Josefov, Prague

Josef’s story begins in Prague, where he lives with his parents, grandfather and younger brother Thomas, in the Jewish Quarter known as Josefov. It is located between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River.

The first Jewish settlements in Prague dated from the tenth century.  The area now known as Josefov was settled in the twelfth century. Aggressive and violent campaigns against Prague’s Jews have taken place throughout the centuries.  These included pogroms by the Crusaders in 1096, attacks during the siege of Prague Castle in 1142, and confinement to the Ghetto from the later 1100s. In 1389 a massive anti-Jewish pogrom saw around 3,000 inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter killed and their homes plundered and burned.

The Old New Synagogue, Prague
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumThe Old New Synagogue, Prague - Credit: Shannon Hampton

During the sixteenth century the ghetto became a centre of Jewish mysticism. Intellectuals from all over Europe congregated in Prague. From 1522 to 1541, the Jewish population of Prague almost doubled, as many Jewish refugees from other parts of Europe settled there.  However, the prosperity was relatively short-lived – expulsions of the Jews from Prague took place in 1541 and 1557. Conditions improved from 1564 – the Jews were granted economic freedom and Jewish culture flourished.  By 1708, Jews accounted for one quarter of Prague’s population. This was to dramatically change with the ascension of Empress Maria Theresa, who expelled the Jews from Prague between 1745 and 1748.  Conditions improved again under Emperor Joseph II, who issued the Edict of Toleration in 1781, which affirmed religious tolerance.

The Jewish Quarter was formalised as a district of Prague in 1850 and called Josefov.  Much of the Jewish Quarter was demolished and redeveloped between 1893 and 1913, although some significant older buildings were preserved, including the Old-New Synagogue.  The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest preserved synagogue in Central Europe, built in early gothic style in the late 13th century, and still boasting its original interior furnishings. It was rumoured to be the resting place of Prague’s famous Golem.

Charles Bridge
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumCharles Bridge - Credit: Shannon Hampton

Josef attempts his first daring escape routine in the icy waters of the Vltava river (he calls the river by its German name, Moldau).  Josef enters the river near the historic Charles bridge. The city’s oldest bridge, it dates back to 1357 and was named for King Charles IV.  The bridge was completed at the beginning of the 15th century, and was the only means of crossing the river between the Castle and the Old Town until 1841.  The bridge is decorated with a continuous alley of 30 mainly baroque statues, originally erected around 1700 but now replaced by replicas.


For more detail on the history of Prague's Jewish community, visit the Virtual Jewish History Tour



The World's Fair and 1940s New York

The 1939–40 New York World's Fair covered almost five square kilometers of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens.  Countries from around the world participated in the Fair, and over 44 million people attended its exhibits during two seasons. The Fair was focused on the future – its tagline was "Dawn of a New Day" and it promised visitors a glimpse of "the world of tomorrow".

The Fair was conceived in 1935 by a group of New York City retired policemen, who sought a way to lift the city and the country out of the Great Depression. They formed the New York World's Fair Corporation, and secured offices in the Empire State Building.

The Helicline
Public DomainThe Helicline - Credit: United States Library of Congress

Around 206,000 people attended the grand opening on 30 April 1939.  A key exhibit was the Westinghouse Time Capsule, which was not to be opened for 5,000 years; it included writings by Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, copies of Life Magazine, a Mickey Mouse watch, a Gillette Safety Razor, coins, Camel cigarettes, microfilm and plant seeds.   Other exhibits included a diner (still in operation in New Jersey), a futuristic car, television, colour photography and nylon. 

At the centre of the Fair were two white, monumental buildings: the Trylon, over 210 metres tall, and the Perisphere, which was entered by a moving stairway and exited via a grand curved walkway named the Helicline. Inside the Perisphere was a model city of tomorrow that visitors viewed from a moving walkway high above the floor level.

Queen Maud Land, Antarctica
Dallmann Mountains, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica
GNU Free Documentation LicenseDallmann Mountains, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica - Credit: Diorit

In 1942, driven by personal tragedy, Joe enlists in the American war effort. Instead of being sent to Europe to fight Nazis, he is stationed in Antarctica. He is responsible for watching for German activity in Queen Maud Land, a 2.5 million-square-kilometer sector claimed as a dependent territory by Norway in 1938.  The area borders British Antarctic territory and Australian Antarctic territory.  Most of the territory is covered by the Antarctic ice sheet.  It is extremely inhospitable, and there is no permanent population. 

In January 1939 a German expedition laid claim to part of Queen Maud Land, naming it New Swabia.  The expedition, Germany’s third to Antarctica, was undertaken in secret. Its goal was to find a suitable site for a German whaling station, as well as possible locations for a German naval base. The expedition established a temporary base and undertook extensive mapping of the area.  In January 1941, German commandos captured a number of Norwegian factory ships in the sea north of Queen Maud Land. The German Navy subsequently used a harbour on Kerguelen Island as a base from which to attack Allied shipping.  

Today, Queen Maud Land is administered as a Norwegian dependent territory under the Antarctic Treaty System.

In an interview with, Michael Chabon likened Joe's extreme isolation in the Antarctic to Superman's glacial fortress of solitude.  

Empire State Building, New York
Looking up at the Empire State Building
GNU Free Documentation LicenseLooking up at the Empire State Building - Credit: BigMac

The Empire State Building features prominently in the novel, as a symbol of success and prosperity, and an icon of the City of New York.  The Empire Novelty Company, employer of Kavalier and Clay, starts life “in a hard-luck stretch of Twenty-fifth street.”  As it evolves into the immensely profitable Empire Comics, it relocates to “coldly splendid” offices in the Empire State Building. 

The building, an Art Deco skyscraper, stands at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street.  Its construction began in early 1930, on the site of the old Waldorf Astoria hotel. It was formally opened on 1 May 1931.  It was the tallest building in the world for several decades (it was surpassed in 1970 by the World Trade Centre).  It has 102 stories and rises to a height of over one thousand feet.  High speed elevators travel from top to bottom in 60 seconds.  The building has 6,500 windows, and two observatories, on the 102nd and 108th floors.  The upper portion of the building - the Art Deco spire - was originally intended, but never used, as a mooring place for dirigibles (Zeppelin-type airships). The idea proved impractical and dangerous due to the powerful updrafts caused by the size of the building, and the lack of mooring lines tying the other end of the craft to the ground.


Empire State Building
Creative Commons AttributionEmpire State Building - Credit: Supermac1961, Flickr