Posted in Judaism, Photography, Religion, Travel




Erzsébetváros coat of arms, Copyright Fekist. “Queen Elizabeth took the name of our district 125 years ago. The anniversary was stated by Erzsébetváros Municipality.”

Erzsébetváros (Elizabeth Town) is the more formal name of District VII of Budapest. It’s on the Pest side, in the heart of downtown. The inner half was historically the Jewish quarter. During the German occupation of 1944–45, several of its streets formed part of the Budapest Ghetto. This part of the ghetto was the large ghetto, for people without protective papers enabling them to live in protected Yellow Star Houses.

In addition to the beautiful Dohány Utca Synagogue, Erzsébetváros is also home to the Rumbach Utca Synagogue (Status Quo Ante) and the Kazinczy Utca Synagogue (Orthodox). They’re all within the same couple of blocks. Non-Jewish landmarks include New York Palace, Gozsdu Udvar, Magyar Theatre, and a former tram depot.


New York Palace, Copyright Mark Ahsmann

The New York Palace opened 23 October 1894 on Grand Boulevard (Nagykörút), and is home to the New York Café, which was frequented by the élite of the Hungarian literary world. It was built by the New York Life Insurance Company as a Budapest office. Predictably, it was damaged during WWII, and closed under Soviet occupation. It’s now a luxury hotel under the management of Italy’s Boscolo hotel chain.


Magyar Theatre, 1897


Szent Erzsébet Church, Copyright cseharon, Source Indafotó

From about 1900 to 1970, Erzsébetváros was very densely populated, with many working-class inhabitants and immigrants. The population has been on a sharp decline since 1970, though like many downtown areas the world over, it’s begun a process of gentrification. Hipsters love it. When historically working-class neighbourhoods are gentrified and hipsterised like this, it really screws over the people who lived there before it was hip and cleaned-up. They can’t afford the raised rent and general price of living.


Kazinczy Utca Synagogue, Copyright Diana, Source FlickrSynagogue

Another landmark of interest is the Klauzál Air Market Hall, which was built in 1897. This shopping plaza offered over 300 shops and kiosks at its height. Though it was in the Jewish quarter, there was also non-kosher food sold. In 2014–15, it was refurbished, and is open seven days a week, from 7 AM to 10 PM.


Copyright 12akd

Gozsdu Udvar (Courtyard) is a complex of seven buildings and six interconnected courtyards, built in 1902. It once was home to many Jewish shops and small synagogues, like a small city within a huge city. Though the character of the complex has changed, it’s still a bustling place. It contains many shops, cafés, restaurants, and bars. There are also regular art shows, fairs, and concerts, as well as a weekly Saturday vintage and craft market.


Copyright Globetrotter19


University of Veterinary Science, Copyright Thaler

My characters Eszter Kovács and Jákob Gerber spend a long weekend in Erzsébetváros in July 1945, lodging at an abandoned house the Soviets gave to survivors. They’re trying to find information about Eszter’s two oldest sisters, Rebeka and Lea, who went to Budapest with false papers and disguised as Christian peasants shortly after the German occupation in March 1944.

While strolling along Dohány Utca, they run across a woman who lived with Rebeka and Lea in the ghetto. Initially, this woman was unnamed and only appeared for this one scene, but when I took this book out of hiatus, I named her Mrs. Goldmark and made her into an important secondary character. When Eszter and her friends move to Budapest in early September 1945, Mrs. Goldmark treats them like her own children, hosts them for holiday meals and birthdays, and arranges day trips and picnics.


Former Israelite Deaf-Mute Institute, Copyright Attila Terbócs, Source Pasztilla


Former Arcade Bazaar, Copyright Globetrotter19

Posted in Judaism, Photography, Religion, Travel

Dohány Utca Synagogue



Copyright Maciej Podstolski

The Great Synagogue of Dohány Utca in Budapest is Europe’s largest synagogue, and one of the largest in the world. It seats 3,000 people, split about evenly between the women’s galleries and the ground floor. Its denomination is Neolog, a unique Hungarian denomination often misleadingly described as similar to Reform Judaism. It’s more like liberal Modern Orthodoxy.


Copyright Aktron

The synagogue is in District VII (Erzsébetváros [Elizabeth Town]), the historic Jewish quarter. It was built from 1854–59, in Moorish Revival style, by Viennese architect Ludwig Förster. The decoration was based upon the Islamic Moorish style of Medieval Spain and North Africa. It also was inspired by Byzantine, Gothic, and Romantic style.

