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.

The lingering Germanophobia, Polonophobia, and Magyarphobia among many Shoah survivors

Another of the issues which I’ve come to realize Gentile readers may see much differently than Jewish readers, thanks to certain well-meaning comments from critique partners, is the whole issue of many Shoah survivors’ fear, paranoia, avoidance, hatred, etc., towards the German people, and, to at least an equal degree, the Polish and Hungarian collaborators and bystanders.


First off, a recurring theme in many survivors’ memoirs, interviews, and testimonies is a fear, hatred, paranoia, etc., of Germany and all things German. We’re not talking about people who lived among ordinary Germans and therefore understood not everyone was a Nazi or silent collaborator. We’re talking about people whose first and only experience with the German language and German people was in ghettoes and camps. They associated that with terror, fear, and Death.

Perhaps decades later, some of them might’ve developed a more nuanced, complex understanding, but in the immediate aftermath of the war, it doesn’t make a lick of sense for the typical non-German survivor to have any positive things to say about the German people. At most, they might wish more Germans had been like the precious few righteous souls they encountered, like a political prisoner who befriended them, or someone who provided shelter after an escape.

Many survivors have also said they hold no ill will towards the younger generations. They’re innocents. It’s the older Germans they remain fearful and suspicious of. Many refused to return to Germany, buy German products, or live near German immigrants.


Many Polish survivors have mentioned never really considering Poland their homeland. According to the 1931 census, 79% of Polish Jews reported Yiddish was their first language. Only 12% spoke Polish as their first language, and the remaining 8% spoke Hebrew. While a growing number of young, modern, upwardly-mobile people (esp. in the big cities) had begun using Polish names and speaking the native language, a vast majority still spoke only Yiddish, had shtetl names (like Feige, Moishe, Avrumie, Gitl, and Shternie), wore pre-modern clothes, and essentially didn’t do anything to blend into the wider society.

I’m truly sorry Yiddish has become a dying language, but it really didn’t do people any favors to keep using Yiddish exclusively and ignoring the language of their host countries. However, I understand why so many people shunned learning Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian. Interfaith relations weren’t exactly good, and there were so many barriers standing in the way of higher education, jobs, housing, etc.

More than a few people returned to Poland after the liberation, and remained there for the rest of their lives, but many more got the hell out of there. They were greeted with suspicion, annoyance, and hostility, like how dare they survive or return. The most famous example of continuing postwar anti-Semitism was a pogrom in Kielce in 1946. More information on this topic can be found in Jan T. Gross’s excellent book Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. Typically, far-right Polish historical revisionists attack all his books as Polonophobic lies, when all he’s doing is reporting established facts. History, like science, only cares about the truth, not your delicate feelings and nationalist pride.

Keep in mind, I like Polish literature, culture, history, cuisine, and language! There’s nothing Polonophobic about owning up to the less than positive aspects of Polish history. It doesn’t negate how many Poles have been honored as Righteous Among the Nations, nor does it assume every single Pole throughout history was an anti-Semite.


The situation was similar yet different in Hungary. Due to the 19th century policy of Magyarization, very few Hungarian Jews spoke Yiddish by the time of WWII, and there were only a small number of officially-approved Magyarized versions of Hebrew names. Hungarian Jews spoke Hungarian, had Hungarian names, went to public schools, dressed in Hungarian clothes, had good relationships with their Gentile neighbors, you name it. They considered themselves fully-integrated parts of society. It was therefore a huge shock when these lifelong friends and neighbors turned on them so swiftly after the Nazi invasion in March 1944.

Ghettoization took place in April and May, and from mid-May to early July, 437,402 people were deported from the countryside. Budapest was relatively safer, though many Budapestis died in the ghetto or were murdered by the Arrow Cross. The Hungarian gendarmes, NOT the Nazis, were the ones who enacted anti-Semitic laws, forced people into ghettoes, and carried out deportation. The Nazis only took control when the trains reached Košice, Slovakia.

Many people came home to hostility, avoidance, denial, and dismissal. Strangers were living in their houses, and many people refused to give back their belongings. Some people were lucky enough to regain possessions, and even to find their old homes abandoned, but that wasn’t most people’s experience. Many survivors also reported their former friends and neighbors lining the streets and cheering as they were marched to the train stations.

