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Review: Their Promised Land

A German, Jewish and especially English couple

    Ian Buruma: Evokes 'a whole world'
    Ian Buruma: Evokes 'a whole world'

    By Ian Buruma
    Atlantic Books, £18.99

    Ian Buruma's moving love letter to his grandparents' memory is evocative and absorbing. I can just remember his grandparents - friends of my grandparents, though half-a-generation younger, and a whole generation more English.

    Both of Buruma's grandparents recalled here were of German Jewish families - their parents had come to England in the late 19th century, done well in the City of London, and were hugely grateful to Britain and the opportunities it afforded them.

    Their story unfolds through their letters, from 1915 to the 1970s. In the First World War, Rifleman Bernard Schlesinger (Bun) fought, while Winifred Regensburg (Win) stayed at home. They fell in love and waited, till he, as a doctor, could support her and till her parents gave consent.

    University, hospital, Win caring for the wounded, Bun reflecting on Britishness - all are touched on in the letters, while music, Kipling, and the family are a constant refrain. They finally married in 1925,

    The memory is lovingly recorded. It left me tearful with nostalgia

    But this is not just a love story. A whole world is described, of more-or-less assimilated German Jews rejoicing in their music in Fitzjohn's Avenue and Parsifal Road. Most joined the new Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John's Wood, though a few remained Orthodox. All had mixed feelings about speaking German during the First World War; the Schlesingers used a code, "45", to mean "Jewish" when talking about others. In some ways, it was an idyllic life in Hampstead and later Berkshire, with education and plenty of music. And yet, long before the Kindertransports began, Bun and Win (whose eldest son John Schlesinger was the well-known film director) decided to take in 12 child refugees. Out of Jewish loyalty? Because they were unusually far-sighted? Out of compassion? Or, as Ian Buruma suggests, was it something to do with Dr Bernard Schlesinger not getting the position he longed for at St Thomas' Hospital, the old "45 question" again?

    Bun and Win remained in touch with those "children" all their lives; yet Win was ambivalent about her Jewishness, and somewhat sniffy about "other types" of Jews. But they never changed their names, even though a German name could lead to awkwardness, nor did they ever deny who they were.

    Buruma records Rabbi John Rayner's words at Win's funeral -- she was a tzaddeket, a righteous woman - though she would not have understood the Hebrew. They were both tzaddikim in their own way, but their true epitaph lies not in the Liberal Jewish Cemetery but, in the words Buruma quotes from one of Bun's letters:

    "My idea is that our hereafter, good or bad, is the memory of ourselves we leave behind." The memory these good people left behind is lovingly recorded in this volume. It left me tearful with nostalgia for the world of the Schlesingers and my grandparents, and for the culture, the unquestioning British patriotism, and the sense of being outsiders coupled with gratitude to Britain that went with it.

    Had they been alive, they would today have been helping Syrian child refugees. We could learn from their values and generosity even now.

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