University of Montpellier

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Copyright Albertvillanovadelmoral

Though most people think of the Sorbonne when they think of French universities, there are many other wonderful schools too. The University of Montpellier is one of France’s oldest and most venerable, formally founded in 1289 and truly dating back to at least 1137. Not only is it one of France’s oldest schools, but one of the oldest universities in the world.

Before Pope Nicholas IV issued a Papal bull bestowing university status in 1289, there were a series of venerable liberal arts schools in Montpellier. Italian jurist and glossator (legal student) Placentinus came to Montpellier from the University of Bologna’s law school in 1160 and taught there during two different periods. He died in Montpellier in 1192.

Professors from Montpellier’s law school were very instrumental in the drafting of the Napoléonic Code of 1804. These civil laws are still in use in modern-day France, though with some changes over the years.

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Faculty of Medicine, Copyright Albertvillanovadelmoral

Montpellier’s school of medicine was in existence at least as early as 1137, staffed by doctors trained in Spanish medical schools. It’s the world’s oldest medical school still in operation.

In the 14th century, the medical school famously argued the cause of Bubonic Plague was a miasma penetrating the body’s pores. Montpellier-educated doctors urged people not to bathe, for fear it would open pores and invite in the miasma. This miasma was supposedly created by air exposed to decaying bodies, humid weather, and fumes resulting from poor sanitation.

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Faculty of Law, Copyright Vpe

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University garden, Copyright Vpe

Le Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier was founded in 1593 on the orders of King Henri IV, and under the leadership of Pierre Richer de Belleval, an anatomy and botany professor considered the father of scientific botany. France’s oldest botanical garden, it was inspired by Orto Botanico de Padova (Padua), and in turn inspired le Jardin des Plantes de Paris in 1626.

Today, the garden is home to 2,680 plant species, 500 of which are native to the Mediterranean region. About 1,000 of these species are in a greenhouse. There are also palm trees, orange trees, aquatic plants, ferns, orchids, succulents, and medicinal plants.

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Copyright Vpe

The school of theology dates back to at least 1350, as evidenced in two letters of King Jean II. Pope Martin V bestowed canonical institution upon the school in a Papal bull of 17 December 1421, and it was thus closely united with the law school.

The Catholic theology school was thrown into haywire by the 16th century triumph of Calvinism in the region, though the Catholic school was reinstated in 1622. However, the Jesuit vs. Dominican rivalry put even more strain on the school, and it eventually disappeared upon the French Revolution.

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Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Copyright Vpe

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Marine biology station, Copyright Fagairolles 34

Like all other French universities, Montpellier too was closed upon the French Revolution in 1793. In 1810, the schools of letters and science were reopened, and the law school reopened in 1880.

In 1969, the university was officially reorganised, as a result of the famous student riots all over France in May 1968. It henceforth was split into three schools. University of Montpellier I had medicine, law, and economy; II had science and technology; and III had liberal arts, social sciences, and humanities.

On 1 January 2015, I and II merged to become a newly-recreated University of Montpellier. III became a separate institution, Paul Valéry University.

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Papal bull of 1289, establishing the university, Copyright Vpe

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Faculty of Pharmacy’s drugstore, Copyright Vpe

My character Imre always dreamt of studying literature by the Sorbonne, but after Csilla and their other friends move to a strawberry farm in Béziers, run by the Jewish Scouts and Guides of France, Imre can’t take the separation and rushes down to that farm. He gets his own living quarters on the farm, and commutes about 30 minutes to the university.

In Montpellier, Imre runs across some of Csilla’s Abonyiak friends whom they’d falsely believed died. I thought all these people had died too, but once they were no longer just names and death dates, I didn’t have to heart to kill so many of them. I arranged for their survival through transports to various factories, being left behind upon evacuation, and death march escapes.

