My daughter and son recently got 23andMe DNA tests. Fortunately, no unknown relatives showed up. But we did learn a few things.
I have a lot of Dutch on my side of the family, but it was confirmed we had more French in our background than expected. Besides my husband’s French roots (among other things), my Dutch ancestors came from French Huguenots who fled to the southwest part of the Netherlands in the 1600s.
The test also revealed one’s propensity for chocolate versus vanilla, or being a night owl versus a morning person. And whether one has more leanings toward a meat or vegetarian diet. Nothing too shocking, thank goodness.
But what if your DNA test revealed you had ancestors who were Sephardic Jews in Greece? While your last name is Payton?
Liz Tolsma’s most recent release, What I Would Tell You, explores this dilemma. Not only does this change Tessa Payton’s ethnic identify, it leads to learning about a particular ancestor, that ancestor’s culture, and a life-changing decision made during World War II in Greece.
Other World War II fiction featured on Standout Stories:
- Things We Didn’t Say, an epistolary novel— Amy Lynn Green (Jan 17, 2023)
- Catching the Wind, a dual timeline novel — Melanie Dobson (Jan 24, 2023)
World War I & II novels from my 2022 posts:
- My Dearest Dietrich, about Dietrick Bonhoffer — Amanda Barratt (April 26, 2022)
- The Maggie Bright, about the Battle of Dunkirk — Tracy Groot (May 3, 2022)
- A Picture of Hope, about saving a little girl in France — Liz Tolsma (May 10, 2022)
- The Storm Breaks Forth, about WW I in Milwaukee, WI — Terri Wangard (May 17, 2022)
- Promise of Tomorrow series of 3 novels set in Germany, Sweden, and England — Terri Wangard (May 24, 2022)
Determined to resist the invading Nazis, a Greek Jewish woman’s greatest dream has become her worst nightmare, and now she faces an impossible choice whose consequences echo across the generations.
1941—The pounding of Nazi boots on the streets of Salonika, Greece, reverberates in Mathilda Nissim’s ears, shaking her large community of Sephardic Jews to its core and altering her life forever. If only her people would rise up and resist their captors. At great risk to herself and those around her, she uses the small newspaper she publishes to call them to action, all to no avail. Her husband encourages her to trust God to watch over them, but God has once again deserted His people. Amid the chaos, Mathilda discovers she’s expecting a longed-for child. Still, nothing stops the occupiers’ noose from tightening around their necks, and she may have to resort to desperate measures to ensure her daughter’s survival.
2019—College student Tessa Payton and her cousin take a popular DNA heritage test only to discover they don’t share any common ancestors. In fact, the test reveals Tessa is a Greek Sephardic Jew. This revelation threatens her tenuous faith. Always the overlooked child in her family, she empties her savings account and jets off on a journey to Greece to discover where she belongs and which God demands her allegiance. The enchanting curator at the Jewish museum guides her as she navigates life in Thessaloniki, helps with her genealogical research, and loans her a fascinating journal written by a Jewish woman during WWII. Tessa’s search, however, may open old wounds and uncover long-hidden secrets that could fracture her family forever and leave her with more questions than when she started.
Based in part on true accounts of Jews in Salonika, Greece, What I Would Tell You traces two women’s journeys, delving into what faith looks like and where it leads us as they navigate difficult circumstances and impossible choices that have ripple effects across the years.
What I Would Tell You is Liz’s second venture into dual timeline: 2019 and 1941.
I appreciated the Greek setting for a World War II novel as opposed to the typical ones. I wasn’t familiar with Sephardic Jews in Greece during the Holocaust, so reading about their plight was an eye opener for me. What I Would Tell You shows the war’s impact on Greece, and how one woman’s difficult choice impacted the future of many.
Discovering you aren’t who you think you are–through a DNA test–is a fascinating premise. After a DNA test, Tessa discovers her true roots. Her ancestors were Sephardic Jews in Greece, which her mother never mentioned. Tessa is plagued by her mom’s refusal to talk about it. Determined to learn more about her lineage, Tessa drops everything—including college—to fly to Greece.
