Bernard Schlesinger (second fromm left) on a visit to Uppingham school, England, before being sent to fight in the first world war in France
Bernard Schlesinger (second fromm left) on a visit to Uppingham school, England, before being sent to fight in the first world war in France

My maternal grandparents, Bernard and Win Schlesinger, were very, very British, in the same way that their German-Jewish ancestors had been very, very German. One of my great-grandfathers, an orthodox Jew from Frankfurt, adored the music of Richard Wagner, for example, a passion still alive among some of his descendants, including myself.

I once asked one of my Wagnerian uncles, the film-maker John Schlesinger, how he squared this with the composer’s notorious anti-Semitism. Look, he said, of course Wagner’s ideas were hateful but his music was great, and that was all that mattered. This might sound odd, but belief in the supremacy of music was part of a German-Jewish tradition, passed on to an Anglo-Jewish family.

Music is how they met, in 1915, when Win played the violin at a family gathering in Hampstead, and Bernard played the cello. She played very well; he did not. But it was a shared passion. That, and the pride they took in their native country. To call Bernard and Win’s Britishness Wagnerian would be silly, but their patriotism, especially in times of national crisis, could sound a little overblown. In a letter written by Win to her husband just after the British retreat from Dunkirk in May, 1940, she is reminded rather strangely of the Charge of the Light Brigade: “ . . . what undaunted courage and tenacity is shown by our men in every generation. It makes you prouder and prouder to be British.”

“Our men . . . every generation”? Win was, in fact, born in London like Bernard, but her parents had arrived from Germany at the end of the 19th century. I have no doubt that her patriotic feeling was utterly genuine. But she felt the need, perhaps more than is usual among children of the native-born, to make a point of it. There is a great deal more of this kind of thing in the correspondence between my grandparents, which was especially voluminous during the second world war, when Bernard was away for three years as an army doctor in India, and she was left to take care of the family in England.

They almost certainly never meant their letters to be read by anyone but themselves, but couldn’t bear to throw them away, either. I found them in an old suitcase among piles of mouse-infested cabinets filled with papers and photographs that were kept in the barn of my uncle’s house in Sussex. The first letters are from 1915, when Bernard volunteered for army duty while still at school, anxious to show his love of king and country, and worried lest a German-sounding name should delay his dispatch to the front. As it turned out, he was soon serving as a stretcher-bearer in the Battle of the Somme, a frightful experience he didn’t like to dwell upon.

Rabbi Zimet playing for hostel children in 1939
Rabbi Zimet playing for hostel children in 1939

The American writer Adam Gopnik once wrote that the most Jewish thing about his family was the intensity with which they celebrated Christmas. This resonates with me. My earliest and most enduring memories of my own grandparents are of lavish Christmas celebrations at their house in Berkshire. I have been told that Bernard used to be a little grumpy on Christmas mornings, as though he felt a pang of guilt about this zestful break with tribal custom, but I never noticed it.

Since my mother had married a Dutchman (and a lapsed Protestant to boot), I grew up in The Hague, playing cricket with Dutch anglophiles who had their own peculiar cricketing lingo — “leg guards” (pronounced “leckats”) instead of “pads”, and so on. My nationality is Dutch, but I was at least partly shaped by England, my grandparents’ England. I saw their country through their eyes, so to speak. I idealised it. I know better now, but the rosy tint never entirely faded. Like my grandparents, I too, partly to impress them, made rather a point of it. So Christmas wishes always included such items as Viyella shirts, cricket bats, or Airfix models of Lancaster bombers.

I speak of England, but Bernard and Win were perhaps more British than English. A German-Jewish relative of ours, who escaped to London from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, once replied in a heavy German accent after being complimented on his mastery of the English language: “I don’t speak English, I speak British.” Britishness is a nationality, Englishness reeks more of blood and soil. But what about their Jewishness?

Bernard and Win on their wedding day
Bernard and Win on their wedding day

A few years ago, the Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal spoke to me about the important distinction between assimilated Jews and closeted Jews. The former he could take, but he disapproved of the latter. Bernard and Win were not in the closet. They never denied their background. But they never made a fuss about it either, lest others might be tempted to do so. Others were sometimes tempted, but my grandparents were too proud to pay much attention to the slights and slurs that were — and probably, here and there, still are — part of social life in upper-middle-class England.

The family did, however, choose “45” as a code word for being Jewish. So and so looks rather “45”. Is that nice friend of yours “45”? And so forth. Apparently our German relatives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries liked to use the word “Italians” when they referred to Jews in public. But that was then. I don’t think “45” was meant to stave off unwelcome attention. Families often use code. This was one of ours.

Both my grandparents were born and grew up in Hampstead. My great-grandfathers were stockbrokers in the City. Their social milieu consisted almost exclusively, so far as I can tell, of fellow émigrés, the Schwabs, the Seligmans, the Fernbergs, who spoke English to one and another with German accents. They were highly cultured Jews, mostly secular and assimilated, but still living in a small world of their own.

Bernard and Win did not so much reject the milieu of their parents as slip out of it. Bernard had the conventional upbringing of his class, public school and Cambridge. Win read German and French at Oxford. He gave up the Orthodox faith of his father, and she never had any religious faith to give up. He played rugby for his school and college, and she punted, and rowed, and played her violin. I don’t think either of them had close Jewish friends.

