28 Days by David Safier


It’s currently the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which lasted from 19th April to 16th May 1943, and this is a “young adult” novel about Mira, a (fictional) young woman who sneaks out of the Ghetto to smuggle food into it, then joins the resistance movement, then takes part in the Uprising.

It’s not quite what I was expecting: I thought that the whole book was going to be about the Uprising itself, but a lot of it was set in the months leading up to it, and then we didn’t see the aftermath because Mira, perhaps rather improbably, escaped.

However, the fact that it started in 1942 meant that we saw the mass deportations to Treblinka, and the conditions under which those who remained in the Ghetto were living.  There was an ongoing sub-plot about Mira and her sister making up stories set in a fictional universe, which I could actually have done without; but overall it was a very interesting book, by an author who lost two grandparents in the Holocaust.


The US and the Holocaust – BBC 4


This three two-hour episode Ken Burns film made for some very uncomfortable viewing at times, and was clearly meant to.  I don’t think it was meant as direct criticism of the US, but it certainly raised some questions about isolationism and tight immigration controls at a time when the media’s full of reports of terrible persecution.  Viewers were informed that, even after the war, when people had seen the newsreels showing what had happened at the concentration camps, polls showed that most Americans opposed admitting refugees.  It also reminded the viewer of some of the less savoury elements in parts of American society, ending with footage of recent hate crimes and the storming of Congress.  There was certainly a great deal to think about.

The first episode, about the situation up to 1938, didn’t say anything that I didn’t already know.  I studied US immigration history in depth at university, so I knew all about the quota-based system and the eugenics-based arguments behind it.   The revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the WASP-only clubs, hotels and even housing estates, the German-American Bund, Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic propaganda, Charles Lindbergh’s American First movement … it was all familiar.  But hearing it all together, in this context, was definitely food for thought.   It was even pointed out that Hitler admired the Jim Crow laws and the deportation of Native Americans from their homelands.

The programme did try to present a balanced view, and it was made clear that, the majority of people in the US were horrified when reports of persecution began to come in, especially after Kristallnacht.  And the US did take in more refugees from Nazi-controlled lands than any other country, and there were some major anti-Nazi protests.   As the programme pointed out, organisations in the US which wanted to help were in a difficult position, with Hitler claiming that anything they did showed that Jews controlled American politics.  There was, however, also a fear that too much open protest by Jewish groups would lead to a rise in domestic anti-Semitism.

It was Roosevelt who called the Evian Conference to discuss the refugee crisis.   Pretty much every country represented there refused to do any more to help.

There were some absolutely heartrending accounts, mainly told through first person interviews with elderly people who’d been children at the time, of desperate attempts to bring loved ones to safety in America, only to be thwarted by red tape and demands for unaffordable financial bonds.  There were also accounts from Holocaust survivors, including Anne Frank’s stepsister.  It wasn’t just the quota system: it was the need to prove that the individual wouldn’t be a burden on the state.  It was a far cry from “Give me … your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”.  What vision of America did people actually have?   Or do visions not matter, only practicalities?  Unrestricted immigration isn’t practical, but should exceptions be made when people are clearly refugees, not economic migrants?   These are difficult subjects, and there was a lot of food for thought in this.   And of course it wasn’t just America.  Other countries did little to help either.

You got the feeling that FDR, left to himself, might have eased immigration controls, and brought the US into the war earlier.  But he was working in the face of overwhelming isolationist feeling amongst the American public.   Given the loss of American life in the Great War and the problems caused by the Depression, that was understandable.   It’s not the United States’ job to be the world’s policeman.   But was it her duty to stand up against the Nazis?

Of course, Pearl Harbour brought the US into the war, against the Nazis as well as against Japan.  By 1942, reports of mass killings were coming in, from prisoners who’d managed to escape and from the Polish Resistance, and then from Soviet forces as they advanced westwards.   There were some calls to prioritise trying to rescue prisoners, but the authorities felt that they had to concentrate on winning the war – and, at that point, Allied planes would have to have left from Britain and wouldn’t have been able to reach Poland.   Once the Allies were in control of Italy, the planes would have been able to reach the concentration camps, but didn’t have the precision to guarantee that they’d hit the gas chambers and not the housing blocks.