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Faculty of Medicine court of honour (formerly the cloister of Montpellier Cathedral’s monastery), Copyright Vpe

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Bell tower of cathedral, seen from Faculty of Medicine, Copyright Vpe

Twentieth Arrondissement and Tempio Maggiore Israelitico di Firenze

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St. Gabriel Church and Hélène-Boucher Lycée, Copyright Sigoise

The 20th Arrondissement of Paris (a.k.a. Arrondissement de Ménilmontant) is on the Right Bank. It’s bordered on the north by the 19th Arrondissement, on the west by the 11th Arrondissement, and on the south by the 12th Arrondissement. Probably its most famous attraction and landmark is Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Historically, the higher the number of the arrondissement, the more working-class and poor folks (many of them immigrants). This isn’t the wealthy, stereotypically “cultured” population which flocked to the arrondissements with very low numbers. As a proud proletarian, it’s right up my alley!

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Town Hall, 1908

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Town Hall, 2009, Copyright besopha, Source FlickrMairie

Its population peak and most concentrated density was 1936, with 208,115 residents, 34,779 per square kilometer. It was annexed to Paris in 1859, and formed from the towns of Belleville and Ménilmontant, the municipality of Saint-Mande, and the commune of Charonne. As of 2012, the population was 198,678.

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Besides Père Lachaise, other landmarks include Belleville Cemetery, St. Germain Church of Charonne, Charonne Cemetery, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix de Ménilmontant, Pavillon Carré de Baudouin, Tenon Hospital, Hospital de la Croix Saint-Simon, and many schools and parks. The 20th Arrondissement also has the next-largest Chinatown in Paris.

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Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix, Copyright Zantastik

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Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix, sometime between 1863–70

My characters are resettled in a cheap apartment in the 20th Arrondissement upon their return from Nantes in December 1945. Wolfram, who’s since left Le Meurice, has the apartment across the hall, and made the arrangements for them to live there for possibly less than the time of a normal lease.

He’s also bought them mattresses and secondhand furniture, put all their tableware and cookware in the cupboards, and moved in all their extra luggage and Caterina’s recovered small furniture. Wolfram insists he doesn’t need to be repaid, and tells them to consider it a belated Chanukah present.

Their apartments are on Rue des Pyrénées, which forms the eastern border of Père Lachaise.

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Église Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, 1900

Everyone but Wolfram goes for a walk through Père Lachaise on Csilla’s 18th birthday, 21 December, before starting their planned walk to Al Syete, a Sephardic synagogue in the 11th Arrondissement. The walk ends in terror and horrific flashbacks for everyone but Imre and Júlia, as they have an up-close and personal encounter with the crematorium.

The moment they realise what the building and smell are, they start going into hysterics, which attracts a lot of negative attention. Marie is so badly affected, she passes out, and Imre has to run back to the apartment to get Csilla’s recovered sled. The boys are shaking too badly to carry her, and Imre only has one good arm, since he broke his left hand last month.

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The monument Marie passes out by, in memory of the victims of a fire at an 1897 showing of Lumière Brothers’ films, Copyright Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

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Crematorium (chimneys not visible), Copyright Christopher Lancaster, Source Flickr

Tempio Maggiore Israelitico di Firenze, the Great Synagogue of Florence, was built thanks to David Levi, late president of the Florentine Jewish community, bequeathing his entire estate for the building of a new synagogue. Architects Marco Treves, Mariano Falcini, and Prof. Vicente Micheli combined Italian traditions with Moorish style.

Giacomo del Medici designed the great arch, and artist Giovanni Panti provided the beautiful frescoes and mosaics for the interior. Every square inch is covered in coloured designs with Moorish patterns. The copper roof was oxidised green to stand out in the Florentine skyline.

The cornerstone, sent from Jerusalem, was laid 30 June 1874. Inauguration was 24 October 1882.

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Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

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During WWII, the occupying Germans used the synagogue as a storehouse. There are still bayonet blows visible on the doors of the ark.

In August 1944, the Italian people once again showed their righteousness by rescuing the synagogue from planned German destruction. The retreating Nazis and their foul fascist collaborators filled the building with explosives, but brave resistance fighters were able to defuse almost all of the explosives. Very little damage was done, and it was restored after the war.

During the terrible 1966 flood of the Arno, the synagogue was damaged, but once again restored.

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Copyright sailko

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Copyright sailko

My characters stay by a vacation apartment overlooking the synagogue when they’re in Florence in November–December 1945. The green dome dominates the Florentine skyline, and it’s just a short walk away.

