Page 1. " If we do talk, we never speak in Yiddish. "
Yiddish WWI Poster
Public DomainYiddish WWI Poster - Credit: Charles Edward Chambers/Wikimedia Commons

Yiddish is the language of Leo Gursky’s childhood, and although he says Yiddish words “became strangers to us”, they are transliterated into the Latin alphabet and used throughout the chapters written from his point of view (see glossary).

Yiddish, which means “Jewish”, originates from the Ashkenazi Jewish culture that populated 10th century Rhineland. The language is a combination of German dialects with Hebrew, Slavic, Aramaic and Romance languages.

Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet and is still used in Orthodox Jewish communities throughout the world.


Page 7. " Slonim, the town where I lived which was sometimes Poland and sometimes Russia. "
St. Andrew's Church in Slonim, Belarus
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeSt. Andrew's Church in Slonim, Belarus - Credit: Unomano

Leo Gursky grew up in Slonim and wrote his first book about the city. Today, Slonim is located in northwestern Belarus, but prior to the dissolution of the USSR and Belarus's declaration of independence in 1991, the city was part of the Soviet Union.  Before World War II redefined Eastern European borders, it lay in the east of Poland.

Prior to World War I, Slonim had been under Russian control since the Commonwealth of Lithuania-Poland was dismantled in the late 1700s. But German forces captured the town in 1915, and when the War ended the area of Slonim was disputed between Poland and the Soviet Union, leading to the Polish-Soviet war of 1920. Poland emerged victorious, but when it was invaded by the Soviet Union and Germany in WWII, Slonim once again fell under Soviet Union control. In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and captured Slonim, but three years later the Allies agreed to hand back the area to the Soviet Union.

Visit the BBC's Europe's Changing Borders presentation to see how borders across Europe have changed from the start of the 20th Century to the present day.

Page 8. " The Germans pushed east. "

This refers to the German advance towards Slonim during World War II, after Germany broke the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union (or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) by invading the Soviet Union in 1941. Germany captured Slonim and unspeakable atrocities followed. The worst occurred on 14 November, 1941, when 9,000 Jews (70% of Slonim’s Jewish population) were massacred in a single Nazi operation.

Page 12. " the Einsatzgruppen drove deeper east "
Execution of Poles by an Einsatzgruppe in Leszno, October 1939
Public DomainExecution of Poles by an Einsatzgruppe in Leszno, October 1939 - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Einsatzgruppen were German SS paramilitary death squads that carried out mass murders, primarily of Jews, during World War II.

In 1939, these death squads followed the German army into Poland with the aim of depoliticising the country by eliminating members of the Polish intelligentsia. These operations were chillingly outlined by Adolf Hitler in his Armenian Quote, which issued the Einsatzgruppen "...with orders for them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish race and language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need." The Einsatzgruppen were responsible for the deaths of more than one million people.

Page 12. " For six months he lived in a Displaced Persons camp "
Children at Schauenstein Displaced Persons camp
Public DomainChildren at Schauenstein Displaced Persons camp - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union regained control of Slonim. Like millions of other refugee Jews and non-Jews who had been displaced in a chaotic post-war Europe, Leo ended up in one of the Displaced Persons camps that were established across Western Europe. These temporary facilities were often set up on the sites of former Nazi German concentration camps or labour camps, and conditions were poor.

Page 23. " One afternoon I came back from the library with Ulysses "
Ulysses by James Joyce
Public DomainUlysses by James Joyce - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ulysses, by the Irish author James Joyce, follows the character Leopold Bloom around Dublin on 16 June, 1904. The date is significant as the date of Joyce's first date with Nora Barnacle, the woman who would later become his wife.

The History of Love also makes reference to the "stately plump Buck Mulligan", a character from Ulysses who is introduced in the novel's opening line. Ulysses is the Latin equivalent of the hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, and there are a number of parallels between the two texts.

James Joyce on Book Drum

The Odyssey on Book Drum