A poll in early 1943 showed that over half of Americans didn’t believe the reports of mass killings of Jews.   Even when the Soviets liberated Kyiv and American photographers took pictures at Babyn Yar, some of the American press presented the reports as Soviet propaganda.  It was stated by the programme that the government didn’t want people to feel that the war was being fought for Jews, in case that damaged morale.  I was expecting someone to point out a parallel with the Union side in the Civil War there, not making it a war about slavery – “Let us die to make men free”?? – but no-one did.   Most shocking was the attitude of the State department, which deliberately suppressed reports of atrocities which the Polish Resistance managed to smuggled into Switzerland, and stalled moves by the World Jewish Congress to send funds to help Jews in Hungary and Romania, then not under direct Nazi control.

By this point, the programme showed us, American Jewish groups were lobbying for action to stop the mass murder of European Jews, including a number of large scale rallies.   Eventually, in 1944, Roosevelt set up a War Refugee Board, which worked with diplomats from neutral countries to gain their protection for Jews in Hungary, and also bombed Hungary in a move to stop deportations.   After US reporters sent home pictures from Majdanek, liberated by the Soviets, people accepted that something truly horrific was happening, even if they couldn’t quite take in the scale of it.

When it came to the liberation of the camps and the end of the war, the programme did move away from American attitudes and focused on the accounts of the survivors, and of veterans who’d been amongst the liberators and one of the men who’d been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.   But then it told us that, even then, public opinion in America was against admitting refugees, and reminded us that the quota system didn’t end until 1965.

Then it finished with footage of some of the hate crimes and extremist marches which have taken place in the US very recently, and of the storming of Congress.   I honestly don’t think that this was meant as an attack on the US, which I love, which I’m sure Ken Burns, his fellow film makers and all those involved in the making the programme love, but it was a reminder that we – in the UK and everywhere else, as well as in the US – don’t always see what’s happening abroad as our problem, and that there are dangerous elements even within our own societies.  If you’ve read all that, thank you.  If you want to watch it all, it was shown in the US last year, and has been shown in both the UK and Australia, and possibly elsewhere as well, in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow.   It’s long and sometimes chilling, but it’s worth watching.

The Convert by Stefan Hertmans



Set in the 1090s, this is based on two documents from the Cairo Genizah, a collection of medieval writings found in a synagogue in Cairo and now split between several libraries – including Manchester’s own John Rylands Library 😀.

The author frustratingly fails to explain exactly which parts are based on the documents and which are his own invention, which is really annoying.   The story is that a Norman noblewoman elopes with a rabbi’s son from Narbonne, and converts to Judaism.  During one of the pogroms associated with the First Crusade, her husband is killed.  Two of their three children are kidnapped; and she travels to Egypt in search of them, and later tries to travel back but ends up in Najera, near Burgos.

The book is largely a series of journeys.  The accounts of the different places and life there is fascinating, although it’s strange that we’re told so little about what must have been quite a romance when the couple met.   However, a) it’s written in the present tense, which is never great in a book, and b) the author, as narrator, keeps popping up to tell us about his retracing of their journeys, which is decidedly odd.

It’s an interesting if often brutal and really rather horrible story, but I really do wish that the afterword about the sources had been clearer about what was fleshed-out fact and what was fiction.  It’s something different, anyway: I’ve never come across a book quite like it before.

Henna House by Nomi Eve


This was a fascinating book about Yemenite Jews and their unique culture and recent history; but could have been so much better had the last few chapters not been so rushed.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic kingdom was set up in the area which we would later know as North Yemen, and a decree passed which enabled the state to remove orphans from Jewish families and place them with Muslim families.   In order to escape this fate, children were often betrothed at an early age and married as soon as they reached puberty, but, in this book, the family of main character Adela were unable to find a husband for her.  In the meantime, she grew close to her aunt and cousin, henna artists in a culture which prized henna, especially for brides, in a manner similar to that of Hindu and Sikh culture.

The first five-sixths or so of the book was filled with wonderful, rich descriptions of the lives and customs of Yemenite Jews, but then it suddenly started galloping along.  Over a decade, including the Second World War, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel and the airlift of Jews from Yemen to Israel, passed within 25 pages.

