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Book excerpt: 1917


In 1917, my grandmother, Gladys Ragan, was seven years old. One day, in the school in rural eastern Washington where she grew up, the teacher asked any students who were related to European royalty to raise their hands. Gladys' hand shot up. She relayed excitedly that yes, her family was related to a German princess! (This, I later discovered, is entirely untrue.) "German?" the teacher said. "You can't help that Gladys. Sit down."


Germans were not popular in America at the time. Nor in Europe. By 1917, the Great War, which would take millions of lives in over four years of industrialized violence never before seen in modern warfare, had been raging for three years already.

On July 17th, 1917, King George V of England issued a royal proclamation that announced that the family name would be changed from the very German Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the much more melodious and British sounding House of Windsor. "I may be uninspiring, but I'll be damned if I'm alien," the King said, in reply to a rather stinging insult levied at him by H.G. Wells.


In Czechoslovakia, Gidon’s mother, Doris Samisch, was a round-faced, shy looking five year old. Dorchie, as she was affectionately called, had been born in Karlovy Vary to Fritz Samisch, a bank manager, and Alice Neubauer. In the wedding photo of Fritz and Alice, taken in 1910, Fritz is dressed in a dark suit with a white bow tie. He holds a pair of white gloves in one hand. Alice, her mass of curly hair in a Gibson updo, lightly covered by a veil, holds a bouquet of roses at an odd angle, drooping downward. In 1917, Doris' father, who had been drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, was deployed on the legendarily brutal eastern front. He would not come home again for three long years.