Nantes, France


Aerial view of Le Château des Ducs de Bretagne, image by Jibi44.

La Cathédral Saint-Pierre.

Nantes is France’s sixth-largest city, at about 900,000 people, and the biggest city in Northwestern France. It’s about 31 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The name derives from the Namnetes, the Gauls who founded a town in the area about 70 BCE. After the city came under Roman rule in 56 BCE, the name became Condevincum, or Condevicnum. In the third century, the name changed to Portus Namnetum. Citizens of Nantes are known as Nantais. Its nickname is the Venice of the West.

The city is on the banks of the Loire River, where the Erdre and Sèvre Nantaise Rivers meet. Because of the convergence of all this water around land masses, the city historically contained many islands. Most of them have sadly been filled in since the early 20th century, but a few remain, such as L’Île Feydeau and L’Île de Nantes.

L’Église Saint-Clément, image by Claire POUTEAU.

Île Feydeau (Feydeau Island), image by Jibi44.

Nantes is the hometown of my sweet little Marie Zénobie Sternglass (later Sklar), one of the ensemble cast of my hiatused WIPs The Natural Splash of a Living Being and The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, and in planned future books Sweet Miracles (late Forties-early Fifties Newark) and Aliyah After All These Years (2008). She also appears in my hiatused WIP Malchen and Pali and my handwritten magnum opus Cinnimin, first in 1954, and much later in 1997-98.

Marie is just the sweetest little thing. Even after everything she’s been through, she still remains sweet, naïve, innocent, hopeful. She owes her survival in large part to Dr. Caterina da Gama and Wolfram Engel, and she never forgets this. To sweet, naïve little Marie, it’s genuinely baffling why anyone would hate and abuse her angel Wolfram just because he was born gay. Wolfram becomes her surrogate father, even walking her up to the chupah on her wedding day and acting as her children’s grandfather.

One chapter of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees takes place in Nantes in December 1945, after a long journey from Germany to Hungary, to Italy, and finally Marie’s belovèd France. Marie is eager to find her family and get back her family’s possessions from their old house, but it’s far from a happy homecoming. After finding some old family photos, getting back some things from a friend of her mother’s, and learning how her father died, she and her friends return to Paris.

City panorama from the port, image by Pepie34.

Fontaine de la Place Royale, Copyright Guillaume Piolle / CC-BY-3.0.

During the Nazi occupation, locals assassinated Lt. Col. Fritz Hotz, which resulted in the revenge killings of 48 civilian Nantais. Nantes was also bombed heavily by Americans on 16 and 23 August 1943.

Le Passage de la Pommeraye, image by Philippe Alès.

There are a lot of beautiful things to see and do in Nantes. The city is home to lots of beautiful old churches, the 13th century Château des Ducs de Bretagne, many historic public squares, art and history museums, many parks and gardens, the Jules Verne Museum, a natural history museum, a museum of Nantes history, the Thomas Dobrée archaeological museum, a planetarium, a naval museum, a sewing machine museum, a print and typography museum, many old houses and buildings, and an 18th century theatre and opera house.

Entrance to the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, image by Paravane, based on original image by Plindenbaum.

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Minsk, Belarus


Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, image by Hanna Zelenko.

City Hall, image by Hanna Zelenko.

KGB Headquarters, image by John Oldale.

Minsk seems to be one of those cities which a lot of people know of, but don’t actually know much about. I’d even go so far as to assume that many people probably believe it’s a Russian city, instead of the Belarusian capital. Minsk has a population of over 2,000,000, and is the country’s cultural, economic, transportation, religious, and historical centre.

Minsk was settled around the 9th century CE by Eastern Slavs, and first mentioned in 1067 as Mensk (the alternate way to write the city’s name in Belarusian Cyrillic). It may have gotten its name from the nearby River Menka. Over the years, the city, like all of Belarus, has passed through many hands—Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Nazi, Ruthenian, Eastern Slavs, and French. A number of those occupiers held control of Minsk more than once. During the Russian Civil War in particular, it, like Kyiv, changed hands so many times it was hard to remember just who was in charge at any given time.

Minsk, which had become a large, modern metropolis and cultural centre by the late 19th century, suffered greatly during WWI and the subsequent Civil War. However, in the early years of the Soviet Union, it underwent much rebuilding and experienced a great renaissance. A great many theatres, schools, universities, factories, libraries, museums, hospitals, cinemas, and newspaper offices sprung up. In 1929, it got an electric train, and by 1934, an airport was in business.

Cathedral Square, image by Alinangelalla (

City panorama by the Svislach River, image by Monk - Ihar Mahaniok.

Minsk has featured in all three of my Russian historicals so far. Minsk is the home of Inessa Zyuganova, one of my favourite orphanage girls since I created her in late 1996/early 1997, when she was going on ten years old. Inessa’s kind-hearted old uncle Dmitriy (Dyadya Dima) adopts her and five of her friends, and raises them along with the youngest of his 27 surviving children.

