I found this book, which was published by Penguin Random House in 2017, so fascinating that I read it more or less in one sitting and, having read it on my Kindle, proceeded to order the paperback version from Amazon as I knew I would want to read it again as well as to press it on my nearest and dearest and encourage them to read it too. Many features of the life of the couple whose letters form the backbone of the book resonate with my own experience of life in post-war Britain, even though my background was different to theirs.
Using the hundreds of letters that passed between his grandmother and grandfather when separated by circumstances or war, the author has reconstructed the lives of this wealthy anglo-Jewish couple whose erudition and humanity shines through their supposedly ordinary lives. Bernard ‘Bun’ Schlesinger and Winifred ‘Win’ nee Regensburg, lived through two world wars and managed to come through them unscathed, leaving behind the treasure trove of their almost daily correspondence when separated. In between the letters Buruma has interspersed his own comments, insights, memories and explanations, bringing to life the times, places and relationships mentioned. Buruma’s style is at once intimate and literary, imparting a dimension of enlightened familiarity to the text.
The author starts with a vivid account of Christmas at his grandparents’ country home in Berkshire. Though making no secret of their Jewish background, the couple did not adhere to the restrictions of religious observance and celebrated Christmas in the traditional British way, with a tree replete with colourful decorations, traditional Christmas fare, as well as mistletoe and holly sprigs decorating the drawing room and beautifully wrapped presents at the base of the tree.
For Ian Buruma’s grandparents, the promised land of the book’s title was most definitely England and everything English. Their lifestyle was not lavish, yet their own parents’ wealth (Bernard’s father had made his fortune as a stockbroker and Win’s father was also a stockbroker, both families being solidly middle class) afforded them each an education in the best British tradition and the ability to set up home in the ‘genteel Hampstead world of German Jewish immigrants, well-off, cultivated, but largely confined to their own kind.’ Buruma stresses the important role that music played in their lives, the center of family life among many Hampstead Jews, the sign of education, high culture, an emblem of class and in fact the common ground that brought them together.
While they espoused the British way of life, they still retained the ‘worship of classical music,’ and Wagner’s operas in particular, that characterised many German Jews (my own family included). Bernard studied medicine and served in the First World War as a medical orderly, enduring life in the trenches in France and emerging as full of patriotic fervour as ever. Win, who had studied the violin to an advanced level, volunteered as a nurse, but focused much of her attention on her music. In the Second World War Bernard was posted to India as a doctor for three years and in between writing letters Win attended to family matters, gardened ardently at their Berkshire country house and played the violin in amateur ensembles set up to entertain troops waiting to be sent abroad and civilians who sought some cultural succour from the rigours of wartime Britain.
One aspect that I found particularly touching was Bernard and Win’s decision to provide a home for twelve children who had entered England under the Kindertransport programme. They established a hostel for ten of these girls in a house in London, supporting them and ensuring they received a good education, supplying all their needs. These children were treated as family members, spending holidays with the family in Berkshire or the seaside, receiving pocket-money and serving as the focus of Bernard and Win’s loving attention and concern.
In his introduction Buruma dwells on his grandparents’ position as being both insiders and outsiders in English society at a time when England was far less multi-cultural than it is today. He draws the conclusion that despite their privileged position they felt they had to make more of an effort to fit in than most people, to prove that they belonged, and it was this that motivated their devoted patriotism. According to Buruma, this notion also underlies several of the films, such as Sunday Bloody Sunday, Billy Liar and Midnight Cowboy, made by their son, his uncle, John Schlesinger.
The tone of the early letters is replete with schoolboy (and schoolgirl) slang, things are ‘ripping,’ ‘jolly,’ and ‘topping,’ but in all the letters the deeply-felt longing for and dependence on one another shines through. Win was known to undergo periods of depression, called by the family in the best Wagnerian tradition ‘the curse of the Regensburgs,’ and her heartfelt desire to have Bernard at her side once more is at times almost painful to read. Buruma writes that it was always Bernard’s role to cheer her up, citing her recollection that she fell in love with him at first sight because of the ‘broad grin on his face when he entered the drawing room carrying a cello’ one Sunday afternoon at the home of mutual friends.
In sum, this is the story of two good, kind, decent and generous people whose country of birth was the adopted country of their parents. It represents successful integration of a kind, though some people might question the extent to which Bernard and Win were ever fully accepted by the wider society in which they lived. However, if they ever encountered anti-Semitism it was not of the murderous nature that was inflicted on their coreligionists in Europe, and they never let it diminish their allegiance to England.