It was the great misfortune of Winifred and Bernard Schlesinger to have endured long separations enforced by two world wars. The two bridged the distance, both geographic and emotional, with voluminous letter writing.
It was the good fortune of their grandson, historian Ian Buruma, to discover hundreds of their often mundane but cumulatively revealing letters. Buttressed by his memories and additional reporting, they form the backbone of “Their Promised Land,” an intimate, rambling, charming, and ultimately moving memoir — and social history — about the competing pulls of romantic love, family, country, and religious heritage.
The Schlesingers were assimilated British Jews of German descent; on Facebook, their social status would have been, “It’s complicated.” Their son John, Buruma’s uncle, became the celebrated director of such films as the Oscar-winning “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971). Buruma’s mother, Wendy, died at 43 of cancer, perhaps deepening her son’s attachment to family.
The book begins slowly, with Buruma’s recollections of mid-century Christmases at his grandparents’ Berkshire, England, home, where holiday excess included bulging stockings and a Christmas tree “[d]ripping with gold and silver baubles.” The misdirection is intentional, an ironic nod at the “superior Englishness” with which the Schlesingers cloaked their German Jewish background.
Buruma’s grandparents, three of whose parents were born in Germany, “wanted to shed their minority status, as though it were an unsightly scar,” he writes. Their fervent assimilation was also a marker of social class. In a society where anti-Semitism was pervasive, if not lethal, they were at once secular and self-conscious about their antecedents. Whenever someone or something struck them as particularly Jewish, it earned the mysterious designation of “45.”
Nevertheless, Buruma reports, “certain aspects of the German Jewish background stuck with them’’: the love of classical music (including Wagner), an exaggerated patriotism, an “almost fetishistic love of family.”
Bernard Schlesinger and Winifred Regensburg — known as “Win” — met in 1915 when she gave a violin recital. He entered with a cello, sparking love at first sight. But Bernard, having enlisted, was bound for the World War I trenches, and his parents disapproved of the teenage romance. He obediently broke off a nascent correspondence, but eventually resumed writing from the front — to Win’s parents.
As in any good melodrama, Bernard, suffering from boils, ended up in the very London hospital ward where Win was working as a nurse. It took them until 1925 to marry. While Win attended Oxford University, Bernard had to complete his medical training at Cambridge and find a job, a challenge complicated by his Jewish name.
The couple embraced an upper-middle-class life that would include five children, horseback riding, opera, and fancy-dress balls. They fretted over John, who was bullied at school but loved staging amateur theatricals. (Homosexual predilections were even more closeted in this world than Jewishness.)
At times, Buruma’s account threatens to bog down in banality. One saving grace is the collision of history and character: As the persecution of Jews worsened, the Schlesingers became rescuers, offering safe haven to both German Jewish relatives and a dozen unrelated German Jewish children.
Surmounting German bureaucracy and British hostility, they welcomed the children in fluent German, housed them in North London, and then dispersed them to appropriate schools. Now in their 80s and scattered around the world, the surviving refugees retain fond memories of the Schlesingers, Buruma reports. He scants their individual stories, perhaps fodder for another book.
Months before World War II, the middle-aged Bernard again enlisted, this time as a medical officer. To Win he wrote: “[I]t’s a job that’s got to be done.” Left with the care of house and family, she proclaimed herself “downhearted” and “weak-kneed,” though her children saw mostly strength. While her husband spent much of the war in India, she played music, tended her beloved garden, and soothed his rare bouts of jealousy.
As early as 1942, the Schlesingers were aware of the shooting and gassing of European Jews. They worried about England — their promised land — and about their family’s fate. But they also dreamed of their reunion, with Win imagining it as “wildly thrilling.” Because she loved Bernard “with my whole being,” more even than her own children, she wrote, his absence had rendered her “an empty husk, without soul or spirit or joy.”
In the end, the two were lucky, Buruma stresses — both in England’s ultimate impregnability and in their own “unassailable” romance. Chronicling their love, he writes tenderly, is his way “of placing a stone on their graves, sprinkling the English roses that mark their ashes, and tending to their afterlife.”
THEIR PROMISED LAND: My Grandparents in Love and War
By Ian Buruma
Penguin, 305 pp., illustrated, $27
Julia M. Klein is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic at the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.