Inessa, a loyal Communist and aspiring filmmaker, loves living in Minsk, the lifeblood of her belovèd homeland. She’s proud of how modern it’s become in so short a time. During these early Soviet years, the various foreign republics were also encouraged to use their native languages, so Inessa grows up in the Belarusian language. Prior to the 20th century, the Belarusian language wasn’t very developed or widely-used.

After her husband Roman is murdered in the killing fields of the nearby Kurapaty forest in April 1937, and her cousin Rustam barely escapes with his life, Inessa arranges a way to get out of the USSR, into Poland, and over to her friends and two cousins in America.

The Church of St. Mary Magdalene, image by Hanna Zelenko.

Minsk was in the immediate line of fire after Operation Barbarossa launched on 22 June 1941, and was bombed on that first day of invasion. Four days later, the Nazis occupied the city. Those who were lucky were evacuated into Siberia and Central Asia, well out of the way of the Nazis. Those who were left behind suffered greatly, though many people joined the partisans or engaged in other acts of resistance.

The Minsk Ghetto was one of the largest ghettoes in Nazi-occupied Europe, with people shipped in from Western Europe as well as the local environs. Only 1.5 square meters of “living” space were granted to adults, with none allotted for children. The Aktionen were constant and brutal, with tens of thousands of people killed during each. The Jewish community of Minsk went from over 50% to less than 10%.

Most of what was left of the city was reduced to rubble during the fighting between Nazis and Soviets in 1944, during the battle to retake the city. In 1944, the population was a mere 50,000, a far cry from more recent glory days. In the decades following, the city began to rebuild and come back as a major metropolis.

Catholic Church of Saints Simon and Helena (Alena), a.k.a. The Red Church, original image by Чаховіч Уладзіслаў (Uladzislaŭ Chakhovich); edited by Rabanus Flavus

More information: (pictures of The Red Church)

Lille, France


La Place aux Oignons, image by Velvet.

The Column of the Goddess, La Place du Général de Gaulle, image by Velvet.

The Paris Gate, image by Velvet.

It’s only been fairly recently that I’ve developed any interest in visiting Paris. When I imagined visiting France in the past, I always thought first of the lesser-known cities instead of the cliché. My 8th grade Spanish teacher also told us Paris smells like urine, which really put me off visiting there. And besides, it’s too expected that someone visiting or writing about France would pick Paris. Why not be a little different and choose a city like Lille?

Kit Green of my Atlantic City books is descended from Lille people on her hated mother’s side. When a pogrom swept through her belovèd father’s birth city of Chornobyl in December 1902, when he was just a newborn, the family fled to their distant relatives in Lille. Most of them stayed behind in France and eventually moved around to other cities, but Kit’s infant father, his orphaned distant cousin (whom he later unhappily married), and his parents came to America, went from the Greenblatts to the Greens, and hid their true origins.

In the Summer of 1988, in my handwritten magnum opus Cinnimin, Kit’s 14-year-old daughter Raspberry Ann has her bat mitzvah in Lille. A number of other people in the family, including some of Cinni’s children and grandchildren, also go on the trip around France. The secret about the family’s Jewish origins came out in 1972, and Kit’s father, her favourite brother Saul and his family, and a number of her children reclaimed their birthright. Kit’s favourite sister Lovella, who discovered the secret years ago, had already married a Jewish man and been raising Jewish children.

The belfry of the chamber of commerce, image by Benh LIEU SONG.

Lille was founded in 640 CE, according to the legend by Lydéric and Phineart. However, modern archaeological evidence suggests that the city was inhabited as early as 2000 BCE. Today, the city has a lot of shops and restaurants in the Carrefour Hypermarket of the Euralille. The city also maintains the building where the WWII Resistance newspaper La Voix du Nord was printed. The newspaper survives as a daily, obviously with a much different focus.

There are many antiques shops, flower stalls, and secondhand bookstores in the courtyard of the Old Stock Exchange. In Vieux Lille, past the New Stock Exchange, you’ll find narrow 17th century cobbled streets and more antiques shops.

The Gille de le Boë House, image by Velvet.

Lille is home to the Museum of the Hospice Comtesse, founded in 1237 by Jane of Constantinople, Countess of Flanders. The museum is home to a lot of Dutch and Flemish artwork, gold and silver plates, Lille earthenware, and Delftware. Close to the museum is the Cathédral Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille, which was completed in honour of the new millennium.

The Musée des Beaux Arts was built between 1889-92, and second in size only to the Louvre. Its artwork runs the gamut of styles, from Picasso to Rubens, and also has many Spanish paintings, sculptures, drawings, Medieval and Renaissance exhibits, ceramics, and old relief maps.

The Natural History and Geological Museum, a 19th century building, contains taxidermic exhibits, fossils, minerals, rocks, live fish and insects, and an ethnographic wing including a mummy.

The Jewish community of Lille actually increased after WWII, and today still has a viable community of several thousand people.

Tournai Gate.

Source material: (still have my printouts from 2002!)

WeWriWa—Jungle Surprise



Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. I’ve been sharing from the book I’m releasing on May ninth, And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away.

In July of 1945, 19-year-old soldier Jakob was transferred from Amsterdam to the Dutch East Indies, where a revolution is brewing. Jaap thinks the Indonesians deserve their independence, but he’s not going to disobey orders, and he knows the people pointing guns at him won’t know or care what his sympathies are.

