House on End­less Waters

Emu­na Elon; Antho­ny Berris and Lin­da Yechiel, trans.

By – April 6, 2020

When the nov­el begins, inter­na­tion­al­ly acclaimed Israeli author Yoel Blum has been cajoled into trav­el­ling to Ams­ter­dam to cel­e­brate the trans­la­tion of his lat­est book into Dutch. At the publisher’s event he is shocked when a jour­nal­ist refers to the author hav­ing been born in Ams­ter­dam, a fact he was pre­vi­ous­ly unaware of.

With­in a week after his return to Jerusalem, he decides to trav­el back to Ams­ter­dam, osten­si­bly to research his ear­ly child­hood of which he has no mem­o­ries. Before he leaves he meets with his sis­ter Net­tie who reluc­tant­ly shares some ear­ly mem­o­ries of how they and their moth­er had bare­ly escaped being deport­ed to Auschwitz, and made their way to pre-state Israel. Their child­hood is defined by their mother’s insis­tence on intense pri­va­cy from class­mates and neighbors.

Blum’s sec­ond trip to Ams­ter­dam is thus an unchart­ed search for iden­ti­ty; ambi­tious for a sev­en­ty-year-old reli­gious man whose even-tem­pered wife, daugh­ters and grand­chil­dren who have tol­er­at­ed his remote nature.

From that point on the sto­ry alter­nates between the present and the past, with Blum fill­ing his note­books with dai­ly activ­i­ties along­side his recon­struc­tion of his family’s life dur­ing the final years of World War II. Emu­na Elon, a gift­ed Israeli author, vivid­ly imag­ines dai­ly life dur­ing the increas­ing­ly dra­con­ic Nazi occu­pa­tion. Her por­tray­al of two Dutch fam­i­lies who con­tin­ue to deny the real­i­ty of their beloved Ams­ter­dam being trans­formed is omi­nous and affecting.

Ams­ter­dam, long con­sid­ered a haven for Jews is also home to the Van Gogh Muse­um, the Rijksmu­se­um, and the Stedelijk Muse­um — whose pres­ence defines the city. Son­ja, the moth­er in the wartime nar­ra­tive, often finds refuge among the art in her dai­ly efforts to avoid arrest. In his dai­ly wan­der­ings there, Blum won­ders about the dozens of peo­ple, most of them young, …sprawled in the sun­shine… not know­ing that the past is still here, not imag­in­ing how close they are to the Ger­man police head­quar­ters that Son­ja always pass­es quick­ly and cautiously.”

Dis­tin­guish­ing between the time peri­ods — some­times in para­graphs on the same page — keeps the read­er riv­et­ed and believ­ing that the present is a diary of a Blum’s sev­er­al months’ research­ing his past, often for­get­ting that Blum is a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter. Iron­ic sym­bols con­nect­ing the past to the present abound, espe­cial­ly, the recur­rent tolling of the church bells.

When his pub­lish­er calls to remind him that the trans­la­tion of his lat­est book into Ital­ian is being released and he is expect­ed there for the pub­lish­ing event, Blum tells him I can’t leave until I’m sure I under­stand my sto­ry here, and until I’m capa­ble of com­ing home and sit­ting down to write that sto­ry from start to fin­ish.” Ulti­mate­ly, he returns to Israel when he is ready and the read­ers under­stand that he is a new Blum whose recov­ered iden­ti­ty will allow him to shed the shell that has dis­tanced him all his life from even those clos­est to him.

House on End­less Waters joins the vast lit­er­a­ture that explores post-Holo­caust trau­ma suf­fered by sur­vivors. Along with the diaries writ­ten in Hol­land by Anne Frank and Etty Hille­sum, both of whom per­ished in Auschwitz, this book is a tes­ta­ment to the last­ing trau­mas of that era.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions

House on End­less Waters by Israeli author Emu­na Elon is a lyri­cal, haunt­ing nov­el whose pro­tag­o­nist, Yoel Blum, is a famous Israeli author. He breaks a promise to his dead moth­er when he vis­its Ams­ter­dam to meet with his Dutch pub­lish­er. While there he vis­its the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Muse­um and sees a news­reel in which he rec­og­nizes his fam­i­ly; how­ev­er, the boy in his mother’s arms isn’t him. This leads him to inves­ti­gate the past to try to piece togeth­er the mys­tery of his ear­li­est years dur­ing the Nazi occupation.

Struc­tural­ly, the sto­ry slips from one era into anoth­er as the pro­tag­o­nist? walks the streets of Ams­ter­dam. The sto­ries of the past and present are lay­ered and blend­ed, entwined yet dis­tinct, col­or­ing per­cep­tion and blur­ring real­i­ty. The writ­ing is beau­ti­ful, evoca­tive of place and time, pow­er­ful and gut-wrenching.