From a modern perspective of multiculturalism, identity politics, and the cult of authenticity, I suppose Bernard and Win might seem to have been in denial, as though they were suppressing some deep cultural core of themselves. Later generations would often see assimilation as a kind of betrayal.

Bernard in uniform
Bernard in uniform

But in fact, apart from their devotion to German Romantic music, the culture of my grandparents was entirely British. You can’t deny something that wasn’t there to begin with. No relative in living memory had spoken Yiddish. Bernard’s abandonment of his father’s Orthodox tradition was less a matter of denial, or suppression, than of simple disbelief.

And yet, this is not the whole story. For identity is not only a question of how one sees oneself, but also of how one is perceived by others. That is why it came as such a shock to patriotic German Jews, who had fought for their country in the Great War, just as Bernard had done for his, when they were suddenly persecuted as hated aliens after Hitler came to power.

One of the few direct references to anti-Semitism in Bernard’s letters concerned a failed attempt, in 1938, to get a job as a doctor at St Thomas’ Hospital, London. “It’s the old, old story (45)”, he wrote, “The senior job is not for me at any price.”

It was, then, spurred by this bitter reminder of racial prejudice, that Bernard and Win decided to save 12 Jewish children from Berlin by bringing them over to England and taking care of them. This was several months before the German pogrom known as Kristallnacht, which prompted others to do the same, after Neville Chamberlain allowed a number of Jewish children to come to Britain, as long as they left their parents behind.

My grandparents had shown their humane solidarity when it counted most. But they insisted that the children should come from a similar background, mostly secular, or at least non-Orthodox, and middle-class. They wanted them to fit in. Fitting in would always be a primary concern. Win was especially keen for Jewish refugees to be “de-Germanised” as quickly as possible. One of the first to arrive was her teenaged cousin Reinhard Alsberg, who soon became Ashley Raeburn, whom I only knew as the consummate English gentleman.

All this flies in the face of multiculturalism, as I said. Multiculturalism is not just a description of our societies, which are obviously made up of various cultures, but for a long time it held sway in certain academic and political circles as an ideology: immigrants, and even their offspring, were supposed to stick to the ways of their ancestors; any other choice was seen as a surrender to neocolonial oppression.

But recently, prompted by Islamist violence, the conventional view, especially among “progressives” who might once have been great champions of cultural authenticity, has begun to swing the other way. Assimilationism has again become the vogue. Muslims in particular are expected to share “our western values”, whatever they may be — Christian, or sometimes Judeo-Christian, or a rationalist version of the Enlightenment but, in any case, not Islamic. It’s an approach that appears to be based on the misunderstanding that violent holy war is the inevitable outcome of the Muslim faith, or at least adherence to old-fashioned attitudes towards women or homosexuals.

Win with her dog at Mount Pleasant, Berkshire
Win with her dog at Mount Pleasant, Berkshire

There is much to be said for encouraging immigrants, and their children, to fit in. What is sometimes disregarded is the important role of class. The rule appears to be, almost in any society, that the higher the class, the greater the degree of cultural and social assimilation.

Bernard and Win were able to feel very, very British, because they came from prosperous families and had the best education. Not only that, but their parents had already been assimilated — as Germans — before they came to Britain. One of my great-grandfathers was an officer in the Prussian army before immigrating to London in the 1880s. This decision was made, according to family lore, because his Jewish background had stood in the way of promotion to a higher military rank.

If Bernard and Win had been poor Jews from a Russian shtetl, and had found their way to Whitechapel instead of Hampstead, religious orthodoxy might have been their only solace, indeed their only source of dignity and pride. This sounds banal, but it is often forgotten by people who lecture Muslims in the west about their failure to conform to contemporary secular standards.

The relative speed with which immigrants move into the middle class, with access to higher education, depends not only on their own attitudes. They have to be accepted by the rest of society, too. This is the essential foundation of loyalty.

Being rejected by St Thomas’ strengthened Bernard’s sense of Jewish solidarity. Being welcomed by other institutions, such as University College Hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Royal Army Medical Corps and, most generally, the country of his birth, created a profound and life-long allegiance. Bernard was never a professional soldier. He ended up as the senior physician at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. But he continued to volunteer for army service in every national crisis until in 1962, the year of the Cuban missiles, he was told that such admirable patriotic duty was no longer really required of him. He was 65.

There is something a little ludicrous about this, as well as rather touching. But Bernard’s Britishness was born from a deep feeling of gratitude. Despite the common slights and professional setbacks, my grandparents never felt they were rejected by Britain in the way German Jews were rejected by their country after 1933. Perhaps this should be obvious. They were grateful for something that ought to be a given. But it meant everything to them.

I think about this often when I read about the difficulties experienced by European Muslims. To be sure, there was no Jewish equivalent of violent jihadism. But most Europeans with a Muslim background are not jihadis. They want to be accepted. Violence is all the more likely when they are not. My grandparents were fortunate. They found their place in a relatively decent society during frequently indecent times. One can only hope that, eventually, other children of immigrants will feel as lucky as they did.

Ian Buruma is author of ‘Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War’ (published by Penguin Press in the US on January 19 and in the UK by Atlantic Books in March)

Letters in response to this story

Treatment of migrants depends on timing / From Raymond Schwartz

All of us belong, not just some snobbish elite / From Martin Jaskel

The sense of Englishness has been downplayed / From Dr Stuart Jones

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