The interior was designed by Frigyes Feszl, the fifth of fourteen children in a family of German origin. Many Budapesti buildings were designed by him, though his name is all but unknown in the West. Geometric frescoes prominently feature among the interior design. Originally, the synagogue had a 5,000-pipe organ which was played by the great Franz Liszt.


Copyright BáthoryPéter

From 1930–31, the Jewish Museum was created in a new adjoining building, on a piece of land where Theodor Herzl’s house used to stand. The museum has a lot of Judaica on display, as well as historical exhibitions and travelling artwork. Its architectural style matches the synagogue.

Another 1931 addition was the Heroes’ Temple, which seats 250 and is today used for services in winter and on weekdays. It was designed by László Vágó and Ferenc Faragó, as a memorial to those Hungarian Jews who gave their lives in the First World War.


Jewish Museum, Copyright Thaler


Heroes’ Temple, Copyright Varius

Under the German occupation of 1944–45, the synagogue was part of the Budapest Ghetto. It was located within the large ghetto, for people without protective papers enabling them to live in the Yellow Star Houses. Since so many people died during those brutal final months of the occupation, there was no choice but to bury them in the synagogue courtyard. It’s very unusual for a synagogue to have a cemetery right on the property.

After the war, a number of the bodies were transferred to Kozma Utca Cemetery, but about 2,000 people remained buried in the courtyard of the Great Synagogue. Architect Imre Varga created a weeping willow sculpture to commemorate all the dead, in the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park behind the synagogue.


Copyright Varius

On 3 February 1939, the fascist Arrow Cross bombed the synagogue. During the ensuing war, it was used as a stable and a base for German Radio. More aerial raids followed, this time from the Germans. During the Siege and Battle of Budapest, it particularly suffered, but wasn’t entirely destroyed.

Before the deportations stopped in early July 1944, Eichmann had his office in the women’s gallery, right behind the rose window. He requested reassignment, and in late August was assigned head of a commando squad rescuing Volksdeutsche on the Hungarian–Romanian border, in the way of the approaching Red Army. He returned to Budapest in the autumn, and arranged for brutal forced labour marches to Vienna. On Christmas Eve, he fled before the Soviets had completed their encirclement of the city.


Copyright Osendi Cadenas

After the war, Budapest became the centre of Jewish life in Hungary (though there were also several thousand people in next-largest city Debrecen). Many of the survivors who were repatriated found no one and nothing in their hometowns, and so moved to Budapest. Though all the major synagogues had suffered damages, the community nevertheless used them for services.

Not too many years later, when the Soviets had completely taken over, it was boarded up and abandoned. Only in 1990 was it reopened for worship and restored.


Copyright Neer Ildikó


Weeping willow sculpture, Copyright Ian Pitchford

My characters spend the 1945 High Holidays by Dohány Utca Synagogue, since the native Hungarians among them all come from Neolog backgrounds. It’s also not a far walk from the survivors’ house they’re living in. After they move across the Danube to the Buda side in October, they begin going to the Óbuda Synagogue.


Copyright Gabor Dvornik

Posted in Photography, Travel

Castle District, Budapest



Castle District (Várnegyed) is part of the beautiful, storied District I, on the hilly Buda side. My characters the Goldmarks lived there before the German occupation of 1944–45 forced them to the two ghettoes on the Pest side. When they return for a few brief visits after the war, it’s in a sad shambles just like most of the rest of the city.

The obvious landmark is Buda Castle, which gives the area its name. The first incarnation was completed in 1265, on the southern tip of Castle Hill. The oldest surviving part was built in the 14th century by Duke István of Slavonia. Over the years, it underwent many expansions and repairs. During the Ottoman sack of Buda in 1526, the castle was preserved (though ransacked). Three years later, however, there was another Ottoman siege of Buda, and this time the castle was severely damaged.


The castle was further destroyed during the Battle of Buda in 1686. It wasn’t until the 18th century that it began to be seriously rebuilt and used for any purposes, and then there was a fire in 1810. More remodeling and repairs followed, and then it was left in ruins after the fighting of 1944–45. Today, it’s been rebuilt, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.




