A prizewinning historian recounts his German-Jewish family’s time in England during the most turbulent years of the 20th century.
A treasure trove of love letters, produced over five decades and discovered locked in steel boxes in a barn, provided the raw materials from which Buruma (Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism/Bard Coll.; Year Zero: A History of 1945, 2014, etc.) has shaped the fascinating story of his grandparents Bernard and Win Schlesinger. Both were children of German Jews who had immigrated to Britain in the 19th century and prospered. So, too, did their children, who, for the author, represent “the old immigrant story” of advancing through “higher education and prosperity.” Buruma, however, probes the tensions below the surface of the family's apparent success. Never distant from their family connections in Germany, they were also targets of anti-Semitism in England. Both Bernard and Win served in World War I; Win was a nurse, and Bernard was a stretcher-bearer on the Western front. However, anti-Semitism ultimately stymied Bernard’s career as a doctor. “The senior job is not for me at any price,” he wrote in 1938 after rejection by St. Thomas's Hospital. Before the horrors of Kristallnacht, Win and Bernard had begun to set up a hostel where they sheltered rescued Jewish children. Raised by their parents as normal Germans, most had no idea why they were singled out for persecution. The family also found time to raise a family of five, which included future award-winning movie director John Schlesinger. During World War II, Bernard wrote daily from India, even knowing delivery was months away at best. On May 8th, 1945, he wrote, “my Beloved…on this historic day I must send you a word of love…perhaps now after this war people will finally work out their salvation.” Buruma impressively captures his grandparents’ remarkable lives in this insightful narrative.
The author shapes his family’s labor of a lifetime into a scintillating work of art.