X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week. If you receive it, you’ll also find your subscriber number at the top of our weekly highlights email.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.spectator.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050. If you’ve only just subscribed, you may not yet have been issued with a subscriber number. In this case you can use the temporary web ID number, included in your email order confirmation.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

If you have any difficulties creating an account or logging in please take a look at our FAQs page.

Books

The polite anti-Semitism of 20th-century Britain

The Schlesingers were wealthy, public-spirited and highly cultivated British patriots. But London society still casually snubbed his grandparents, says Ian Buruma

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War Ian Buruma

Atlantic Books, pp.320, £20

Though it seems to begin as an affectionate memorial to his maternal grandparents, a testimonial to a rare and perfectly happy marriage, Their Promised Land by Ian Buruma has a deeper purpose. The cache of letters to and from Winifred (‘Win’) and Bernard (‘Bun’) Schlesinger is the pre-email, daily correspondence of two people who could not bear to be apart, yet were separated for years at a time by both world wars. Although his grandparents died in 1984 and 1986, this artful volume reveals a good deal about the world we live in today.

Born and brought up in posh Hampstead comfort, with plenty of servants, before moving to a spacious old vicarage in Berkshire, Win Regensburg and Bernard Schlesinger were ‘educated in the usual manner of the English upper-middle class: public school in his case, and Oxford and Cambridge,’ Buruma writes. ‘They were British and had the perfect right to insist on it, and yet their sense of belonging was never simply to be taken for granted.’

As you might guess from the names, they were Jews of German origin, but so assimilated that the high point of their year was their lavish Christmas celebration. They could have followed Win’s elder brother, Walter, who changed his name to Raeburn (and later exchanged his tepid Judaism for lukewarm Anglicanism); however, it was 1915, and as Buruma says, ‘the motive was not to get rid of a Jewish name, but of a German one.’


Was it the German-ness or the Jewish-ness of their names that prevented Bernard from obtaining the London teaching hospital appointments he merited, or from being sent to France after he enlisted; or Win, despite gaining her nursing certificate, from being accepted as a VAD in a Hampstead hospital? This sort of petty, but wounding discrimination carried on right through the second world war, when Bernard served with distinction, ending up in India. Whatever the cause of the couple feeling themselves not unreservedly English, it was not class — and this is one of the important themes of their grandson’s book.

Along with the money, the schooling, and the addresses of the upper-middles, Win and Bernard had something not always commonplace in this echelon of English society — access to, and a passion for high culture, especially music. They, and at least four of their five children, were accomplished musicians. The fifth was John Schlesinger, who gave up practising the piano for performing conjuring tricks, before making films such as Billy Liar, Midnight Cowboy and Sunday, Bloody Sunday. When Win and Bernard were young, the musical avant-garde was still Brahms (whom Bernard loved above all composers, except Noël Coward and, of course, Wagner). The omission of — say — Debussy, Ravel, Verdi and Puccini from Buruma’s index shows us that this culture was above all Germanic. Having such cultivated taste set them apart from many of their British peers (they were more like the Souls than the Bright Young Things), nearly as much as their totally non-religious (but hard to define) Jewishness.

They were probably more uncomfortable with (even non-religious) East End, Yiddish-speaking Jews like my own maternal grandparents than with the polite anti-Semites who thwarted their career ambitions. Win, in particular, sometimes found being Jewish awkward. In their correspondence, they used the number 45 to refer to Jews; and, when they, post-Kristallnacht, presciently and heroically brought over a dozen German Jewish children to London and safety, Win praised one of them for not looking very ‘45’. (The mysterious code remains unbroken.)

Buruma, brought up in the Netherlands, tells of his own shock when he first encountered casual British anti-Semitism, while doing a summer job in a firm of City solicitors in the 1960s: ‘It comes back to me every time I read about Win’s social cringes. She had to put up with something I never did.’ Yet they did not change their names and did not convert to any other religion (though their daughter, Hilary, ultimately became a Roman Catholic adherent of Opus Dei, says her nephew — without a hint of anything sinister). They were genuine patriots, loved England and adored Englishness —from the language, which they both wrote elegantly, to the landscape (Win was a gardener). In 1920 Bernard wrote to Win: ‘I tell the world… that I am by birth a Jew, a Jew still and proud of it too.’

Following its American publication (there are some barbarisms, such as ‘high tea’ for the ordinary meatless, sandwiches-and-cakes, late-afternoon repast; and a few otiose uses of the meaningless qualifier ‘rather’), there were the expected online review comments about ‘self-hating’ Jews. Yes, there were some problems in the lives of Buruma’s lovable, loving and captivatingly interesting grandparents, but not of their own making. The most important consequence of writing this exceptional book will be, let’s hope, that it kills off the cliché of the ‘self-hating Jew’, and makes it possible to talk — and think — sensibly about the hard question of Jewish identity.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close