2015, Copyright Bjoertvedt

Other landmarks include Vienna Gate Square (Bécsi Kapu Tér), the only surviving Old Town gate; the National Archives; the Europe Grove (where the majors of all major European cities planted rare trees in 1972); the Mária Magdolna Tower (the only church used as a church during Ottoman occupation, later destroyed during WWII but for the bell tower); the Military History Museum; Holy Trinity Square (Szentháromság Tér); and Mátyás Church.


Grand Arch of Buda Castle Tunnel, Copyright Prabhachatterji


Vienna Gate, Copyright Globetrotter19

Castle District historically was not only the residence of royalty, but of well-to-do commoners. This is a place of mansions, museums, villas, old-fashioned crooked, cobbled streets, Medieval houses, cafés, and fine restaurants. It also contains the northern part of Gellért Hill.

I made this the pre-war residence of the Goldmarks because they’re upper-middle-class, and the widowed Mrs. Goldmark in particular is very genteel and refined, always dressed in fine clothes and cooking the nicest foods possible. It’s a stark contrast to the working-class background of the rest of the native Hungarian members of the ensemble cast!


Dísz Tér, 1906

Mátyás Church is one of the other major landmarks of Castle District. According to tradition, the original church was built in 1015 in Romanesque style, though nothing remains of this reputed first incarnation. In 1214, the Mongols destroyed it. The present church was built in Gothic style starting in 1255, and completed by 1269. Through the 14th and 15th centuries, there was much remodeling and expansion. This was Medieval Buda’s next-largest church.

During the first year of Ottoman occupation in 1526, much of the church was destroyed. After the fall of Buda in 1541, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent celebrated his victory there, and it was turned into a mosque. Only in the late 19th century was it satisfactorily rebuilt. Like 80% of Budapest, it was left in ruins from WWII, but today is fully restored.


Mátyás Church in ruins, 1945, Copyright Jenő Rados


2016, Copyright Thaler Tamas

All the city’s churches were turned into mosques under the Ottoman occupation, but Mária Magdolna remained Christian. Though it began life as a Catholic Franciscan church, both Protestants and Catholics worshipped there by default. Eventually, it too was turned into a mosque. During WWII, only the 15th century bell tower escaped the bombings.

The bell tower opened to the public as a museum in May 2015. With 24 bells, it has one of Hungary’s greatest chimes.


Copyright Puffancs, Source Indafotó


Detail of bell tower, Copyright Thaler


Typical cobblestone street view, Copyright Bjoertvedt

Posted in Photography, Travel

Andrássy Út


This year, my A to Z theme is things and places from my WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, and its two sequels. Locales include Budapest, Florence, Paris, Nantes, Montpellier, Newark, and Lower Galilee.

Andrássy Út is in District VI (Terézváros [Theresa Town]) of Budapest, on the Pest side. It’s the city’s most historic thoroughfare, comparable to luxury shopping streets like 5th Avenue in Manhattan, Champs-Elysées in Paris, Unter den Linden in Berlin, and Nevskiy Prospekt in St. Petersburg.

The words út (avenue), utca (street), and tér (square) typically aren’t capitalized in Hungarian, but I made a stylistic choice to do so. I felt they’d look more obvious and familiar to Anglophones as street names that way. It’s similar to why I use the titles Mr., Miss, and Mrs. in my Russian novels, in spite of those titles only rarely being used in Russian.


The Opera House is on the left.

Construction of this grand boulevard began in 1872, and it was inaugurated 20 August 1876. It runs all the way from Erzsébet Tér in District VI to Városliget (City Park) in District XIV. Prior to its modern incarnation, it went by names including Ellbogengasse, Schiffmannsplatz, and Herminenplatz.

It changed names thrice in the Fifties—Sztálin Út (1950), Magyar Ifjúság Útja (Avenue of Hungarian Youth) (1956), and Népköztársaság Út (People’s Republic Avenue). In 1990, its true name was finally restored.


Famous sites include Magyar State Opera House, Drechsler Palace (later State Ballet Institute, renamed Hungarian Dance Academy in 1983, and now vacant), Paris Department Store, Terror House Museum, Franz Liszt Academy of Music, Ferenc Hopp Museum of East Asian Art, Kodály Zoltán Memorial Museum and Archives, Museum of Fine Art, Heroes’ Square, Franz Liszt Memorial House, and Hungarian University of Fine Arts.

Along with all the cultural and historical landmarks are the fine shops, boutiques, restaurants, cafés, theatres, and foreign embassies.


