cover image Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War

Ian Buruma. Penguin Press, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-59420-438-8

Buruma (Year Zero: A History of 1945) delivers a moving, intimate portrait of his grandparents, Bernard and Winifred “Win” Schlesinger (the parents of film director John Schlesinger, of Midnight Cowboy fame), through a close reading of their correspondence from 1915 to 1945. In a fluid, novelistic narrative, Buruma not only captures a remarkable marriage, but also a particular segment of English society—assimilated, upper-middle-class Jews. He shows his grandparents as “outsiders who were insiders too,” whose enthusiastic embrace of English culture, if seemingly excessive at times, reflected gratitude that England, unlike their parents’ birthplace of Germany, didn’t betray its Jewish citizens. The excerpted letters depict Bernard and Win during their first courtship, interrupted by his service in France in WWI; during her days at Cambridge and his at Oxford; and during their later separation during WWII, when Win saw how life carried on as usual in London even as England’s fate “was being decided in the skies,” and Bernard, an Army doctor, witnessed the Empire’s waning days in India. Buruma depicts his grandparents “with all their doubts and contradictions” as well as their “generosity of spirit,” which extended to their rescue of 12 Jewish children from Nazi Germany—and hosting two German POWs for Christmas in 1946. This illuminating story of cultural assimilation and identity will resonate with many readers. (Jan.)