This wasn’t a world of “Kumbaya.” This bitterness, anger, fear, hostility, and suspicion were more than justified. There’s a reason many people could never forgive and forget. It wasn’t so simple as telling a survivor, “Well, many Germans were anti-Nazi” or “Not all Poles and Hungarians were anti-Semites.”

Carl Lutz


Carl Lutz, 30 March 1895–12 February 1975; Use of this image is consistent with fair-use provisions

Carl Lutz was the Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest from 1942–45, and is credited with the largest rescue operation of the Shoah. It’s believed he saved over 62,000 people. Thanks to him, over half of the Jewish population of Budapest survived.

Carl was born and raised in Switzerland, though he immigrated to the U.S. at age 18, and lived there for over 20 years. He started off in Illinois, where he worked to earn money for college, and attended Central Wesleyan College in Warrenton, Missouri. In 1920, he started working for the Swiss Legation in Washington, D.C., where he continued his education at the esteemed George Washington University.

In 1926, Carl became Chancellor of the Swiss Consulate in Philadelphia, and then was assigned to the Swiss Consulate in St. Louis. He served in these two cities until 1934, when he left the U.S. to work as vice-consul to the Swiss Consulate General in Yaffa, in what was then Britain’s Palestine Mandate. (Contrary to the revisionist history you might’ve heard, until 1948, the word “Palestinian” referred to Jewish Israelis, and wasn’t co-opted by the Arab world until 1967.)

Budapest memorial, Copyright Yelkrokoyade

In 1942, Carl was appointed as Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest, where he began working with the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Almost 10,000 children received safe-conduct documents enabling them to make aliyah (move to Israel). Though Hungary was a Nazi ally, its Jewish community had remained relatively safe, intact, and untouched (barring forced-labour for some men).

All that changed after the Nazi invasion on 19 March 1944, when Europe’s last major Jewish community swiftly lost its comparative haven. Carl began moving quickly to negotiate a deal with the Hungarian government and Nazis, in which 8,000 protective letters for immigration to Palestine were issued. He applied this 8,000 figure to families, not individuals, so he’d save as many people as possible. Carl also issued tens of thousands of other protective letters, each with a number between one and 8,000.

Carl established 76 safe houses in Budapest, declaring them annexes of the Swiss Legation and thus off-limits to the Hungarian and Nazi authorities. He even persuaded Nazi and Arrow Cross thugs, among them Eichmann, to tolerate his protection of Budapest Jewry. His rescue efforts were so bold and prolific, Germany’s representative to Hungary asked Berlin for permission to assassinate him. Thankfully, he never got a reply, and never took matters into his own hands.

Memorial by the Glass House (Üvegház), Copyright Indafotó, by redoctober

A story is told about Carl jumping into the Danube to save a Jewish woman who’d been shot by the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross. He swam back to shore with her, through the deep water, and asked to speak with the officer in charge of the firing squad. He claimed she was a foreign citizen protected by Switzerland, and took her to his car. No one even tried to stop him.

Carl remained in Budapest until he was ordered to flee from the approaching Red Army. Shortly after the war, in his native Switzerland, he was criticised for exceeding his authority and risking the nation’s neutral status. In 1958, his public reputation was rehabilitated.

In 1965, he became the first person from Switzerland honoured as Righteous Among the Nations. Several streets have been named after him, along with various memorials, and Germany bestowed him with the Cross of Honour, Order of Merit.

Tartu, Estonia, and Tata, Hungary


Tata’s Öregvár (Old Castle), image by Barry Dinning.

Ruins of Tartu Cathedral, image by Ivar Leidus.

I couldn’t choose between Tata and Tartu, so I decided to do both. I’m an Estonophile, but I’m also a Magyarphile, and I love the pictures of Tata. Tartu doesn’t have as many old buildings or structures still standing, due to brutal destruction by the Wehrmacht during WWII, the Great Northern War in 1708, and a lot of 18th century fires, but it still has a long, proud history.

Tartu is Estonia’s next-largest city, at about 97,000 people, and the nation’s cultural and intellectual centre. One of its crown jewels is the University of Tartu, founded in 1632 by the occupying Swedes and Estonia’s oldest, most esteemed university. Due to the ongoing conflicts in the area, between various occupying and warring forces, the university was closed and moved several times, most notably from 1710-1802.