During Tessa’s visit, I definitely got a taste of modern day Thessaloniki with all the sites, sounds, smells, and tastes. It made me want to go there. When Tessa visits the Jewish Museum, Giannis the tour guide becomes a valuable resource and support for her search. He shares the 1941 diary of Mathilda Nissim who lived in Thessaloniki—Salonica at the time—during the Nazi occupation.
Being privy to Mathilda’s journal along with Tessa, I was thrust into that horrific time where watching an innocent old Jewish man get beat up on the street was commonplace. As vividly conveyed by the author, the fear was palpable—daily fears of saying the wrong word, being in the wrong place, or a baby crying at the wrong moment. This is on top of hunger from severe rationing and forced moves to inadequate housing. And not knowing who to trust.
I was worried about Mathilda and her husband Asher from the get-go, especially since Mathilda was trying to rally support against the Nazis by handing out her homemade newspapers. It seemed like a fool’s errand and a sure invitation to danger. I was right about that. But even though I predicted a few things, the plot kept me guessing in both timelines.
A bright spot prevailed via Mathilda and her husband Asher’s love and devotion to each other, as well as their friendship with Ioanna and Samuel. With all the turmoil, such hope was welcome. Wickedness and oppression escalated daily. With evil crashing in from all around, characters are forced to make horrendous decisions they’d never anticipated, The reader can hardly be unmoved upon finally understanding the reason for the book’s title.
Tessa will never be the same once she finishes Mathilda’s diary. Plus, after she arrives home, she has to reconcile her history with her present family—and learns surprising things there, too!
Nobody can question Mathilda’s loyalty to her people, but I did sometimes question her methods. Her idealism in thinking they could stand against the Nazis seemed unreasonable and led to terrible outcomes. Unfortunately, some of those events actually happened in real life. Be sure to read the author’s note at the end to find out which ones.
Though I was bothered by the actions of Tessa’s abusive step-dad which seemed minimized and resolved too quickly, this moving story–full of emotion and depth–is worth your time.
Join me for some Q & A with author Liz Tolsma.
Questions about What I Would Tell You
What was your inspiration for writing What I Would Tell You? What’s your personal connection to the setting or situation?
Liz: My inspiration was an article that I read somewhere about WWII in Greece. I had never heard much about the war in that country. Frankly, I was surprised to learn that the Germans invaded it in 1941 and that so many of the Jews in the ancient city of Thessaloniki had been murdered. I read one article in particular that captured my attention and that became Mathilda’s story.
I don’t have a personal connection to the setting or the situation at all, at least not to begin with. When I learned that Barbour was considering contracting the book, I toyed with the idea of going to Greece to research it, but I dismissed it until my daughter got the opportunity to go on a summer mission’s trip to Athens.
Just as she got the okay, that Greece was opening again and she would be able to travel, I got word that Barbour was offering me a contract. I made plane reservations very quickly! With my travel there, I feel that I do now have some kind of a connection to this very beautiful and interesting location.
What historical parameters were imposed on you? Where did you have to fill in the gaps with your imagination?
Liz: Of course, I was hemmed in by actual historical dates. All of the important historical events occurred on the dates I have listed. I was also constrained by the setting itself and by the Jewish and Greek cultures. I wanted to be as true to them as possible. Whenever I can, I aim to be as accurate as I can be while still being able to create a compelling story.
One detail that I did fudge to fit the story was how Jewish women were viewed and treated in the 1940s in Greece, though I do allude to it in the story. It is unlikely that Mathilda would have had a newspaper. Jewish women were expected to stay home and take care of the household chores and raise the children. They were to be submissive and obedient. In having Mathilda be such a strong female lead with such an understanding and compliant husband would have been a rare thing indeed.
How did you develop your heroines Tessa (contemporary) and Mathilda (past)? What would each of them have to say about you?
Liz: Both of those characters just came to be almost completely developed. Because Mathilda owned and ran a newspaper, she would have to be strong and tough, and yet I wanted there to be a softer side to her, which I show through her relationship with her husband. She wasn’t driven by greed or power by but love and a deep capacity to love others.
