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.