Prior to that, we’d seen Adela and her family move to Aden, British South Yemen, with the journey and their new life there described as vividly as her childhood in the Kingdom of Yemen.  But then suddenly everything was in a rush – marriage, betrayal, divorce, emigration, remarriage, trying to integrate into Israeli society, learning of relatives’ fate in Europe … all within a few pages.  It had been so good up until then, and I can’t think why the author rushed the rest of it so much.

It was an interesting subject for a book, and it could have been very good if only the pace of the story had remained the same and it had been a third or so as long again.  It was excellent for about 260 pages out of 300!



Passport to Freedom – Drama


There seem to be quite a few things around at the moment about people escaping the Nazis.  This is one of them: a new TV mini-series about Aracy de Carvalho, a courageous Brazilian woman who was the Chief of the Passport Section at her country’s consulate in Hamburg, and issued visas to desperate Jewish people even when the Brazilian government’s policy was not to do so.  In 1982, she was honoured with a Righteous Amongst the Nations award by Yad Vashem for her brave work.  The series also features a sub-plot about a Jewish cabaret singer with a Nazi lover, which I could have done without: it’s totally fictitious and seems rather tasteless.  But the main plot has been very well portrayed so far, with the second episode showing a powerful depiction of Kristallnacht.

There’s a strange juxtaposition between the glamour of the clubs, the diplomats’ lives and the lives of well-to-do assimilated Jews on the one hand, and the destruction of property, beatings in the street, abandonment of Polish-born Jews in freezing conditions on the border and arrests of people for no good reason on the other hand, and it all comes across very well.   There’s also going to be romance for Aracy, with diplomat and future author  João Guimarães Rosa.   This series is something a bit different, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it.


The School That Escaped the Nazis by Deborah Cadbury


Parts of this book are very harrowing, because they contain first-hand accounts of children’s experiences in concentration camps, in ghettoes, and in hiding from the Nazis.   But it also brings across the wonderful humanity of people who tried to help either bring children to safety before war broke out or to rebuild their shattered lives after the Holocaust, chief amongst them Anna Essinger, the owner/headmistress of the school in question.

I’d been expecting a dramatic escape narrative along the lines of The Sound of Music or The Chalet School in Exile, but it was actually quite easy for the 66 pupils (mostly Jewish), teachers and other staff to get from Germany to Britain in 1933, pretending to be going on a school trip to the Netherlands.   Emigration from the Third Reich became virtually impossible later on, but it wasn’t at that point.  “Tante Anna” set up a school on the Summerhill model, with a lot of emphasis on outdoor pursuits and the arts, initially in Kent and then later being evacuated to Shropshire.   The school took on additional pupils, most of them children arriving on the Kindertransport in 1938/39 and then children who’d survived the Holocaust once the war was over.

Much of the book consists of former pupils’ accounts of their experiences during the Holocaust, and it’s difficult to read but also important to read.   And the rest largely consists of, as well as school life, accounts of Anna’s work to raise money to set the school up and keep it going.  That came mainly from Jewish and Quaker philanthropists – the author, as a Cadbury, took a lot of interest in the wonderful contribution made by the Quaker community in rescuing Jewish children.  It also details her involvement in welcoming Kindertransport children, being responsible for their reception at holiday camp buildings and helping to try to find them foster families.   Others gave a great deal of their time and effort too: those mentioned particularly include Elaine Blond, co-director of the Refugee Children’s Movement and Old Girl of my school, Norman Bentwich and the Marchioness of Reading.   People in the Netherlands, too, did so much to help.   Then there are the accounts of how the school tried to help child survivors back to some sort of normality, similarly to what happened with The Windermere Children.

Sadly, the school closed in 1948, as Anna’s health was failing and she didn’t feel able to hand the school over to anyone else, but it made a huge difference to hundreds of traumatised children, some of whom had lost their entire families.   The book’s a fascinating juxtaposition of the worst of humanity and the best of humanity.

