“Travels with Cara”
By Lisa Lieberman
“Characters,” said Grace Paley, “deserve the open destiny of life”— advice I’ve taken to heart in writing my historical mystery series. My characters are inveterate travelers, disinclined to stay in one place for more than a few chapters at a time. In their company I’ve become an adventurer as well, journeying through 1950s Europe with no fixed itinerary, stopping off in remote places, towns I chose at random by putting my finger on
the map. Along the way, I’ve uncovered a tragic story that relates to my own family history.
Cara Walden was seventeen when she set off for London with her older brother Gray, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, in All the Wrong Places, my series debut. By the time she got to the bottom of the unsolved mystery of her mother’s drowning in 1943, she’d seen Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, gone to Sicily on a film shoot, and attended Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier III in Monaco (where she ran into Cary Grant), ending up at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.
The sequel, Burning Cold, is much darker. Cara and Gray venture into Budapest during the 1956 revolution in search of their half-brother Zoltán, the forgotten son of their father’s first marriage. They track him to Mád, a small town in the Tokaj wine region on Hungary’s eastern border—a place I chose simply because of the potential for wordplay. Then I learned the fate of Mád’s once-thriving Jewish community.
Some three hundred men, women, and children were locked in the town’s synagogue when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944, deprived of food and water for three days, then herded into cattle cars with the help of the Arrow Cross (Hungarian militia). Most perished in Auschwitz.
I visited Mád during a research trip to Hungary in 2015. The desecrated synagogue was only restored in 2004, a lonely memorial to the town’s murdered Jews. As I stood in the sanctuary, I was overwhelmed by sadness.
I set a scene in the ruined sanctuary toward the end of Burning Cold. Cara’s new husband plays the Kol Nidre, a Jewish prayer of mourning, on his violin:
Persecution, exile, and suffering were all woven into the ancient elegy, which penetrated where words could not go, reminding me of every loss I’d ever experienced. When the last note had faded away, Jakub bowed his head over the instrument. He had given us the precious gift of peace, momentary but healing all the same.
My father’s family emigrated to America from this corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. How remarkable, that my characters’ wanderlust led me to my very own ancestors, allowing me to offer a small tribute to their memory.
Lisa Lieberman is the author of the Cara Walden series of historical mysteries featuring blacklisted Hollywood people in exotic European locales, All the Wrong Places and Burning Cold. Trained as a modern European cultural and intellectual historian, Lieberman abandoned a perfectly respectable academic career for the life of a vicarious adventurer through dangerous times and places. She has written extensively on postwar Europe and is the founder of the classic movie blog Deathless Prose. She now directs a nonprofit foundation dedicated to redressing racial and economic inequity in public elementary and secondary schools. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America.
-Synagogue images courtesy of Lisa Lieberman’s collection
-Cary Grant image, reproduced with no intention of profit or copyright infringement: https://bamfstyle.com/2015/06/23/to-catch-thief-cary-grayblazer/
last edited 6/26/18