On the eighth day of Chanukah, before Saturday morning services have started, Imre gives Csilla a three-pearl ring in the synagogue. He reassures her it’s not an engagement ring, but just a promise ring. He wants them to have a serious, committed relationship before they’re in a position to discuss marriage, and also wants to mark his territory so other men know she’s off-limits.

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Copyright sailko

Szent János Hospital, La Samaritaine, and Sant’Ambrogio Market

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View of hospital from Kis–Sváb Hill, Copyright Globetrotter19

Szent János Hospital was founded in 1800, on the corner of Margit Körút (Boulevard) and Hattyú Utca (Swan Street). In 1820, there was new construction (including a statue of St. John of Nepomuk), and in 1873, the number of beds grew from 100 to 234. An 1887 resolution ordered the building of a new hospital, with 300 beds.

The new hospital, with 420 beds, opened 3 August 1898, to great ceremony. That year, the hospital began adding new departments to treat all the sick people of both Buda and Pest. It also served as a teaching hospital. Among the new departments were an X-ray lab (1910), a modern maternity ward (1935), venereal urology (1934), orthopaedic surgery (1918), and eye disorders (1898).

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Entrance to Hospital in the Rock, 1944

Though the hospital was partly damaged during WWII, it wasn’t destroyed or bombed, and the doctors and nurses worked overtime to tend to all the wounded. They hid deserters, dissidents, and Jews, and Prof. Boldizsár Horváth saved a group being held hostage by the Óbuda brick factory. Sadly, the chief physician was taken away, another doctor was shot dead on hospital grounds, and not everyone from the brick factory was able to be saved.

During the Siege and Battle of Budapest, doctors and nurses also used the Hospital in the Rock (Sziklakórház), a hospital carved into the caverns under Buda Castle in the 1930s. By night, the dead were smuggled out and buried in bomb craters. There were times when, due to a total lack of food and supplies, hospital staff had to take them off dead bodies and sterilise them. Horses were also killed for food. It was only meant for 60–70 patients, but it treated up to 600.

Both hospitals again saw heavy use during the 1956 uprising. In late 1956, a spin-off, Royal Children’s Hospital, was created.

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Copyright Solymári

During their stay in Pasarét in October–November 1945, my characters Caterina and Marie find temporary employment by Szent János Hospital. All hands are needed on deck, even though Caterina isn’t currently in possession of her medical license or anything else to prove she’s really a doctor. Marie is only 14, but she’s accepted too, since she served as Caterina’s assistant in three camps. They’re put to work with pediatric patients, much to sweet little Marie’s delight.

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Copyright Pergl Pergl from On the move, Source Flickr

La Samaritaine is a massive Parisian department store founded in 1869 by husband and wife Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jaÿ. Ironically, Mme. Jaÿ was the first clothing vendor at rival department store Le Bon Marché. It’s in the First Arrondissement, not too far from Le Meurice and the Tuileries Garden.

The couple decided to transform their boutique into a department store by buying up surrounding buildings, and from 1883–1933, the closest blocks were completely renovated and reworked. From 1903–07, Belgian architect Frantz Jourdain gave the building an Art Nouveau style. Final architect Henri Sauvage converted the style to Art Deco.

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Copyright Ana Paula Hirama, Source Paris – France, Mar2015

The 11-story complex takes its name from a hydraulic pump by the nearby Pont Neuf (the oldest surviving bridge over the Seine), which operated from 1609–1813. There was a bas-relief of the Samaritan Woman drawing water for Jesus on the front of the pump, and Cognacq’s original stand was on that very site.

My characters visit La Samaritaine in December 1945, on their first full day in Paris. They take lunch at the rooftop café, which has a lovely bird’s-eye view of the city, including the Eiffel Tower. While there, Imre buys Csilla a tiger fur coat (which she wears out of the store), and replacements for some of the clothes and shoes she lost when she was deported.

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Copyright Groume, Source FlickrSamaritaine

Sant’Ambrogio Market opened in 1873, in Piazza Ghiberti, open every day but Sunday, 7 AM to 2 PM. On Wednesdays and Fridays, they’re open until 7:00. Though the most famous Florentine market is the Central Market, Sant’Ambrogio has a more relaxed atmosphere.

