A vil­lage near Ams­ter­dam like the one in which Leo was hid­den dur­ing the war that Emnua vis­it­ed. Image cour­tesy of the author

My first source of inspi­ra­tion was Ams­ter­dam itself; walk­ing beside the canals of that breath­tak­ing­ly beau­ti­ful city, I could eas­i­ly pic­ture the set­ting of my new nov­el, House on End­less Waters. I could imag­ine one of the main char­ac­ters, young twen­ty-some­thing Sonia Blum rid­ing her bicy­cle in 1941 through these same streets, near the very same sculp­tured build­ings and mag­nif­i­cent trees. There she was, and just like Sonia, I could hear the com­mo­tion of the pre-cre­ation waters storm­ing and bub­bling under the paved roads and side­walks, in their nev­er-end­ing attempt to re-flood the world.

I was see­ing what Yoel Blum, the pro­tag­o­nist of my nov­el, would even­tu­al­ly see dur­ing his stay in this very city. It cen­ters on Yoel who dis­cov­ers what real­ly hap­pened to his late moth­er, Sonia, dur­ing World War II. Unearthing the secrets she had care­ful­ly kept from him through­out his entire life, he con­fronts the truth of his own ori­gins, thus reveal­ing Amsterdam’s dark wartime his­to­ry and the under­ground net­works which hid Jew­ish chil­dren away from dan­ger — but at a hor­ri­ble cost.

Through Yoel’s writer­ly imag­i­na­tion, we wit­ness Sonia’s life as a pas­sion­ate young moth­er in Nazi-occu­pied Ams­ter­dam — the impos­si­ble choic­es and betray­als she expe­ri­ences, her strength as a woman with a fam­i­ly to protect.

In order to write this nov­el know­ing about Ams­ter­dam was not enough. I need­ed to actu­al­ly expe­ri­ence the city, to feel it from with­in — in addi­tion to putting time and effort into research­ing the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and the harsh real­i­ty it con­front­ed dur­ing World War II,. Dur­ing the nov­el Yoel trav­els back to Ams­ter­dam — where he was born — and I trav­elled there as well.

Like Yoel, I found myself a non-expen­sive room in a small hotel in Ams­ter­dam’s Old South. That was the part of the city in which I intend­ed to sit­u­ate my char­ac­ters, since I knew it was where many local Jews — who could afford to move out of the Old Jew­ish quar­ter east of the Ams­tel Riv­er — had estab­lished their homes just before the war. And exact­ly like Yoel, I too chose that spe­cif­ic hotel room, on the cor­ner of the fourth floor, because it had a nar­row bal­cony over­look­ing the backs of two rows of hous­es. That bal­cony was most help­ful for Yoel and for me; the view seen from it became the set­ting of our sto­ries, and one of those hous­es turned out — so we decid­ed — to be the house of the two fam­i­lies around which our plot revolves.

I spent many days walk­ing the streets of the city, tak­ing in the glit­ter­ing canals and pic­turesque build­ings, watch­ing and lis­ten­ing, and allow­ing the sto­ry to reveal itself to me from amidst the sights and the sounds that sur­round­ed me. See­ing the sym­bi­ot­ic attach­ment between the Dutch and their bicy­cles helped me under­stand what it must have meant in 1942 to be denied even your right to ride a bicy­cle, just because you were Jew­ish. Study­ing the flow of every­day life in Ams­ter­dam’s schools, mar­kets, and muse­ums, as well as inter­ac­tions in play­grounds, cof­fee hous­es, and pri­vate homes — as far as can be seen in back yards or through the big front win­dows that most Dutch fam­i­lies always leave exposed — enabled me to imag­ine what it was like when all this every­day life was cru­el­ly and force­ful­ly interrupted.

I spent many days walk­ing the streets of the city, tak­ing in the glit­ter­ing canals and pic­turesque build­ings, watch­ing and lis­ten­ing, and allow­ing the sto­ry to reveal itself to me from amidst the sights and the sounds that sur­round­ed me.

Image cour­tesy of the author

On that same street, named after a Flem­ish six­teenth-cen­tu­ry musi­cian — as are oth­er streets in the prox­im­i­ty of Ams­ter­dam’s mag­nif­i­cent Con­cert Hall— the thriv­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of the 1930’s had estab­lished the Jew­ish Hos­pi­tal, and right next to it a big, new syn­a­gogue. No one could have pre­dict­ed then that the metaphor­ic waters would rise and chaos would pre­vail. Even lat­er on, when Dutch Jews heard about what was already hap­pen­ing to Jews in Ger­many and in Poland, they were absolute­ly sure, as quot­ed, that such things can nev­er hap­pen in Hol­land. No, not in Holland!”

