Esteemed historian Ian Buruma turns his attention to a happy marriage in his elegant new book, Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War. While his grandparents might seem a more limited subject than his recent Year Zero: A History of 1945, this family love story is deeply intertwined with history. Using their correspondence during both the First and Second World Wars as his primary source, Buruma crafts a finely observed portrait of an assimilated Jewish family in England between the wars.
In Buruma’s telling, Winifred and Bernard Schlesinger were “more English than the English.” Of German-Jewish origin, they came from distinguished, upper-middle-class families who prized education and classical music. Although they were not officially engaged until 1922, their mutual affection is clear from letters written as early as 1915. Buruma humorously depicts the strain of the long engagement on their powers of patience; once they were finally married in 1925, they joked of having to consult Roman frescoes for advice on sex.
Despite their warm domestic life and five children (including film director John Schlesinger), the family’s encounters with anti-Semitism darken the peace and milieu in which they live. Bernard, a doctor, found himself blackballed from certain medical institutions; his frustration at this routine discrimination led to the most heroic act of the Schlesingers’ marriage. In 1938, the family helped 12 child refugees leave Nazi Germany and kept them safe in England. One of the most moving moments in the book occurs when Buruma names “the Twelve,” many of whom are still living today.