When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler


This is a truly wonderful Holocaust book for children.   It starts with three 9-year-old best friends in Vienna, in 1936, having a perfect day (including Sachertorte) together; and follows their lives until two of them die in their mid-teens and the survivor is interviewed in the present day.  Two are Jewish, one isn’t.   It moves between the three, as their once conjoined lives diverge.   One is able to escape to Britain, with the help of a kind British couple whom they’d met briefly at the Prater, and they and their family make a new and happy life for themselves.   One is sent to a ghetto, to Terezin, and then to Auschwitz.  The third is the son of a man who becomes an SS officer at Dachau and later at Auschwitz: the child is drawn into the Hitler Youth movement and becomes a Nazi himself.  It’s rare to find a book which addresses all three of those eventualities – escaping to a safe country, being sent to a death camp, and someone who was once a kind and decent person being drawn into the Nazi web.

It’s slightly confusing in that one character’s chapters are told in the first person present, one in the first person past and one in the third person past, but I suppose that that’s to differentiate between the three different stories.

Liz Kessler’s own father and grandparents were able to escape Nazi Germany, thanks to a British couple whom they’d met by chance, and settle in Southport.   That’s partly why she wanted to tell this story; and I’m glad that the book covers the subject of refugees coming to Britain, as well as the tragic fate of so many who were unable to leave Nazi Germany and the countries which it occupied.   There are a myriad of books about people leaving various parts of the Continent for Britain, the USA, Australia or elsewhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but strangely few about those who were able to escape the Nazis.

Apart from the Judith Kerr trilogy, and to some extent The Chalet School in Exile, there never seemed to be any books about this when I was a kid.  Obviously there’s The Diary of Anne Frank, but that doesn’t deal with refugees coming to Britain. Maisie Mosco’s Scattered Seed *does*, but that isn’t aimed at children.

And no-one ever even told me that the Manchester area had had two hostels, funded by local people, for those who’d come here as refugees from the Nazis, one in Broughton Park and one in Withington, both suburbs which I know well.   Nor did anyone ever tell me that my secondary school, along with several other schools in the area, had made a number of places available for free for refugee children – one of whom, now an elderly lady, was recently interviewed on the school’s social media pages.  I’m so proud that the school did that, but why did no-one tell the pupils of the 1980s and 1990s about it?

And I know people whose parents or grandparents came here on the Kindertransport, but, again, it just wasn’t talked about when I was a kid.

Maybe we were still at the stage where it was too painful to talk about either the war or the Holocaust: maybe it was too soon.   There seems to be a new concentration camp novel for adults out every week these days, and if anything it’s got to the stage of overkill; but it’s important that books like this one are available for children.  They weren’t, in my day.

I think that the book’s meant for children aged about 11-13, but it reads to me more like a book for children aged 8-10.   As with any book for younger children on a sensitive topic, there’s the issue of how to show dangerous views without the children accepting them.   This is a problem which comes up a lot in terms of children’s books: the characters have to express these views, but a child reading a book without the guidance of a parent or teacher has to understand that the views are categorically wrong.  I think that this book does a good job of making that clear, but it’s always a grey area.

There’s a lot of information to process, about restrictions on the lives of Jews, about life in the ghetto, about the Kindertransport, about the struggles to obtain an exit visa, about life and death in the camps, and also about the fact that Roma and other groups were also murdered.   But there’s isn’t an information overload, and I don’t think that it’d be too much for children to take in.

This is currently available on a 99p Kindle offer, and I highly recommend it.



Who Do You Think You Are (Matt Lucas) – BBC 1



  This was a fascinating episode.  How incredible for Matt Lucas to find out that his grandmother’s first cousin had been Anne Frank’s family’s lodger, and was actually mentioned in her diary.   Anne had remarked that this man was rather irritating and hung around even when the family had dropped heavy hints that they wanted some privacy.   That’s very Anne!   I once read an article which said that lessons about the Holocaust should focus on accounts of the horrors of the concentration camps, rather than a teenage girl’s witterings about how annoying adults were and whether or not she fancied Peter van Daan; but, as I said in an online discussion at the time, the point of reading Anne’s diary is to be reminded that she was just an ordinary girl, not some kind of “other”.  An ordinary girl who had the misfortune to be born into a group of people whom another, evil, group of people classified as “other”, but who was just like any other ordinary girl from any other sort of background.

Tragically, Matt learnt that his grandmother’s two aunts and most of her cousins had been murdered in the concentration camps.   She’d been able to escape to Britain from Berlin, where her family lived before most of them moved to Amsterdam in the sadly mistaken belief that the Netherlands would be a safe place, and it was poignant to see Ukrainian flags flying over many of the public buildings in Berlin during his visit there.   We know that Vladimir Putin’s family suffered terribly during the Siege of Leningrad, and yet he’s putting millions of Ukrainians through the same sort of hell.

