
Imagine my surprise then when I opened the aforesaid section to find an enormous front-page article entitled ‘More British than the British’ by Ian Buruma, a writer/journalist previously unknown to me, describing the German-Jewish roots of his family (he notes that his Schlesinger grandparents took in ten Kindertransport children). His ancestors came to Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were moneyed professionals and far from being penniless refugees. Their deep-seated attachment to German culture (especially the music of Wagner) did not prevent them from becoming equally attached to all things British – literature, cricket and even Christmas (not solely British, I know), or from identifying with Britain in the tradition of immigrants who become ‘British through-and-through.’
They abandoned their ancestors’ attachment to orthodox Judaism, but could not shake off their Jewish cachet and developed a family code-term, ‘forty-five,’ for referring to matters that were redolent of the insidious and typically British form of anti-Semitism. Although some professional avenues were closed to them, others were not, and their obvious intelligence, abilities and persistence enabled them to climb to social, professional and intellectual heights.
The article, lavishly adorned with nostalgic family photographs, could well have come from the pages of the AJR Journal, and as I read it I felt the strings of the land of my birth tugging fiercely at my heart. The piece ends with some well-considered thoughts about Britain, assimilationism and the lessons to be learned with regard to Islam and the current immigration issue. As Buruma points out, Judaism has nothing similar to violent jihadism but leaving that aside it is possible to hope that the second and third generations of immigrants will find their place in what has become an increasingly multi-cultural Britain.
In what I think is the most telling phrase, Buruma concludes his article by remarking that his grandparents were fortunate in being able to find their place “in a relatively decent society during frequently indecent times. One can only hope that, eventually, other children of immigrants will feel as lucky as they did.”
I cannot help adding that I’m sure I’m not alone in heartily endorsing that view.
(This article originally appeared in the March issue of the AJR Journal.)