Tessa also came to me with this hurt of feeling like the rejected child. Then I tried to put myself into the shoes of a college-aged young woman. That wasn’t too hard since my daughter falls into that category as well as her friends and my nieces. I’m surrounded by them! I just imagined what my daughter would say and do in different circumstances.
Mathilda might tell me to grow up and get a backbone LOL! That’s the wonderful thing about creating characters. You can make them be someone you would never be. I wouldn’t have had her courage or fortitude during the war. I would have been one of those who would have been as compliant as possible, trying to keep my head down and going unnoticed.
I hope that Tessa would like me. I’m much different from her mother. I don’t keep secrets from my daughter (except when surprising her with a visit from her friend from Atlanta!), and we have a good, close relationship based on mutual respect. That’s how I like to think of it anyway.
How did you develop a dual timeline plot with separate storylines that need to meld together? Will you write another dual timeline novel?
Liz: I had previously written a dual timeline novel (A Promise Engraved), and I learned quite a bit about writing the “genre” from that. This one flowed much easier, and I knew how I wanted it to wrap up in the end—though there were surprises along the way for me—so it was just a matter of fitting the pieces together in the right way at the right time. I’ve found that I really like writing multiple timelines.
Yes, there will be more dual timeline books from me! I’ve just contracted with Barbour Publishing for book two in the “Echoes of the Past” series, another WWII novel about DNA and genealogy, so watch for that coming in February of 2024. I’m writing it now and having so much fun with it!
What unusual thing did you do or discover while researching for this story?
Liz: Traveling to Greece by myself, though I met my daughter there, was something unusual for me. I had only done a little solo traveling before and never overseas on my own. If my own daughter could do it, though, I figured I could too. That was so much fun as I stretch myself and learned I’m capable of more than I thought I was.
God just brought the entire trip together in a wonderful way. When I was choosing our Airbnb, I decided that I wanted to stay in the city center so that we would be able to use public transportation to get around or would be able to walk where we needed to go. Turns out that we were only about a hundred feet from the old Jewish market that plays an important part in the historical timeline.
One very sad fact that I learned is that anti-Semitism is still alive and well in Greece. We visited a haunting mural in honor of those who died in the Holocaust. Blue swastikas had been painted over some of it. When we visited the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, it was guarded by armed security, and our phones were confiscated at the front desk because no pictures were allowed. I had very much wanted to visit a synagogue, but that wasn’t allowed. In order to do that, you have to prove you’re Jewish.
Just for fun . . . have you ever had a DNA test yourself? Did you learn anything interesting?
Liz: Yes, I took a DNA test myself several years ago. Most of results were what I expected, including that my mother’s mother’s family is from the border area of Poland and Slovakia. What I learned is that they are from an ethnic minority called Lemko Rusyn. They have their own form of Orthodox Christianity, their own language, and their own customs. They’re an insular people. The Austro-Hungarians began driving them out of the area in the 1870s. My great-grandparents arrived in the US the 1890s. The Soviets finished the job in the 1940s. I’m still trying to learn more about that branch of my family tree. And yes, I’m hoping and praying there will be a book three that will explore this people group.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you like dual timeline fiction, you might enjoy my novel, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. This story spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
If you like Southern fiction or stories about family secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
All That Is Hidden awards:
- Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
- Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest
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Liz Tolsma Bio
Liz Tolsma is a popular speaker and an editor and the owner of the Write Direction Editing. An almost-native Wisconsinite, she resides in a quiet corner of the state with her husband and is the mother of three. Her son proudly serves as a U.S. Marine. They adopted all of their children internationally, and one has special needs. When she gets a few spare minutes, she enjoys reading, relaxing on the front porch, walking, working in her large perennial garden, and camping with her family. Visit her website at www.liztolsma.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter (@LizTolsma), Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest. She is also the host of the Christian Historical Fiction Talk podcast.
Join me next time for another visit with author Rachel Hauck.
Meanwhile, have you read What I Would Tell You or any others by Liz Tolsma? Do you gravitate to World War II stories? Answer in the comments below.
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