Jaap has spent a lot of time drawing the beautiful flora and fauna, using the excuse that he’s scouting. On one of these “scouting” missions in the jungle, he’s made friends with a mother orangutan and her baby, and has started thinking about what he’s going to do for a living once he’s a civilian. Little does he realize there’s another animal in the area, an animal decidedly less friendly and gentle towards humans than orangutans.


He was so lost in his train of thought that he didn’t hear a menacing growl until he looked up and saw a flash of orange and black heading right in his direction.

Completely forgetting everything he’d been told about not moving and staying calm when a tiger approached, he leapt to his feet, stuffing his fountain pen and notepad into his bag, and began running as fast as he could in a zigzag pattern. He was limping heavier than usual, the way he always did when he had to run very fast, and taking ragged, gulping breaths. The tropical heat combined with his terror produced an excess of sweat he was unable to stop to wipe away. And all the while, the beating of his heart was probably loud enough to call the tiger’s attention.

As he was running far away from his encampment, by now positive he’d gotten lost forever in the jungle, he saw another horrifying sight looming in front of him. A machine gun nest. Quickly glancing back to make sure he still had some distance on the tiger, he reached into the left-side pocket on his bag as he ran, pulled out a grenade, removed the pin, and aimed right for the nest.


For anyone interested, I created a Facebook page for Jakob’s story awhile ago. It has links to a lot of the historical resources I used while researching it, some of the songs that inspired chapter titles, a list of characters, etc.

Kutaisi, Georgia


River Rioni

By the banks of the River Rioni, image by А. Мухранов (A. Mukhranov) (


The Ukimerioni Fortress ruins, image by Rusudan Beridze (user: Serafita).

The Gelati Monastery, image by Ilan Molcho, uploaded by geagea (1661.jpg).

Kutaisi is Georgia’s next-largest city, at about 200,600 people, and the capital of the Imereti region. It’s nestled along both banks of the Rioni River, the Northern Imereti Foothills, the Samgurali Range, the Colchis Plain, and many deciduous forests. The city has a humid, subtropical climate, and because of all the nearby mountains, rain can be expected in any month. It’s also very windy, and snow can be wet and heavy.

Kutaisi was the home of many Georgian rulers throughout history. One of the city’s landmarks is the Bagrati Cathedral on Ukimerioni Hill. It was built during the early 11th century, during King Bagrat III’s reign. In 1692, it was blown up by the invading Ottomans. Only in the 21st century were the ruins finally restored.

Another landmark is the Gelati Monastery, which contains the Church of the Virgin, the Church of St. George, and the Church of St. Nicholas. Many ancient manuscripts and murals are preserved there, and it once had an Academy that was home to many of Georgia’s greatest writers, scientists, philosophers, and theologians.

Bagrati Cathedral restored, image by Brave Lemming (

Kutaisi is the setting for part of Chapter 26, “Trouble in Transcaucasia,” of my WIP, Journey Through a Dark Forest. Former orphanage girl Alina Petropashvili, now grown up, has been living in Kutaisi since she came home in April 1927, shortly before her 19th birthday. She loves living in such an ancient, historic city, but her unjustly imprisoned husband, Amiran Koridze, orders her to get out of there, go to her friends in Armenia, and escape to the Fereydan region of Iran, which has a lot of Georgians.

Amiran proposed to Alina by the ruins of the Bagrati Cathedral on Ukimerioni Hill in September 1927. Their apartment overlooks the Rioni River and the lush, green hills. Georgia feels like the most beautiful country in the world to Alina, because it’s hers. From the moment she stepped foot off the train home and breathed in the air, she’d known she was home and never wanted to leave ever again. It’s very painful for her to have to leave to save her life, and ensure a safe future for the child she’s just discovered she’s having after almost ten childless years of marriage.

Gorgeous River Rioni running through Kutaisi, image by Tamuna Kakauridze (

The ruins of Geguti Palace are another landmark beacon of Kutaisi. The city also contains Sataplia Cave, which has dinosaur footprints; the Meskhisvili Drama Theatre; three synagogues on Gaponov Street, part of the city’s historic Jewish neighborhood; Motsameta Church; and the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. It’s also believed that Kutaisi was home to the Golden Fleece stolen by Jason.

Kutaisi Shul

The main synagogue, the only Kutaisi shul still in use today, image by Dato Rostomashvili (Flickr).

Georgia has one of the most ancient Jewish communities outside of Israel, and Kutaisi was part of that community. The Jewish presence in Georgia can be traced to the Babylonian captivity, the 6th century BCE. (Contrary to the Ashkenazocentric myth, Eastern Europe was far from the only place in the Diaspora!). There were a number of shuls in the Jewish neighbourhood, though only one is used today. The majority of the community went to Israel from the 1970s onward. Prior to Soviet persecution, in March 1879, there was a blood libel trial in Kutaisi, though all ten accused were acquitted.


The ruins of the Bagrati Cathedral, pre-restoration, painted by Aleksandr Fyodorovich Peters (

Downtown Kutaisi, image by Kober.

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