This really was very moving.  There’ve been other episodes in which celebs have found out that members of their family died during the Holocaust, and they’ve all been moving; but for Matt to find out that he had a family connection to Anne Frank, whose story, as he said, is the one Holocaust story that everyone knows, was really something.


The King of Warsaw – All 4


This is something different.  It’s in Polish with English subtitles, so requires a lot of concentration, but it’s interesting.  It’s a crime drama set in Warsaw in 1937, and the protagonist is Jakub Szapiro, a Jewish boxer and member of an organised crime gang, whose aim is to become head of the gang – and therefore be the “King of Warsaw”.   It’s set against a background of clashes, some violent, some just psychological, between right-wing groups and left-wing groups, Catholics and Jews, and secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews.   Meanwhile, a young lad from the ultra-Orthodox community aims to join a gang after the murder of his father.   And Jakub’s wife wants to emigrate to what was then British Mandate Palestine, but Jakub feels that Warsaw is his city and can’t bear the thought of leaving it.

The first episode was really just setting the scene, but it looks promising.  Warsaw was such a mixture of cultures and factions at the time.  And it’s the same issue as with Peaky Blinders – members of a community which is marginalised, but not isolated and set apart by religion, may well be drawn to organised crime.  And at what point do you feel that you’re actually a stranger in your own city, as well as being a stranger from the Establishment?   Without going too far into the unpleasant scenes before the Cup Final, feeling estranged from the Establishment usually leads to a stronger sense of regional identity, and that seems to be what’s happened with Jakub Szapiro – but his wife can see that they’d be safer away from Warsaw, rather than trying to rule it.

A promising start.

The Crimean Circle by David Kushner


This, as the title suggests, is set during the Crimean War.   It isn’t by a British author, and so it’s not the usual fare: there is nary a mention of Florence Nightingale, our characters watch the Charge of the Light Brigade and wonder what on earth’s going on (although, it has to be said, most of the British Army did as well, and they’re involved in the defence of Sebastopol, not in besieging it (I can’t get used to “Sevastopil”, sorry).

Crimea (I’m a British historian, OK, I can’t get used to “Krym”) is obviously much in the news at the moment.  People in the UK will, until 2014, have known it largely from the war of the 1850s.  It was a war in which Britain should never have got involved, but which was strangely popular here, and made a big impact on our culture – Florence Nightingale’s work, obviously, the Cardwell Army Reforms and the Tennyson poem, but also the use of the words “balaclava” and “cardigan”, and all those little urban roads with names like Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace.

None of that has got anything to do with this book: I’m just being Anglocentric.  Ahem.  The book is by an American author and is subtitled “A Russian Jewish Tale of the Crimean War”, which is certainly a different take on it.   Incidentally, our hero, Iosif Hirschcovich Cymerman/Zimmerman comes from Kremenets, in what’s now Ukraine, and would probably have been thought of then as Russian Poland, but, to be fair, most people would say “Russian” to mean “the Russian Empire”.

The point of the book is to highlight the issue of the forcible conscription into the Russian army of quotas from minority religious and ethnic groups, rather like the devshirme system in the Ottoman Empire.   This applied to Jews, Karaites, Old Believers, Roma people, various indigenous peoples and, after the 1830 Uprising, Catholic Poles.  With most groups, boys were conscripted at 18.  With Jews and Karaites, boys were conscripted at 12 in theory, and sometimes from as young as 8, and sent to cantonist schools.  It’s not something which is ever spoken about very much.  I think that the memory of the devshirme system still lingers in Greece, over 200 years after independence, but no-one talks about forcible conscription amongst minorities in the Russian Army.  There’s one vague reference to it early on in Maisie Mosco’s Almonds and Raisins, in which we’re told that Abraham Sandberg’s brother (who is never mentioned again) fell victim to it, but I can’t think of any other novel which even mentions it, and not even academic books say much about it.