Pretty much everything you could want is sold here—bread, meat, eggs, fruit, vegetables, crafts, cheese, fish, spices, clothes, housewares, pastries, et al. Part of the market is inside, and part outside. Famous restaurant Trattoria da Rocco is also inside the market building.

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Copyright sailko

My characters Caterina, Marie, Eszter, and Júlia go to Sant’Ambrogio in November 1945, since it’s a very short walk from their vacation apartment (financed with the large sum of money Imre and Júlia got from their mother before leaving Budapest). By the market, they pick up almost everything they need to make a grand Italian culinary Chanukah feast.

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Copyright sailko

Rue de la Rosière-d’Artois and Rue Crébillon

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Place de l’Édit de Nantes, Copyright Jibi44

Rue de la Rosière-d’Artois, a street in Nantes, was originally called Rue de la Corderie, then Rue de l’Épine. In 1822, it took its current name from the ship Rosière d’Artois, and a group of rosières who convened in 1777 to celebrate the visit of the Comte d’Artois (the future King Charles X), who came to watch the launching of the abovementioned ship.

rosière is an untranslatable word which refers to a girl rewarded for her virtuous reputation. According to legend, this tradition originated with Médrine, the sister of Saint Médard, in the late 5th century. Rosières were given rose wreaths.

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Landmarks include Place de l’Édit de Nantes (the square where an April 1598 edict of tolerance for Protestants was signed) and the 19th century Rosière mansion (now used as a hotel). The mansion is near the Museum of Natural History, the Museum Dobrée (a former palace converted into an archaeological museum), the former home of architect Georges Lafont, and Place Graslin. A Christian Brothers school and the Nantes Synagogue also used to be here.

My character Marie Zénobie Sternglass lived on Rosière–d’Artois until 1942, when she and her family were deported to Drancy. Upon her return to Nantes in December 1945, she’s very shocked and hurt to be received so coldly and indifferently by numerous former friends. One woman has the nerve to ask if she survived at her age by working as a prostitute or human guinea pig. She and her husband act as though Marie’s the rude one for not answering and displaying such shocked body language.

Marie reaches her breaking point when she discovers an even more hostile woman living in her old house and refusing to let her inside. When the woman says she threw the photographs and other mementos in the garbage, Marie loses control and uses strong language for the first time ever. Her friends have to physically restrain her from attacking the stranger.

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Copyright Kamel15

Rue Crébillon, created in 1770 and formerly known as Rue de Goyon and Rue de Varennes, is a luxury shopping street in Nantes. In 1828, it was named for playwright Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1674–1762). In 1852, it was one of the first Nantais streets to get gas lanterns. (Nantais is an adjective denoting a resident of Nantes. Nantaise is the feminine form.)

The untranslatable verb crébillonner (to drag while shopping) was coined after the street. To date, this is the only street which has spawned a French verb. The expression frisé(e) comme la rue Crébillon means “curly as Rue Crébillon.” Ironically, it refers to the street’s straightness.

Besides all the shops, the street is also home to the 4-star l’Hôtel de France, a former 18th century mansion. The hotel is about 20 meters from Théâtre Graslin.

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Copyright Pj44300

Marie gets an even bigger shock by her family’s former photography shop on Rue Crébillon, while she’s looking for any undeveloped negatives. After the war, many photographers did big business with survivors who’d pay anything for pictures of lost friends and family.

At the fictional Palomer Photography, Marie runs into Gaspard Diamondstein, her father’s old business partner and her family’s former neighbour. At first she’s unbelievably happy to finally be called by her French nickname, Marise, again, instead of Marika, Mariella, Mitzi, or Maruška, but her joy turns to shock when Gaspard tells her what happened to her father. Marie believed it could only be good news, and didn’t want to go across the street to Gaspard’s flat to hear it in private.

Marie does find one old family photo, though, and Gaspard invites her and all her friends into his flat for lunch. Marie is in such a daze, she doesn’t respond to the barking Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen or the fluffy Persian cat rubbing against her legs and purring. She also picks at the lunch Gaspard makes, and barely responds to his two surviving children, Gwenaël and Océane, when they come in. 

