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Grandparents in Love and War

Ian Buruma’s memoir of his grandparents follows a tradition of haunting elegies by Jewish descendants.

Warburton / Getty Images

“Jews like my grandparents,” Ian Buruma writes, “wished to be accepted as something they genuinely were: loyal citizens steeped, often more so than the Gentiles themselves, in the cultures they had made their own.” As his grandmother Winifred Regensburg wrote to her husband Bernard Schlesinger: “Next to you I love England more than anything else in the world.” But they would always be both insiders and outsiders in their Promised Land, always conscious that their sense of belonging could never be taken for granted.

Penguin Press, 320 pp., $27.00

Bernard was carrying a cello when Winnie fell in love with him. It was a Sunday afternoon in 1915, and Winnie, a delicate seventeen-year old with long black hair, was giving a violin recital to friends and family at the home of Bernard’s cousin, Leo Fernberg. Classical music was central to the life of many Hampstead Jews. It was a sign of education and, more importantly, of class; a residual mark of German high culture that accompanied Jewish émigrés to north London at the end of the nineteenth century. But for Bernard and Winnie, whose lives Ian Buruma chronicles in his enchanting book, Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War, music—the symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms—gave voice to their mutual affections. In 1923, after they were engaged to each other, Winnie wrote to Bernard that the violin “could tell you far more eloquently than I can personally all that is in my heart for you.” 

Buruma’s previous books have used family as the way into his subject, whether it’s his Dutch background in Murder in Amsterdam, or the story of his father’s university days in Year Zero: A History of 1945. Now, family is front and center. Buruma sets the love story of “Bun” and “Win” against the backdrop of Europe’s age of catastrophe, from the First World War until the summer of 1945. The book is epistolary, or as Buruma writes, “a kind of novel in letters.” His own voice, fluent and searching, accompanies the two protagonists like a “Greek chorus,” appearing now and then to contextualize and comment on the dramatic action. He is also alert to the variations in tone and meaning behind each of the letters, which he has selected because they express how Bernard and Winnie “saw themselves in relation to the world they lived in.”

The first letter—from Bernard to Winnie—was sent in April 1915. The prose is that of a confident, easy-going, public schoolboy: good-natured and offhand. Almost all of Bernard’s letters were like this, whether composed in the boggy trenches of the First World War, or at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, or from high up in the borderlands between Afghanistan and India. Winnie’s early letters, by contrast, remain formal and melancholic.

There was good reason to be gloomy at this early stage, however. Britain was at a war, and as children of German parents living in London—at a time when most people were ferociously anti-German—things must have seemed ominous. In June, Bernard began training for the Royal Army Medical Corps, and Buruma suggests he may have done this in order to demonstrate his patriotism “in light of his family background.” The idea of heading out to France and to the battlefront, with all its “rats and smells” was, Bernard wrote to Winnie, “Thrilling, n’est ce pas?”

He was eventually stationed in Arras as a stretcher-bearer in the Second Battalion of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles. Buruma recalls that his grandfather never liked to talk about the war, yet Bernard would have observed its most horrifying features. The letters to Winnie, though, who by now was working as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in Beech House, betray none of the traumas of war—the blown up bodies, the screams of men dying in the mud. Instead, they made light of the daily miseries of trench life, joking about how “we nearly got drowned in our dugout the other day & I swear I saw a periscope but we rammed it with a shovel & the U-boat sank to the bottomless depths. … Well, cheery oh for now.”

British officers from the middle-upper classes were expected to embody a combined attitude of frivolity and stoicism. It was an ethos that centred on a trinity of king, country, and cricket, and which later became immortalised in Joan Littlewood’s musical, Oh, What a Lovely War!, and the character of George in the BBC sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth. Officers also remained deliberately ignorant about understanding the conflict, and displayed the kind of patriotic deference lamented in Tennyson’s poem about reasoning and replying, doing and dying. Though Bernard chose to remain a private rather than become an officer, embodying this culture was essential to how he wanted to be identified by others.

Buruma’s book is all about identity. On the surface it appears rather indulgent: a lyrical ode to family by a cosmopolitan intellectual, which has little to say to the rest of us. But below the narrative is an imaginative study about belonging, and where people choose to locate their loyalties, and how they navigate between them. In the case of Bernard and Winnie, it was their allegiances to England and Judaism during a period when politics forced people to consider their place in society often, in some instances without a choice.

Winnie was especially observant of her Englishness. Certain aspects of her German Jewish heritage were indelible, of course: classical music, a fear of embarrassment, and devotion to family life, for example. And she remained anxious about rejection by her peers, “a self-consciousness not shared by her Gentile friends,” Buruma notes, “or at least not for the same reasons.” But Britain had not rejected her in the way Germany had rejected her parents, and so Winnie’s loyalty, as well as Bernard’s, was in part an expression of gratitude.

Winnie went up to St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, in the early 1920s to read Modern Languages (Bernard had already started his medical degree at Cambridge). The Scottish writer Henry Grey Graham, writing in the 1890s, described the university as a place of “port wine and prejudice,” and that was still the case when Winnie matriculated. An exact contemporary of Evelyn Waugh, she had nothing in common with him and the rollicking popinjays of Christ Church. Her world revolved around singing in the choir, practicing Brahms on the violin, punting on the Isis—the river that flows through the university—and hosting “cocoa evenings” with friends. She also attended Chapel, even though she was excused, lest she stood out from her peers.