Archaeological evidence of settlement in Tartu has been found as far back as the 5th century CE. The city first appeared in official records in 1030, when it was invaded and taken over by Kyivan Rus, and subsequently renamed Yur’yev. After the Germans invaded and took over, it was renamed Dorpat. Baltic Germans thus became the ruling forces and cultural, intellectual élite of Estonia until the national reawakening of the 19th century.

Tata Synagogue, image by József Süveg.

Jaani Kirik (St. John’s Church) in Tartu, image by Jeroenm.

Tata is in Northwest Hungary, in a valley between the Gerecse Mountains and the Vértes Mountains, and has about 25,000 inhabitants. The town has been inhabited since at least 50,000 BCE, and later became a Roman settlement. It first appeared in official records in 1221. Like much of Eastern Europe, Tata too fell under Ottoman occupation in the 16th century.

The town started to come back to life in the 18th century, after Hungary was in Habsburg hands and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been created. From this point on, the majority of residents were Hungarian. Most were Catholic, but there were also large Lutheran and Jewish communities in Tata.

In 1938, the nearby village of Tóváros was annexed to Tata, and the entire area was temporarily known as Tatatóváros. In 1939, it became just Tata again. Tata got town status in 1954.

Tóvárosi Beach in Tata, image by József Süveg.

Uspenskiy Church in Tartu, image by China Crisis.

Tartu became part of the Russian Empire in 1721, and was renamed Derpt, then changed back to Yur’yev in 1893. A number of fires in the 18th century, most notably the Great Fire of Tartu in 1775, destroyed many of the historic buildings in the city centre, as well as many other buildings in other neighbourhoods. The city had already been greatly destroyed by Pyotr the Great’s forces in 1708, to prevent the Swedes from using Tartu as a military base.

In spite of the cruel Russification policies and suppression of Estonian nationalism and language, the Estonian people began to throw off their chains. Estonia’s first song festival was held in Tartu in 1869, and their first national theatre, Vanemuine, was built in 1870. In 1872, the Society of Estonian Writers was formed in Tartu.

After Estonia won its independence in 1918, the city finally legally became Tartu. Sadly, they were invaded again in 1940, and under the Soviet occupation and subsequent fighting with the Nazis, much of Tartu was again destroyed. The city was in ruins by the liberation, and even many buildings which had escaped serious destruction were ordered torn down by the Soviet occupiers. A lot of public parks were built where once buildings had stood. Only since Estonia rewon its independence in 1991 has Tartu begun to rebuild significantly.

Peetri Kirik (St. Peter’s Church) in Tartu, image by Ivar Leidus.

Sunset over Tata, image by József Süveg.

Tata is the hometown of my Atlantic City character Pali (Pál) Weiss. His name was changed to Paul when he came to America via Switzerland in 1942, but everyone who knows him well calls him Pali. He never saw anyone in his family again after he said goodbye to them to be smuggled into Switzerland. The Tata Synagogue, built in 1861, is a museum today. Its original façade was restored in 2004.

Tartu briefly appears near the end of Part I of my first Russian historical, when my characters are put up in Tartu after escaping, in small groups, over the Russian border in February 1921. They soon move to Tallinn, where their boat to America will be. I think I might use Tartu as the setting of my Estonian chapters and sections in the second of the two prequels I’m eventually going to write. It would be the perfect place for Katrin and Viktoriya’s Estonian nationalism and Socialism to be nurtured.

Vecseri, a sluice gate in Tata’s Öreg-tó (Old Lake), image by József Süveg.

Though Tata isn’t very well-known in the tourist guidebooks, there are a number of interesting things to see and do. The town boasts the old castle by the Old Lake, the Esterházy Palace, Calvary Hill, public parks and old churches, a 1763 belfry, Fényes Beach and Tóvárosi Beach, Kossuth Square, the Town Hall, Heroes’ Square (which contains the synagogue and a WWI monument), and a lookout tower. They also have some museums, including one about the German community’s historic experience in Tata.

Tata’s Esterházy Palace, image by József Süveg.

Tata Castle and Fortress from the air, Copyright Civertan Grafikai Stúdió.

