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, ISBN: 9781848879386

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.

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Show comments
  • Terry Field

    In my own family, there was petty anti-semitism directed against jews who had married into ‘our’ little world. The funny part was that even within that apparently non-jewish little world, even a cursory investigation into family history would reveal – as it did for me when I so inquired – that we were also Jews!
    The hatreds we press against each other are so depressingly point-less.
    We are here for so little a time, it seems a denial of life itself to loathe our rich variety.

  • balance_and_reason

    I think there is a pretty large slice in all people which tends to favour the familiar and culturally aligned and point fingers more quickly at outsiders….don’t even pretend there isn’t a massive slice of this in the strong Jewish communities in North London and elsewhere.

  • Simon Fay


  • patrickirish

    Yes, my grandparents were rejected by London society as well, so I sympathise. Rather than whining about it they moved to Australia. Their problem was that they were poor. Life can be so hard for some people,

    • My parents and grandparents were held down too, confined to roles far beneath their ability. They were white working class people born in the North of England. They were like millions of others of high ability, under educated and were directed into menial roles. Oddly enough, in WW2 my mother worked in the communications network which supplied Bletchley Park with its coded German radio traffic. She worked as a radio operator and later as a teleprinter operator. This equipped her after the war to work for the General Post Office, operating a teleprinter to send telegrams. Then, when she married my father in 1950, prejudice struck again and she had to resign her job. Married women were not allowed to work at the GPO sending telegrams up and down the line. Why is this relevant? Prejudice was utterly commonplace in the mid twentieth century. It affected, Jews, Black people, Indians, all women, and working class people of both genders. The old fashioned middle and upper class assumptions blighted the lives of tens of millions of us, not just one group who happened to be Jews.

      • patrickirish


        • Yes – I forgot the Irish. In the debate about the persecution of Jews in mid twentieth century British society, maybe we ought not too have forgotten the often seen sign in the windows of lodging houses and people renting rooms – “No Blacks. No dogs. No Irish”. I’m not aware of signs saying “No Jews” in this country at least – though I am pretty sure that had a respectable Jewish family turned up to such a place, they might have received the same treatment as a black or Irish one.

  • In any culturally homogeneous society, suspicion of ‘the other’ is almost always present. What is described here would also have been true of other minority groups at the time. Black people, Indians and others would have had exactly the same experience.

    One other thing though; it is very easy for mediocre people to assume and to state that their lack of career advancement is due to racism or to anti Semitism. In fact in most hierarchical organisations, the vast majority of people, including those who work hard and perform their roles effectively do not advance very far up the organisation.

  • rjbh

    ppoor Jews.. surely it never happens to anyone else…the poor soles.

    • EHGombrich

      Do you think Israelis are just as polite vis-a-vis Arabs?

      • rjbh

        they certainly make a point of murdering Palestinians…

        • Jaysonrex

          You do have a problematic memory. Highly selective when it comes to condemn the Jews for defending themselves against Muslim terrorists.
          Any comment regarding the 7/7/2005 “Jewish (sic) terrorism incident” in London?

    • Morseman

      Soles? Been fishing?