Jews: Ambivalent and Admirable

Rabbi Erwin Zimet singing with the twelve Jewish children whom Ian Buruma’s grandparents rescued from Nazi Germany in early 1939, at the hostel they set up for the children in Highgate, North London
Ian Buruma
Rabbi Erwin Zimet singing with the twelve Jewish children whom Ian Buruma’s grandparents rescued from Nazi Germany in early 1939, at the hostel they set up for the children in Highgate, North London

Some eighteen years ago, Ian Buruma wrote a wise but melancholy review about Anne Frank—or rather about the merciless vendetta that had settled over the dramatized version of her diary.* In it, he suggested that no side in that controversy was exclusively right, neither those led by her father, Otto, who presented her “message” as a universal plea on behalf of all suffering humanity everywhere, nor the followers of Meyer Levin, the author of an unpublished play based on the diary, who protested that there was a conspiracy to drain it of its centrally Jewish concern. Buruma disliked the acrid, even paranoid tone of the Levin school, but he was not convinced by the “universalist” line either. He probably exasperated both camps by concluding that Anne Frank was “ambivalent” about her identity.

She wrote that Jews “can never become just Netherlanders or just English or any nation for that matter.” But she also wrote: “My first wish after the war is that I may become Dutch.” Buruma’s new book implies that ambivalence of that kind isn’t as irreconcilable as it sounds. Rather the opposite: if Anne Frank had lived, it might have been the program for a happy life.

It becomes clear in Their Promised Land that when Buruma reflected on Anne and Otto Frank, he was also reflecting on his own family. But the book cunningly takes its time to show readers why this is so. It begins with one of the most splendid and nostalgic descriptions of a traditional English Christmas that I have ever read. As a child, Buruma would cross the Channel every year with his Dutch father and his English mother to stay with her parents in a large converted vicarage in Berkshire. His grandfather, in a green tweed jacket with a pipe in his mouth, would greet them as they arrived. There would be high tea with cucumber sandwiches.

Hundreds of Christmas cards would already be decorating the hall and the staircase. The enormous Christmas tree in the large drawing room was

dripping with gold and silver baubles, festooned with streams of glittery trimmings, angels dangling from pretty little candlesticks…. This totem of pagan abundance, looking over a small mountain range of beautifully wrapped presents at its base, was not really vulgar—Granny had excellent taste. It was just very, very big.

So was “the day-long feast of Edwardian gluttony” on Christmas Day itself, beginning with stockings stuffed with smaller presents for all the guests, then…



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