Every Summer, Tartu hosts the Hansapäevad (Hanseatic Days Festival) in celebration of its Hanseatic heritage. It’s a bit like a Renaissance fair, with jousting, swimming,  boating, handicrafts kiosks, and historic workshops. And though much of historic Tartu is just the stuff of memories, there are still some surviving old churches, the 18th century Town Hall, the University, and the ruins of the 13th century cathedral.

Telleri Kabel (Teller Chapel) in Tartu, image by Amadvr.

More information:

Győr, Hungary


St. Ignace Church in Széchenyi Square, image by Vadaro at

Bird’s-eye view of the city, Copyright Civertan Grafikai Stúdió.

City Hall, image by Pe-Jo.

Győr is a city of about 131,000 in Northwestern Hungary, and the nation’s sixth-largest city. Its Slovakian name is Ráb, and its German name is Raab. The city’s first large settlement dates from the 5th century BCE, when the Celts lived in the area. For the next eight centuries, the town was called Arrabona.

The Romans moved in during the first century BCE, and in 10 CE, the Roman Army occupied this part of Hungary. Though the Romans fled in the 4th century, in the face of frequent attacks from the tribes living to their East, the town itself remained settled. Like many of the other areas in Eastern Europe, Győr too changed hands many times. Finally, in 900, the Magyars came in, and the city got its proper Hungarian name.

However, the city continued changing hands, falling under the rule of the Mongols, Czechs, Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians, French, and Nazis. The Turkish name for Győr is Yanık kale, Burnt City, in reference to how the city was burnt to the ground and abandoned to avoid a battle with invading Ottomans in the 16th century.


The River Rába, image by Balint86 at hu.wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-2.5; Released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

The Esterházy half of the Laurel-Esterházy family of my Atlantic City books hails from Győr. Lt. William Winston Laurel, of Blackpool, England, was stationed in Győr when he met and fell in love with Etu Esterházy, part of a family of 16 children. After the Nazi occupation of Hungary, William was able to smuggle their four daughters out of the ghetto, including their newborn Daniella, and take them to his parents in England, but Etu refused to go with him.

William found her when his troop liberated one of the camps, and they returned to Győr until the failed Revolution of 1956, after which they moved to Hartford, Connecticut. They moved to Atlantic City in late 1962, eventually having 20 children. Etu died in premature labour with the final baby, Tikva, born in July 1966. Their children were named in alphabetical order. The children who became main or important secondary characters are Lauren, Kathi, Piri, Ophelia, Herbert, Regina, Serafima, Tikva, Emma, Bella, Gustave, and Quentin. Now their own children have assumed leading roles.

Because I’m a huge, proud, lifelong, second-generation Lucy Stoner, William and Etu’s sons got the surname Esterházy, and the girls got the surname Laurel. The majority of my female characters keep their birth names and often give their family names to their kids. Sometimes a couple will alternate last names, as well as hyphenating. I grew up with married parents with different names, so it’s completely normal to me.

Bird’s-eye view, including a monastery and the River Rába, Copyright Civertan Grafikai Stúdió.

The city is home to many beautiful old churches, including a basilica, the Carmelite Church, the Benedictine Church, and the Benedictine Archabbey of Pannonhalma. Other treasures include the City Art Museum, the Bishop’s Palace, the reliquary of king Ladislaus I, the historical Xántus Museum, the János Xántus Zoo, an aquapark on the River Rába, and three universities.

The first Jewish community in the area was founded in 1791 in Győr-Sziget, and slowly developed and increased. During the 19th century, Hungarian Jews gained more and more rights and protection, and the city’s community got even larger and more vibrant. There were perhaps 6,000 on the eve of WWII. The majority were actually Progressive, not Orthodox. Don’t believe the modern-day Hareidi revisionist history claiming that Europe was one happy, unified frum community except for those awful Reform people in Germany and Austria. There were a lot of Progressive shuls all over Europe, even in places you might believe to be strongholds of Orthodoxy, like Poland and Hungary.

Today the city’s synagogue functions as a cultural centre and art museum.

More information: (aerial photography)

Pétér Feldmár, possibly Győr’s youngest victim of the Shoah at just 11 days old. (Xántus Museum)