How an Assimilated Jewish Couple Found a 'Promised Land' in Britain

Dutch historian Ian Buruma retraces his British-Jewish grandparents’ correspondence spanning two world wars, and hones his own self-definition.

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Ian Buruma's grandparents Winifred and Bernard on their wedding day
Ian Buruma's grandparents Winifred and Bernard on their wedding day.Credit: Courtesy the author
Lisa Katz
Lisa Katz

“Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War,” by Ian Buruma, Penguin Press, 320 pages, $27

What is the identity of Jews who are not observant and do not frequent a community? Or of those who are part Jewish, and seek to include this element somewhere in their self-definition? Secular Jewishness is a social construction as well as an act of the imagination, particularly in the absence of religion and/or persecution. What is the significance of being this kind of Jew? 

These questions arise after reading this new memoir, “a kind of novel in letters,” according to its author, Dutch historian Ian Buruma, who grew up in the Netherlands, spent many years in Asia and now teaches in New York. The author of 15 books about Japanese and Chinese culture, racism in his native Holland and other matters of identity, Buruma frequently writes pointedly about such subjects for the New York Review of Books.

In “Their Promised Land,” the author, whose mother was Jewish, re-creates the lives of his deeply loved maternal British grandparents from research and memory and, in part, from their loving letters to each other. In doing so, he tells one particular tale of 20th-century Jewish life in Britain. A good life.

Why is someone raised as a non-Jew interested in this topic? Buruma says that he wants to create a picture of his origins – his mother’s origins – in order to discover the place of minorities in the world. 

“If you are in the majority, you can afford to swim along with the mainstream without giving it too much thought. But a Jew in a society of mostly Gentiles, a Muslim in Europe, a black in a predominantly white country, or a homosexual, especially in places where love of your own sex is unaccepted, is forced to consider his or her place more deeply, to make up his or her own story.”  

Buruma begins his tale with the line: “When I think of my maternal grandparents, I think of Christmas.”

He waits a dozen pages before revealing the ethnicity hinted in the book’s title, and then deals head-on with the controversy that may be sparked when Jews enjoy Christian holidays.

Ian Buruma celebrating Christmas as a baby
Ian Buruma celebrating Christmas as a baby.Credit: Courtesy

“Now their kind of melting into the Gentile world might be considered a form of denial, even cowardice. Why didn’t they insist on their ‘true identity’ as Jews? I refuse to see their lives in that light. Who is to say what anyone’s true identity is anyway?”

Buruma makes an implicit case for the positive nature of Jewish assimilation, at least in Britain, where such a thing was possible for his grandparents. Winifred Regensburg and Bernard Schlesinger were British-born, the children of well-off German Jewish immigrants to England who became even wealthier in their new country. 

The charm of this book lies in the details from the couple’s letters, hundreds of which were written, mostly during long separations in World War I and World War II. For example, before the couple embarked on their long, happy marriage, Bernard, an only child, broke off their relationship, apparently under pressure from his parents. Buruma notes the letters’ Victorian children’s book imagery, comparing the two young people to mice, moles and squirrels, as a mark of how very British his grandparents’ personal culture was. As Buruma observes, class was a key factor in their British character. They were sent to good schools, played musical instruments and participated in sports like the rest of the British upper-middle class. 

Despite the break-up, the couple had continued to correspond during Bernard’s World War I army service and eventually reunited. At war’s end, a case of boils sent him to the same wing of the military hospital where Winifred was working as a nurse. “Their love was instantly rekindled,” Buruma writes.

It was a lengthy engagement. Buruma does not think the marriage was consummated until after the ceremony. Nonetheless, the couple sought other forms of liberation. In 1919, less than a year after British women (over 30) are granted the vote, Winifred, an apparent self-doubter, writes Bernard about wavering over her decision to attend Oxford.

Bernard, a progressive, writes back: “I am still in favor of it, really Oxford will give you firstly occupation for your thoughts, brain and mind in the form of friends, and whatever subjects of interest to you that you take up, and secondly occupation for your body in fresh air and exercise; and these two are the essential of several ingredients in the recipe of a contented and happy Winnie or anyone else in your position.”