Sadly, my characters are in the Budapest of 1945, when 80% of the city was little more than a heap of rubble. The beautiful Pearl of the Danube was ripped apart by British and American air raids in 1944, the Budapest Offensive (29 October 1944–13 February 1945), the Siege and Battle of Budapest (26 December 1944–13 February 1945), and the murderous reign of terror by the fascist Arrow Cross. Before the Germans surrendered to the Soviets and fled, they blew up all ten of the bridges between Buda and Pest.

My characters visit what remains of Andrássy Út in November 1945, shortly before most of them are smuggled across the border to the American Zone of Austria (and eventually on to Italy and France). Mirjam, a 24-year-old master’s student in linguistics and anthropology at Pázmány Péter University (now Eötvös Loránd University), wants to get her 15-year-old sister Eszter a proper coat as a going-away present.

After finding a ferry across the Danube, they go to the fictional Szűcs Furs. I honestly don’t think I knew at the time that the surname Szűcs actually does mean “furrier”! Mirjam buys Eszter a blue silver fox fur, and their friend Artur secretly buys an ocelot fur for his crush Marie. It’s delivered the next day, with a note saying it’s from a secret admirer.


Modern view, 2011, Copyright Dezidor

This beautiful avenue has long since been rebuilt to its former glory, and in 2002, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Posted in Historical fiction, Israel, Shoah, Travel, Writing

My 2017 A to Z themes revealed

Continuing my tradition of themes related to my writing, this year I’m featuring places and things from my WIP, The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, and its sequels (each following a different group of characters), Sweet Miracles and Rebuilding the RemnantsBranches in turn begins with three of the characters from The Natural Splash of a Living Being escaping a death march, while Splash continues without them.

Branches is set in locales including Abony, Budapest, Florence, Paris, Béziers, Montpellier, and NantesSweet Miracles follows the characters who immigrate to Newark in November 1948 (the name taken from the mousery and rabbitry one of the couples starts), and Remnants follows the characters who immigrate to Israel after the British are finally gone.

You’ll learn about topics like:

Dohány Utca Synagogue, the Great Synagogue of Budapest and one of the largest in the world, which Eichmann used as his headquarters during the Nazi occupation.

Jewish Newark, which is now sadly just a fading memory. In the mid-twentieth century, Newark had the sixth-largest Jewish community in the U.S., with countless synagogues, schools, bakeries, cemeteries, and other communal institutions.

Machal, the all-volunteer fighting force from abroad which helped Israel to win its War of Independence.

La Samaritaine, a historic department store in Paris.

Hashomer Hatzair, a Socialist–Zionist youth group which supported a binational state. (Contrary to what many people on the modern-day Left believe, it’s very possible to be both a Socialist and Zionist without any conflicts!)

Vailsburg, a Newark neighborhood which now has a much different character than it did at mid-century. It includes a former movie palace which today serves as a church.

Košice, Slovakia, the hometown of my character Artur Sklar and Slovakia’s next-largest city. It was also the first European settlement to get a coat of arms.

Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, Florence’s oldest hospital, founded by the father of Dante’s love Beatrice.

Basilica di Santa Croce, an impressive complex that’s so more than just a church. It contains Dante’s empty tomb, waiting for Ravenna to return his bones already.

Neology, a uniquely Hungarian denomination that’s akin to Liberal Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Tempio Maggiore Israelitico di Firenze, the breathtaking Great Synagogue of Florence, which was saved from Nazi destruction in 1944 by brave members of the Italian Resistance. They managed to diffuse almost all of the explosives left by the retreating occupiers.

University of Montpellier, one of the oldest universities in the world, and home to the world’s oldest med school still in operation.

Pasarét, a Bauhaus neighborhood on the Buda side of Budapest.

Gellért Hill, a beautiful, storied hill on the Buda side, with lovely outlooks of the entire city.

Lower Galilee, a beautiful, peaceful region I hope to someday live in, far from the maddening rush of the big cities, and with wonderful interfaith relations. You’ll learn the story behind the most bizarre grave I’ve ever seen!

Several letters have two or three topics, but I kept everything within my usual average of 400–800 words. All non-public domain photographs are properly credited. Since I’ve been to the Lower Galilee, many of those photographs are my own work.


My names blog will feature (mostly) names from Greek mythology. Since the Greek alphabet doesn’t have certain letters, I found mythological names from other cultures for those days. In the interest of fairness, I always do both a female and male name on each day.