Between Cambridge and Oxford the letters continue with great frequency, but aside from Bernard and Winnie’s engagement in August 1922, not much happens during this period; they buy a house in Hampstead, holiday with their families in France and Switzerland, and generally fall deeper in love with each other. They got married in 1925, once Bernard had passed his medical exams, and enjoyed a honeymoon in Paris and Naples. A year later, Win gave birth to John Schlesinger, who would go on to have a successful career directing films like Midnight Cowboy and Sunday Bloody Sunday. Four more children followed: Buruma’s mother Wendy, Roger, Hilary, and, in 1933, Susan.

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Bernard and Winnie’s letters contain almost nothing about international politics. Neither was obliged to comment on the world and its new fanaticisms. There is no reference, for example, to the Wall Street crash, the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, the establishment of the Soviet Union, or the civil wars in Spain and China. Rather, there is dog walking, nights at the opera, job applications, music rehearsals, and rugger matches. Even the most perceptive intellectuals living in the Weimar Republic, for instance, failed to grasp the foul significance of Nazism. As Brecht admitted, it was “precisely the vileness and fearsome character of this regime, and the mediocrity of its personnel, that prevented many of us from taking the measure of this evil in all its profundity and shattering significance.”

Yet Bernard and Winnie spotted the dangers at some point, and in May 1938 gave shelter in London to twelve Jewish children from Germany. They were housed in Highgate, under the supervision of a liberal rabbi called Erwin Zimet, until the Blitz forced them to evacuate to schools around the country. Buruma says we shouldn’t be surprised by his grandparents’ compassion. If he conveys their profound love for each other, he also wants to bear out their decency and common sense, an everyday heroism that was self-effacing and, they no doubt thought, classically English. England was their safe haven, their Promised Land, so why not make it so for others?

The Second World War separated Bernard and Winnie again. Between October 1939 and April 1940—the “phoney war”—Bernard was posted in casualty stations across the country, and was then sent further afield: Norway, Ireland, and finally, in February 1942, India, where he was in charge of inspecting hospitals all the way up to the Afghan border. Back in England, Winnie was left to manage the family affairs, keep the garden tidy, and worry endlessly. How are the Allies faring? Is it true the Wehrmacht has the upper hand in Europe? What will happen to the family once the Germans invade? Are their Jewish friends and relatives in Germany and Holland still alive? And what has become of Bernard? Is he safe? Does he still love her after all this time apart?

Until now, Bernard and Winnie shared our affections equally. But the way Winnie is left to stew in angst back home, while Bernard goes off to fight another war, to obtain a slither of glory, or to shape, even if just a little bit, the course of history, introduces a new imbalance in their relationship. Her letters to him are warmer, more demonstrative, and at times forlorn: “I feel terribly alone in the world now.”

Our view of Bernard at this time is hardly improved by his paternalistic—then common, now backward—views of India: “The average Indian has a child’s mentality,” he wrote to Win in December 1942. “I find the best way to get on with them is to treat them with a mixture of strictness aggravated occasionally with a tempestuous outburst, with a degree of encouragement & whenever possible with a twinkle, as most of them have a child-like sense of humour.” Buruma doesn’t judge, of course, nor take sides, and insists that Bernard remained faithful to Winnie. He also maintains that his grandfather had a well-honed grasp on the absurdities of the imperial ethos. But he does admit that he could be a “Blimpish figure,” and the sort of gallivanting colonialist with too much time on his hands. 

Music continued to provide an escape from war, back to a blissful past of civilized peregrination. For Bernard, it was Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman that summoned memories of those white tie evenings at Covent Garden, a life that “seems to be receding further and further into the distance.” Even though both distanced themselves from their German origins during the Second World War —a sign of their solidarity with other Jews—they couldn’t renounce Wagner and the Bayreuth Festival. Buruma remarks on the strange, unrequited love affair between German Jews and Wagner. His music, he says, gave them a spiritual lifeline to German culture, but without making them feign Christian beliefs. “Worshipping at the altar of Bayreuth was enough,” and the Schlesingers did so in the early 1950s.

Buruma’s book is in that tradition of haunting elegies by Jewish descendants. In The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, a book also inspired by the discovery of letters, Daniel Mendelsohn investigates the fate of Jewish relatives who died during the Second World War. Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes is another moving inter-generational memoir about his family, the Ephrussi, during the war years. And Thomas Harding, the great-grandson of the German Jewish doctor, Alfred Alexander, has recently published The House by the Lake, a story of his grandmother’s house in Berlin, and the generations of people who lived there.

These memoirs, along with Buruma’s, do more than just describe the Jewish experience in twentieth-century Europe. They pursue what feels like a vital connection to the past, trying to capture something about what it means to be Jewish in the images and stories of their ancestors. It is less about honoring the dead than about the remembrance of things past in an age when religion, or religious practice, no longer defines our elective affinities (as Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi states in his classic work, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, “Zakhor,” the Hebrew word for “remember,” remains the “unconditional” injunction in Judaism). Another intellectual who reflected a lot on his Jewish antecedents, especially towards the end of his life, was Tony Judt. “Modern-day Jews,” he wrote, “live on preserved memory. Being Jewish largely consists of remembering what it once meant to be Jewish. We are the people who remember … something.”