Ian Buruma on telling his grandparents' love story

Dutch novelist and international journalist Ian Buruma speaks to Eleanor Wachtel about his latest book, Their Promised Land.
Ian Buruma's Their Promised Land is based on the daily correspondence between his British-German-Jewish grandparents during two world wars and beyond. (Penguin Press)
Listen to the full episode52:12

Ian Buruma is a Dutch author, international journalist and public intellectual. He was born in The Hague in 1951 to a Dutch father and a British-German-Jewish mother. He studied Chinese literature at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and then went to Tokyo to study cinema. He's lived and worked in Hong Kong, London, Berlin, Washington, Oxford and, for more than 10 years, at Bard College, as a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism. His critically acclaimed books tackle subjects as diverse as the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and the human drama of the year 1945. 

In his new book, Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War, Buruma looks to his own family, using his maternal grandparents' stories and their correspondence during two world wars to examine the first half of the 20th century on a personal level. Ian Buruma spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from New York.

On immigrants and patriotism

My grandparents were born in London, and they met in 1915, right at the beginning of World War I. My grandfather was still at school, and my grandmother was too — they were teenagers, in fact. And my grandfather, being a great patriot, immediately volunteered for the army. But he worried that he wouldn't be sent to the front quickly enough because he had a German name, and the reason he had a German name was because they were both the children of German-Jewish immigrants. My two great-grandfathers came over to London in the 1880s to find jobs in the city as stockbrokers. And like many children of immigrants, my grandparents were more patriotic than the natives, as it were. But they were carrying on the tradition really that went back to Germany, where many middle-class and upper-middle-class Jews were sort of super-Germans, and they were sort of super-Brits in the same way.

On love letters that told a bigger story

The first time I actually saw [my grandparents' letters] was in the nineties. I wrote a book called Anglomania about Anglophilia in Europe in history, and I found the letters in a kind of family archive in a filthy old barn in my uncle's country house in Sussex. I looked at some of the letters, and many of them of course are love letters, and I was fascinated, not only because it told the story of these two people and their remarkable relationship, but also because it told the story of the times they lived through — two world wars, what it was like to be a Jewish family when Hitler came onto the scene and so on. From the moment I first became aware of the letters, I thought there was a larger story to be told here.

On anti-Semitism, privilege and hosting German soldiers for Christmas

Coming from relatively privileged families, my grandparents were more cushioned from hostility than many others. They were able to assimilate to a large extent. On the other hand, it's easy to forget how much anti-Semitism there still was, especially before the war. It was often social, it wasn't murderous in the case of Britain, but it was there. They felt much too proud to whine about it, but they did encounter it. I think the most dramatic instance happened in 1938, when my grandfather, who had studied medicine at Cambridge, was trying to get a position at a London hospital and failed. He wrote to my grandmother, "It's the old, old story. The job isn't mine for any price." I think that sharpened his awareness of anti-Semitism, and it's one reason they decided very early to rescue 12 Jewish children from Berlin, who they took care of in some way for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, they were also intensely humane, and always stuck up for the underdog. An extraordinary instance of this came after the war, when a lot of German soldiers were still in PoW camps in Britain, and my grandparents volunteered to host two of these German soldiers at a family Christmas. It was a very odd thing to do for a Jewish family, but I think it speaks to the sense of humanity they had — people who were in trouble needed to be helped. And I think that did probably come from their sense of how lucky they were, but also how precarious that kind of luck is.

Ian Buruma's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Piano Quintet in F minor," Op. 34, composed by Johannes Brahms, performed by the New Orford String Quartet.