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2 March 2016

That “happy families are all alike“ line is rubbish – just consider Ian Buruma’s memoir of his grandparents

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War is a personal story of two German-Jewish émigrés as they make a life in England.

By Erica Wagner

It is one of the measures of Tolstoy’s greatness that he has had us all repeating the first line of Anna Karenina – “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – as if this statement were both insightful and true. It is certainly striking and suits his purpose as a novelist, whose first job is to get the reader’s attention. If proof were needed, however, that this happy-families-being-alike stuff is rubbish, then turn to Ian Buruma’s moving memoir of his maternal grandparents, Bernard and Winifred Schlesinger.

They called each other “Bun” and “Win” in the decades upon decades of correspondence discovered in the attic of their son John Schlesinger (the film director who won an Oscar for Midnight Cowboy, and Buruma’s uncle). Why so much correspondence between a married couple? The plainest answer is that they met in 1915, at a musical soirée in north London, and were soon separated by the Great War and, a couple of decades later, by another. They were separated even after the First World War by their families, who believed that they were not old enough to know their own minds. They were not allowed to wed until 1925.

But from the beginning to the end – they were married for six decades – they were devoted to each other. “I am sitting in one now deserted & rather shambly room, with memories of your dear self still haunting it,” runs a typical letter from husband to wife, written in 1942, as Bernard is about to be shipped out of England. As a doctor, he had a relatively safe war – but at the time neither knew that he would not be killed, and one of the most striking things about the book is the way in which the letters convey the fear and uncertainty of those years:

Oh the partings. A dark cloud passed over the sun as your train steamed out this morning. I fear it may stay below the horizon for some considerable time for that is my rather gloomy vista whenever you are away from me . . .

Yet the dark cloud that hovers over this book is not merely one of separation. For, although Buruma’s book – part memoir, part biography, part history – begins with memories of Christmas festivities with Bun and Win that were as English as English could be, the Schlesingers were German-Jewish émigrés: Buruma’s great-grandparents were born in Germany. So the book becomes a meditation on identity and the complex place (though rarely acknowledged, either inwardly or outwardly) that such a family occupied in England. One of Buruma’s friends, taken to meet Bun and Win in the 1970s, remarks that his grandparents “were the most English people he had ever met”. Their home – a vicarage in Berkshire next to a mid-Victorian Gothic church – “was like something out of Agatha Christie”.

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Buruma shows, with love and care, the forging of this identity, the balancing act required. One of the most fascinating aspects of the conversation between Bun and Win (reading their letters really is like overhearing a conversation) is the way in which they distance themselves from the people they call “45s”. To be “45” was to be overtly Jewish – less assimilated than the Schlesingers. (Buruma has no idea where this term came from: New Statesman readers, can you help?)

Yet they did not ignore what was going on in the world around them. Kristallnacht, starting on 9 November 1938, was the spur for many families in Britain to try to get people out of Germany; but the Schlesingers had begun planning to take in 12 young refugees months before that awful night, and helped raise them to adulthood. The widow of the rabbi who was called in to care for the children’s spiritual welfare says simply of the Schlesingers: “They were angels.”

Both at the beginning and at the end of this lovely book, its author wonders if he is doing the right thing in exposing his grandparents’ lives to us. They were people who believed in propriety: Win took care to burn her father’s letters. “I hope they would have forgiven me for making them public,” he writes. I feel sure that they would.

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War by Ian Buruma is published by Atlantic Books (305pp, £18.99)

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This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash