- - Sunday, March 20, 2016



By Ian Buruma

Penguin Press, $27, 305 pages

Sometimes a miniature portrait, perceptive and beautifully executed, can exert greater fascination than even the most brilliant panoramic canvas. Two books by Ian Buruma illustrate this. In 1998 his “Anglomania: A European Love Affair” painted a sweeping picture of the appeal that England and Englishness have exercised on the European imagination and the rest of the English-speaking world. It was an erudite book, gracefully written, but I suspect that the limited audience it attracted consisted mainly of people like myself with pre-existing literary and personal ties to the British Isles. Now, 18 years later, Mr. Buruma has produced a second book on the same theme that is both smaller in scale and more powerful in impact.

“Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War” is the story of a uniquely English menage a trois, a lifelong love affair involving two people and one country: Ian Buruma’s maternal grandparents, Bernard and Winifred Schlesinger and the England they knew and loved. When, as a young man in the 1960s, Mr. Buruma introduced an American acquaintance to his grandparents, his friend said they “were the most English people he had ever met. Their home … was like something out of Agatha Christie.”

Only it wasn’t that simple. Apart from his grandfather’s mother, who had been born in Manchester of German Jewish stock, Bernard and Winifred’s parents “were all German Jews. Which is to say that my grandparents … 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’ … They wished to be accepted as something they genuinely were: loyal citizens steeped, often more so than the Gentiles themselves, in the culture they had made their own.”

For millions of affluent, seemingly “assimilated” Jews in Germany and the mainland European countries that would fall under Nazi sway, the dream of acceptance ended in a nightmare of blood. But in England, even before the onset of Nazism, assimilation was deeper and more firmly-rooted. Of course, there was plenty of social prejudice and professional discrimination; although a distinguished physician, Bernard Schlesinger would repeatedly be passed over for prestigious positions at select hospitals “for the usual reason” and at least one Blimpish neighbor would obliquely refer to his Jewishness with a dismissive “Don’t like the name.” But that was about it. The Schlesingers, model citizens and kind, generous, cultivated human beings, lived full, rewarding lives in a country that, for all its faults, was based on an ideal of fair play and individual rights. Besides pursuing a successful private medical practice, Bernard would serve as a courageous stretcher bearer in the trenches during World War I and would retire as a brigadier in the Army medical corps after World War II. [And it didn’t end there: “Bernard volunteered for army service every time there was a crisis, all the way up to the Cuban missiles, when he was already in his 60s and had to be politely informed that his services to queen and country were no longer really required.”

While Ian Buruma is an accomplished author, the heart of this book is the correspondence between his grandmother and grandfather, beginning on the eve of World War I, broken off and then resumed during that war, ending only with their wedding after a courtship and engagement that lasted longer than many marriages do today. As Mr. Buruma points out, “The physical longing that must have tormented both of them is beyond the imagination of men and women grown up after the middle of the twentieth century, for whom delayed gratification is merely a waste of time. But this may not be in every respect a gain. The passion felt by Win and Bernard is perhaps equally beyond the comprehension of those who have never experienced such yearning.” Their correspondence picks up again, sometimes on a daily basis, during World War II, much of which Bernard spent far from wife and children. One short excerpt will have to suffice, written by Winifred to Bernard, then in British India, shortly after V-E Day: “How marvelous it is to be British, what a grand, humane country this is. How quiet and modest & temperate are our leading men, in moments of direst peril or of most glorious triumph.”

One comes away from this small but powerful book with a deep fondness and respect for its two central characters — and for the incredible devotion they shared, not only with each other, but with an England that was both real and an extension of their own admirable idealism.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.



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