Buruma’s grandfather served as a rifleman and medical orderly for the British army in World War I in France, Macedonia, Egypt and Palestine; he entered Jerusalem with General Allenby’s forces. Later, he became a medical doctor and served once again, in India, for three years in World War II. Buruma’s grandmother worked as a volunteer nurse in the World War I. After the war, and despite her initial doubts, she studied modern languages at Oxford, with a concentration in German. The couple had five children; one of them was the director John Schlesinger, whose films “Marathon Man” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” for example, feature Jewish characters. The latter even contains a long scene of a bar mitzvah conducted for the scion of a wealthy, established British family not unlike the director’s own. Except that the Schlesinger family did not celebrate Jewish religious ceremonies.

The German Jewish children Buruma's grandparents sponsored via the Kindertransport operation.
The German Jewish children Buruma's grandparents sponsored via the Kindertransport operation.Credit: Courtesy

Several of the family’s German cousins even fought on the German side in World War I, which none of the family found particularly shocking. Buruma matter-of-factly states that his grandmother’s cousin, Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, “served as a spotter in [a German] antiaircraft battalion in the Balkans and then, in 1917, in Macedonia, facing [Buruma’s grandfather] Bernard, who was just a few miles away on the other side.”

In the second war, Winifred Schlesinger took care of her family and oversaw the welfare of 12 Jewish children from Berlin whose immigration to Britain she and her husband had sponsored via the Kindertransport operation.

Despite a yearly Christmas tree, presents, dinner and the hundreds of Christmas cards they sent and received, Buruma’s grandparents identified as Jews. “They never converted to Christianity and never denied their Jewish background,” he writes.

The embrace of Christmas is said to be a sign of their Britishness: “Their loyalty to Britain and its institutions was perhaps extreme, but it came partly from gratitude. The society in which they were born and bred did not turn on them, as Germany had done on its most loyal Jewish citizens.”

It’s not that Britain was free of anti-Semitism, or that the couple’s lives were unimpeded by it. “Certain hospitals were known to be inhospitable to Jews,” Buruma writes, and Bernard sometimes blamed “the name” – obviously Jewish – as a barrier to his employment.

Although Buruma suggests that “devotion to ‘the family’ was perhaps the most Jewish thing about them,” the letters reveal a concern with the possibility of assimilation leading to conversion. Before their children are even born, Winifred Schlesinger writes that they “will go to school and learn Christianity from those who have faith, and become Christians, and that will be the first breach between them and us.” Of the five children, their daughter Hilary converted to Roman Catholicism.

What about Jews or part Jews whose connection to tradition never existed at all? Perhaps their Jewish identity exists only in the eyes of the beholder.

A recent memoir by French Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano, “Pedigree” (translated by Mark Polizzotti, Yale University Press), documents the complete absorption of the author’s Jewish father into demi-monde Parisian life, along with the author’s hardscrabble early years.

“I was born,” Modiano writes, “on 30 July, 1945, at 11 Allee Marguerite in Boulogne-Billancourt, to a Jewish man and a Flemish woman who had met in Paris under the Occupation. I write ‘Jewish’ without really knowing what the word meant to my father, and because at the time it was what appeared on the identity papers.”

Modiano never emphasizes his father’s Jewishness or that of others as more than one fact among many in a multi-cultural milieu. Alberto, born in Paris in 1912, was an unsuccessful man, “a black marketer by force of circumstance.” His father, the author’s grandfather, was originally from Thessaloniki, a member of “a Jewish family from Tuscany established under the Ottoman Empire.” The grandfather, who early on “cut all ties with his family and background,” made his way to Paris, where he had an antiques shop, via Alexandria, Egypt, and Caracas, Venezuela. Yet Modiano does take the trouble to name four of his grandfather’s Italian cousins who were murdered by the SS in Italy, including date and place. The title of his book suggests a deep concern with origins.

Modiano has the more shocking and poignant story of a broken family, and a more literary style, requiring the reader to make connections and come to conclusions rather than providing them. Buruma’s tale is sweeter. Both books are valuable as histories of real people. Perhaps they cannot answer the questions they raise. Instead, they are simply about the way some members of a minority community adapt to the places where they live. 

A recent New York Times essay on the French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas attributes to Levinas the idea that “other people are always more than our categories can capture.” The same may be said about assimilated Jews. In fact, assimilation is an honest experience not to be feared. And Jews will no doubt continue to identify themselves. 

The writer is the editor of the Israeli domain of Poetry International Rotterdam and most recently the translator of Hannan Hever’s “Suddenly the Sight of War” (Stanford). Her poetry chapbook, “Are You With Me” (Finishing Line), is forthcoming in the fall.