So it’s an interesting and neglected topic: I just wish that a) the author had checked a few basic facts more carefully and b) the story had been a bit more realistic.  It’s a self-published novel, so it possibly wasn’t edited by a third party, but that doesn’t excuse some of the really silly errors which it contains.  And it’s not exactly very likely that our guy would have saved the Tsarevich’s life, been given a fortune by a count whose life he’d also saved, and then been invited to appear in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, is it?!

We’re told that Kremenets had been under Russian rule since 1756.  Oh, come on.  The Polish partitions took place in 1772, 1793 (the correct date for Volhynia … and I’m talking about the historic province, so it’s OK for me to say “Volhynia” rather than “Volyn”!) and 1795.  The significance of 1756 was the Diplomatic Revolution and the start of the Seven Years’ War.  You can check that sort of thing on Google or Wikipedia in a matter of seconds.  There was also a reference to Job’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt.  I do not claim to be an expert on the Bible, but Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt is surely fairly basic general knowledge.  And referring to Ekaterinburg as Sverdlovsk, the name it was only given 70 years after the book was set, really was very poor.

Oh, and I also wish that the author had used the normal system of transliterating from Yiddish, rather than that awful alternative system which I don’t think anyone outside American academia can follow – khay instead of che etc.  Even Google can’t follow it.  I tried Googling a sample word using the normal transliteration and the alternative version, and Google didn’t recognise the latter.  So there!!  There were some issues with the quality of English, as well.  Maybe that was just with the Kindle version, but other errors were with the actual text – such as “two centuries ago” rather than “two millennia ago” (placing Judah the Maccabee in the 17th century!).

All right, all right, enough moaning.  What about the actual story?  I seem to have had a lot more to say about the historical background and the historical errors than I have about the story itself.   There was a bit about Cymerman’s early life, but the rest of was about his life in the army, first in Kyiv and then en route to and at the scenes of the fighting.  A number of other people also played a significant role in the book, including a brutal Ukrainian sergeant, a Jew who’d converted to Orthodoxy but said that he was only pretending to make life in the army easier for himself, and a lot of young lads who’d been taken from an orphanage in order to fill the quota from their area.  Oh, and a dog.  The dog had quite a big role.

TBH, I didn’t find the actual book that interesting.  I appreciate that the point was to show how awful life is, but there’s really only so much you can read about digging latrines and burying bodies, which was what they spent most of their time doing.  And there was a lot about weapons and battle tactics, which I know that a lot of people enjoy reading about, and which will probably really appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell and Edward Marston, but which just wasn’t for me.

Books about the Romanovs are for me though, so I was quite chuffed when our pal Iosif rand his mates saved the Tsarevich’s life at Balaclava – the Tsarevich having apparently decided to make a surprise appearance at the battle, as you do.  But it wasn’t exactly very realistic, and I’d thought that the book was trying to give a realistic portrayal of these young men’s lives.  Also, the author showed the Tsarevich’s friends referring to him as “Alex”.  Excuse me?   I’m not sure that even his close friends would have used a diminutive of his name, but, if they had, it would have been “Sasha”.  Have you ever met a Russian known as “Alex”?!

Having saved the Tsarevich’s life, Iosif just happened to meet up with Tolstoy.  And then we learned – there was a bit of a dual timeline, with one of Iosif’s descendants meeting up with a British aristocrat and telling her his family history, and it transpiring that her ancestor had given Iosif his watch after the Charge of the Light Brigade – that Iosif ended up living in Missouri, had a run in with Quantrill’s Raiders, and turned down an invitation to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s show.

Sadly more realistically, Iosif’s fiancee Sima was raped by a soldier – and one of supposedly their own side, a Russian soldier.  As has happened in so many wars of the past and as is happening in Ukraine now, men rape women as some sort of particularly sick way of making war.  It’s quite rightly considered a war crime now, but that’s only happened quite recently.

Continuing with the story, Iosif was imprisoned for attacking Sima’s rapist, but he was later released, and he and Sima were married, and joined some of his comrades in a grand reception given by Alexander, now the Tsar, in St Petersburg, and received large sums of money both from the Tsar and from the family of a count whose life Iosif had also saved.   And there’s a sequel, which presumably covers the move to America.

The author is apparently a prize-winning journalist who’s also written non-fiction books.  I think this was his first foray into fiction, so maybe allowances should be made for that!   Full marks for the choice of topic, very average marks for the actual book!