20 Books of Summer: Their Promised Land by Ian Buruma

I’m no stranger to Ian Buruma. Thanks to my public library I was introduced to the work of this Dutch-born historian well over a decade ago when I stumbled across a copy of his 2006 book Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. More recently, back in 2015, again thanks to my public library I read his Year Zero: A History of 1945. For years I’ve been wanting to read his 2004 book Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies but sadly I’ve been unsuccessful. Then, a few years ago I learned Buruma had written a new book, based on a huge cache of vintage personal letters Buruma enherited and a departure of sorts from his usual fare of history and politics entitled Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War. After passing it up on the library shelf week after week for over a year and a half I recently took a chance and borrowed a copy. I found it a somewhat uneven, yet not unsatisfying read.

As the subtitle would lead us to believe Their Promised Land is the story of Buruma’s grandparents, from their respective childhoods growing up in England as the children of German Jewish émigrés, to their courtship leading to their lives as a married couple. Sadly, like many Europeans of their generation those lives were profoundly impacted by two wars. After surviving the horrors of the World War I, 20 years later Buruma’s grandfather Bernard served as an army physician in India. Tragically, at the War’s end Bernard and Winifred learned virtually all of their relatives who remained in Germany perished in the Holocaust. With few exceptions only those relatives who emmigrated to Great Britian before 1939 survived.

Like I mentioned at the onset, Their Promised Land felt uneven and by that I mean there were portions I enjoyed and some well, maybe not so much. After a strong opening chapter I thought Buruma’s book lost momentum. Fortunately, the second half of the book was a bit more to my liking. Whatever mixed feeling I have about Their Promised Land it hasn’t soured me on his writing and if anything has inspired me to read more of his stuff.

5 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer: Their Promised Land by Ian Buruma

  1. I read this back in 2016 and, at the time, wasn’t overwhelmed by it. I thought it good but, like you, a bit uneven. I finished it and thought nothing more of it…for a little while.

    But, as time has passed, it’s stuck with me more than most of the books I’ve read the last few years. I don’t know why. I find myself thinking about Bernard and Winifred and how their families’ cultures changed what it meant for them to grow up in England. And those Mittel-European customs and values – the focus on music and culture that their Germanic families brought with them – are ones I took for granted growing up, until I realised other families didn’t share them. Living in Canada, there is no one “culture” but it’s fascinating to see and think about how families choose to adapt to their new homes. And how much or little of that survives as the generations settle in.


    • Good points! That was another part of the book I enjoyed. I’m glad you were brought up with that music and culture. My exposure to those finer things happened only later in life – and my appreciation is only shallow at best! LOL!


  2. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer: Final Thoughts | Maphead's Book Blog

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