Machal and Le Meurice

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Machal is an acronym of Mitnadvey Chutz L’Aretz, Volunteers from Outside the Land. During Israel’s 1948–49 War of Independence, about 4,000 volunteers from around the world (some Gentiles) came to the newborn state’s assistance. Right after Israel declared its independence, she was attacked by Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Liberation Army. All hands were needed on deck.

Most Machalniks were WWII Army vets from the U.S. and U.K., but many also came from other countries. A total of 58 countries provided volunteers. The majority of Machalniks served in Israel’s fledgling Air Force, since they had a lot of experience with flying planes during WWII, and were able to purchase used planes for relatively cheap.

In all, 123 were killed in action, 119 men and four women. Possibly the most famous Machalnik who was killed in action was American Mickey Marcus. Another important Machalnik was Milton Rubenfeld, father of Paul Rubens (whom I as an Eighties kid will always think of as Pee-wee Herman). Many returned to their countries of origin, but some stayed in Israel. Some of the founders of El Al airline were Machalniks.

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My character Imre Goldmark leaves his studies at the University of Montpellier to fight as a volunteer after his girlfriend Csilla and her friends leave for Israel in 1948. Imre is a hopeless intellectual, romantic, and dreamer, but he wants to prove his manliness to Csilla by fighting on the front lines. Csilla has no idea he’s in Israel, let alone in uniform, until she hears him screaming her name in hospital, in the throes of the worst pain of his life.

Csilla, who doesn’t know the true extent of his wounding, vows to take care of him and nurse him back to health. However, before Imre can be discharged and released to her care, his mother and professors intervene and have him taken back to France against his will. It’s a long, twisted road to happily ever after for these two.

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French Machalniks

Le Meurice is a gorgeous 5-star hotel in the First Arrondissement of Paris, opposite the famous Tuileries Garden, on the Rue de Rivoli. The Louvre is a short walk away. Its 160 rooms and suites are decorated in the style of King Louis XVI.

The first Hôtel Meurice opened in Calais in 1777, and the Parisian branch opened in 1815, at 223 Rue Saint-Honoré. In 1835, it moved to its present location, in a new, beautiful, luxurious building, with all the same amenities and perks.

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Copyright Axou

In 1891, electric lights were added, and in 1905–07, the Hôtel Métropole on Rue de Castiglione was added and the building underwent a thorough rebuilding under the direction of famous architect Henri Paul Nénot. Modern, tiled bathrooms were added; Louis XVI style was introduced; telephones and electric butler bells were added; reinforced concrete was added for privacy; public rooms were relocated; a wrought iron canopy was put over the lobby; a grand salon and new restaurant were added; and the lift was a copy of Marie Antoinette’s sedan chair.

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Hotel restaurant, Copyright Janine Cheung, Source Flickr

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Copyright Langmuir family, Source Flickr

From September 1940–August 1944, the occupying Nazis used the hotel as their headquarters. During that final month, General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, stayed there. He was under orders to destroy Paris, but he disobeyed Hitler and surrendered to Free French forces. Supposedly, Hitler screamed “Is Paris burning?” to him over a Le Meurice telephone.

Many famous guests have stayed by Le Meurice, such as Salvador Dalí, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, FDR, the Shah, Rudyard Kipling, Plácido Domingo, Ginger Rogers, Yul Brynner, Mata Hari, and Elizabeth Taylor.

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Copyright Langmuir family, Source Flickr

The cheapest lodgings, the Superior Room, starts at 830 Euros a night, and the priciest option, the Belle Étoile Suite, starts at 14,500 a night. Other options include the Presidential Apartment, Executive Junior Suite, Deluxe Junior Suite, Superior Junior Suite, Prestige Suite, and Superior Suite. It’s a very child- and pet-friendly hotel, and has an amazingly beautiful restaurant, with fine dining.

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Copyright Langmuir family, Source Flickr

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Hotel restaurant, Copyright Janine Cheung, Source Flickr

My characters spend a thrilling week by Le Meurice in December 1945, financed by Marie’s dear friend Wolfram Engel. They run into one another by the depot, as Marie and her friends have just arrived from Florence, and Wolfram has just arrived from Lyon. Without a wife and children, Wolfram has a lot of disposable income.

Staying by Le Meurice is a dream come true for these young survivors, a complete turnaround in their fortune in less than a year.