That is also the unfor­tu­nate error of some char­ac­ters in my nov­el as they obey the new laws inflict­ed upon them: enlist­ing as Jews, report­ing all of their assets to the author­i­ties, pur­chas­ing yel­low badges and wear­ing them and believ­ing that no harm will be done to them as long as they respect the laws and orders.

When­ev­er I walked past the cen­tral town square from which Jews were sent every day to the east — to their deaths — I visu­al­ized them sit­ting on rows of bench­es look­ing like peo­ple about to embark on an enjoy­able excur­sion or a nice vaca­tion in the bosom of nature; spe­cial atten­dants move among them speak­ing to them with exag­ger­at­ed polite­ness, mak­ing sure they have every­thing they need and even serv­ing them hot tea sweet­ened with sug­ar cubes so they will feel at ease and har­bor no wor­ries, no sus­pi­cion, no desire to cause unrest that might both­er passers­by and dis­turb the peace. A ter­ri­fy­ing mus­ing based on my research stat­ing peo­ple were treat­ed well even as they were being round­ed up, to avoid any commotion.

I did my best to con­vey in this nov­el the sharp con­trast, which I felt as a con­stant phys­i­cal pain, between Ams­ter­dam’s peace­ful beau­ty and the things that hap­pened with­in it not so long ago.

The search for one’s iden­ti­ty – in the con­text of self, of fam­i­ly, and of per­son­al and nation­al his­to­ry – is prob­a­bly the essence of every sto­ry and of every work of art.

Emu­na takes a pic­ture of a fall­en tree in Von­del­park, men­tioned in the sto­ry. Image cour­tesy of the author

Writ­ing my sto­ry about the author Yoel writ­ing his sto­ry remind­ed me of the famous lith­o­graph Draw­ing Hands” by the Dutch artist Morits Cor­nel­lius Esch­er, in which two human hands are seen draw­ing each oth­er. It was I who invent­ed Yoel and his moth­er Sonia and led them step by step through the sto­ry. But at the same time, as often hap­pens in the process of writ­ing, the sto­ry was lead­ing me to unex­plored areas in my own soul and telling me things about myself which I had not been aware.

Yoel works hard to refine his char­ac­ters so that each of them is Every­man, to write them so that each of their ges­tures con­tains every human ges­ture that had ever been and will ever be. To for­mu­late the core of things. The very core.” As do I, though the fact that we keep writ­ing new books proves that we both feel we must keep trying.

The search for one’s iden­ti­ty – in the con­text of self, of fam­i­ly, and of per­son­al and nation­al his­to­ry – is prob­a­bly the essence of every sto­ry and of every work of art. Yoel seems to be plant­ed in a suc­cess­ful, shel­tered life, sur­round­ed by his work and his fam­i­ly, but deep inside him­self he always car­ried this sense of strange­ness, of not belong­ing, the feel­ing that his mere exis­tence is a wound.

House on End­less Waters is about expos­ing the foun­da­tions — uni­ver­sal, nation­al and per­son­al, cir­cle with­in cir­cle — of a human life in the wake of the Holo­caust: the tragedy of the Jew­ish peo­ple and an extremum of Human­i­ty. One exam­ple can be seen in a scene dur­ing which Yoel observes a woman who fears going into an air­plane — and thus detach­ing from the seem­ing­ly-sta­ble ground — and the nov­el goes on to show that noth­ing in this world is real­ly stable.

Every work of art is a con­fronta­tion with the ini­tial chaos, with the end­less waters lurk­ing under every house, under every human fortress of per­ma­nen­cy and belong­ing – even under Yoel’s house in Jerusalem that is built not on a canal but on sol­id rocks.

Emu­na Elon is an inter­na­tion­al­ly best­selling, crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed nov­el­ist, jour­nal­ist, and women’s activist. Born to a fam­i­ly of promi­nent rab­bis and schol­ars, she was raised in Jerusalem and New York. She teach­es Judaism, Hasidism, and Hebrew lit­er­a­ture. Her first nov­el trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, If You Awak­en Love, was a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award finalist.