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British Jews’ love story contains larger lessons about assimilation

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents In Love and War

By Ian Buruma

Penguin Press

305 pages, $26.95

By Michael D. Langan

“Their Promised Land” is the social history of a Jewish family in Great Britain, the Schlesingers. Theirs is a story of assimilation and multiple identities, a cultural burden of sorts, but borne gladly.

At base it’s the love story of Winifred and Bernard Schlesinger. Both born in the decade before the turn of the 20th century, these endearing people were Bard College professor Ian Buruma’s grandparents. They were also film director John Schlesinger’s parents. John won an Oscar for directing “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969.

The Schlesingers were in the position of many well-to-do Jews in England, people who loved their English tradition (they were born there) but who, by maintaining aspects of their Jewishness, were “outsiders who were insiders too.” Even though they did not deny their Jewish background, there was no trace of it when Buruma visited. Their Jewishness wasn’t a source of shame. They just didn’t want to make a fuss about it.

Their tale began before the First World War, continued through the Second and ended only with their deaths in England in 1984 and 1986 for Bernard and then Win. Husband and wife were separated for huge swaths of time, but their love endured, largely through letters written almost daily, with Bernard away fighting in some of Europe’s bloodiest battles.

Buruma writes about the value of the letters, “The lives of most people, unless they were very famous, slip away into oblivion when those who still remember them die in their turn … But Bernard and Win did leave a record, (a stack of steel boxes filled with hundreds of letters, written between 1915 and the 1970s exists), not because they wanted to be immortal, but simply because they could not bear the thought of throwing it away.”

For example, Buruma illustrates by offering two letters that his grandparents wrote. The first is Bernard to Win from Oxford on Sept. 15, 1915, where “he has his first glimpse of the real consequences of the war.” Bernard explains, “We were up till twelve the night before watching the convoy of wounded arrive & bearing them from their bunks in the train on stretchers to the ambulance motors … you just begin to realize the absolute wickedness, barbarity & there is nothing bad enough to term it – of the war, when you see these terrible wounds & hear the moaning when they are dressed.”

Win responds the next day. Buruma says, “His letter has made her “long desperately to be able to do something to help, like you are doing …’ ” (Later, Bernard spent much of WWII “charging around northern India” as a doctor.)

Years later, when WWII was over, Bernard wrote consolingly to Win on May 8, 1945: “My Beloved,” Bernard writes, “On this historic day I must send you a word of love.” He tells her not to fret “too much about world affairs & not become too depressed. Anyway you and I can’t set them in order, and perhaps now after this war people will finally work out their salvation.”

The author, who lived in Holland in the mid-1950s, describes one of his visits to his grandparents’ Berkshire home for Christmas, calling it “the model of genteel country life.” Exemplifying this aspect, the author mentions that a friend of his, visiting with him in the late 1970s, “said my grandparents were the most English people he had ever met. Their home, he said, was like something out of Agatha Christie.” Buruma remarks that, on this level, his grandparents aspired to an idyll and at the same time lived up to an ideal.

Part of their complicated mentality is the result of the function of class in Great Britain, still an issue. “It is the old immigrant story,” Buruma writes, “assimilation as the sign of higher education and prosperity … marks of difference – language, customs, dress, religion, at least of the Orthodox kind – had been discarded.”

Grandfather went to Oxford and Cambridge. Buruma says he doesn’t fall for the notion that his grandparents should have insisted on their “true ‘identity’ as Jews.” Bernard and Win were not immigrants and felt no need to seek the security of the émigré milieu. They worshipped continental classical music and saw the family as a haven of security. Once they were gone, the center did not hold, says Buruma.

Most of the rest of the family suffered from a series of adversities. Buruma’s mother died of cancer at 43. Her sister, Susan, killed herself at age 30. Uncle John, the filmmaker, mute after a series of strokes, died in Palm Springs. Roger followed a few years later. Only Hillary is still alive, says Buruma. She converted to Roman Catholicism years ago and is a member of Opus Dei.

So Bernard and Win’s Idyll exists now in memory only, thanks to their grandson.

Because it endures, other factors play off of it. For example, there is the story of the couple inviting two of Hitler’s soldiers in a German POW camp in Newbury in 1946 to spend Christmas with them after WWII. This welcoming takes place after news of the hateful Germans, with news of mass killing, roiled the daily news. The invited Germans never forgot this kindness, Buruma records.

“Common decency,” Bernard and Win might have said. But it was not “common” by any means. It was heroic virtue.

Finally, Buruma writes that Bernard’s and Win’s letters also show how they saw themselves in relation to their world. For example, Bernard and Win loved listening to Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll.” The music touched their innermost beings. In retrospect, Buruma asks us a similar question, “How do we choose our identities, depending upon time, place, and social position?” In his interrogatory, he implies a moral dimension.

That which is assumed is our conscience, our ethical GPS, which shapes our spiritual being.

Michael D. Langan is the former headmaster of Nardin Academy and a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.