A synagogue on West Twenty-Third Street
Public DomainA synagogue on West Twenty-Third Street - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Leo Gursky's arrival in New York 

The History of Love is primarily set in New York City. Leo Gursky, like many Jewish refugees, emigrated to New York from Europe after the Second World War.

At this time, American Jews were  grappling with the effects of the Holocaust. America had refused to change its immigration laws until 1948, and it is estimated that 190 000 - 200 000 Jews could have been saved during  World War II had the USA allowed mass immigration of Jewish refugees.

Due to the devasting impact of the Holocaust on European Jews, the United States became the largest and most affluent post-war centre of Judaism in the world.



Leo's Manhattan world

The exact location of Leo’s multi-level Manhattan apartment building is never revealed, but it is likely to be somewhere in middle or lower Manhattan. He is a retired locksmith who recalls the time he used his skills to let himself in through the backstage door of the prestigious  Carnegie Hall on 56th Street. Leo also explains how he met his childhood friend, Bruno, while walking down East Broadway on a warm day in June.



Manhattan Island is located at the mouth of the Hudson River. With a land area of just 59 square kilometres and a population of nearly 1.6 million residents, it is the most densely populated of New York City's five boroughs.  


Manhattan skyline
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeManhattan skyline - Credit:


Visits to Brooklyn

Both Leo and Alma travel around Brooklyn in The History of Love. Alma visits her Russian friend, Misha, at Brighton Beach, near Coney Island (see bookmark for page 95). Brighton Beach is such a popular settlement amongst people with Russian and Ukrainian origins that it has earned the nicknames "Little Odessa" and "Little Russia".

Brooklyn is easily accessible from Manhattan via three bridges (the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges), the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and several New York subway lines. With nearly 2.6 million residents, Brooklyn is the most populous of New York City's five boroughs. 

A ruined Slonim synagogue
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeA ruined Slonim synagogue - Credit: Unomano/Wikimedia Commons

Leo grew up in Slonim, a place that was "sometimes Poland and sometimes Russia”. Now a city located in northwestern Belarus, Slonim fell into the hands of the Soviet Union and then Germany during World War II.

The German advance on Slonim in 1941 must have been terrifying for its inhabitants. Unspeakable atrocities followed, with 9,000 Jews massacred in a single Nazi operation on 14 November, 1941.

After the war, the Allies agreed to hand Slonim back to the Soviet Union; following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, it became part of the independent state of Belarus.

Polish forest
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePolish forest - Credit: Omega933/Wikimedia Commons

In The History of Love, Leo survives World War II by hiding in the woods for two years and making himself "invisible".

Immediately after the War, Leo spends a further six months in a Displaced Persons Camp. These were temporary facilities set up across Europe to house refugee Jews, often on the sites of former Nazi concentration camps. 

Historic Quarter of Valparaíso
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeHistoric Quarter of Valparaíso - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Leo’s friend Zvi Litvinoff escapes World War II Europe to the safety of Valparaíso on the coast of Chile.

The city is one of the country’s most important seaports, and is a vibrant hub of Chilean culture. One of its most famous former residents was the poet Pablo Neruda.