“A story of love, loss, and yearning. Lyrically phrased and often powerfully visual…this deeply felt tale offers a rewarding meditation on survival.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In the tradition of The Invisible Bridge and The History of Love, comes an exquisitely moving novel about a writer who discovers the truth about his mother’s wartime years in Amsterdam, unearthing a shocking family secret that becomes the subject of his magnum opus.
At the behest of his agent, renowned author Yoel Blum reluctantly agrees to visit his birthplace of Amsterdam to promote his books, despite promising his late mother that he would never return to that city. While touring the Jewish Historical Museum with his wife, Yoel stumbles upon footage portraying prewar Dutch Jewry and is astonished to see the youthful face of his beloved mother staring back at him, posing with his father, his older sister…and an infant he doesn’t recognize.
This unsettling discovery launches him into a fervent search for the truth, shining a light on Amsterdam’s dark wartime history—the underground networks that hid Jewish children away from danger and those who betrayed their own for the sake of survival. The deeper into the past Yoel digs to tell the story of his life, the better he understands his mother’s silence, and the more urgent the question that has unconsciously haunted him for a lifetime—Who am I?—becomes.
Part family mystery, part wartime drama, House on Endless Waters is an unforgettable meditation on identity, belonging, and the inextricable nature of past and present.
Chapter 1 1 One after another the people are swallowed up into the plane to Amsterdam, one after another after another. Yoel is approaching the aircraft’s door but the flow of passengers is suddenly halted by somebody, a woman in an orange windbreaker, who has planted herself in the doorway of the Boeing 737 and refuses to step inside. Yoel’s thoughts are already with the new novel he has decided to write, and he thinks about this woman and asks himself which of his new characters would be capable of admitting to the primal, naked fear that besets every mortal on entering the flying trap called an airplane. Who would volunteer to disrupt with her body the “everything’s alright” façade and violate the sacred alrightness to which people clutch so they won’t have to admit that everything is truly chaotic.
From his place in the line, Yoel can see only the woman’s back. Even through the orange plastic of her windbreaker, he can see how tense her muscles are, and over the shoulders of the people in front of him he discerns the beads of perspiration breaking out on the back of her neck and around her ears. The line starts burbling irritably; people peek anxiously at their boarding pass for flight such-and-such, clutching the rectangular pieces of paper as if they were an assurance that the plane will eventually take off. Then from out of nowhere appears a man in a resplendent uniform, with gray hair and an air of authority, who introduces himself as the purser and puts a fatherly arm around the stricken passenger’s shoulders. As he gently takes her aside, the plane continues filling up, and as Yoel passes them he hears him telling her, Believe me, my dear, I have anxious passengers on every flight, and everything’s alright. I promise I’ll come and hold your hand during takeoff.
When he’s invited overseas to promote his books, he and Bat-Ami usually fly business class, thus sparing him from physical contact with the multitudes of other passengers and from being subjected to their multitudes of looks. Since this time he’s flying on his own, and mainly because he’s paying for his ticket out of his own pocket, he decided to fly economy and so now all he can do is slide into his seat as discreetly as humanly possible. Just look straight ahead and downward, he reminds himself, just straight ahead and downward. Don’t raise your eyes or look to the side lest your eyes meet those of somebody who might recognize you. And be very wary of people who have already recognized you and are trying to get your attention, and of the ones you can hear saying to each other, that’s Yoel Blum. Or, there’s that writer. Or, there’s that famous guy, the one with the cap. Come on, remind me what his name is.
It has been only a week since his first trip to Amsterdam and the reception, held in his honor by his Dutch publisher, that was attended by local luminaries from the fields of literature and the media. Only a week since he and Bat-Ami had wandered through the crowds of tall people in the city of bicycles and canals, and strolled through streets, squares, palaces, and museums. In the evening, exhausted and ravenous, they went to the publisher’s beautiful home on Apollo Avenue in the old southern part of Amsterdam, but had to make do with a meal of carrot and cucumber crudités: the fare on the tables was rich and varied, but here too, as at many festive events held in his honor all over the world, it was clearly evident that their hosts hadn’t imagined that in these enlightened times there were still civilized people who observed the ancient Biblical dietary laws.
Before the second part of the literary event began, the Israeli guest was asked to sit on a carved chair in the center of the Dutch living room next to the stylized Dutch cabinet on whose shelves Dutch delftware of white porcelain decorated in blue was arranged, and facing the large, wide Dutch window overlooking a canal scattered with flickering reflections. His audience sat facing him, waiting for him to answer his red-cheeked host’s question on the difference between Israeli writers categorized as writers of the generation of the establishment of the State of Israel and those known—like Mr. Blum, and I hope it’s alright if we simply call you Yoel—as writers of the new wave.
The past cannot be hidden. Yoel pronounced the reply he always provides to this question as he crosses his legs and looks pleasantly at his audience. I believe it’s impossible to write Israeli literature without referring either directly or indirectly to the archeological tell on which the State of Israel flourishes, the shores of which are lapped by its new and old waves alike.
Attentive faces nodded their understanding and perhaps even empathy.
Attentive faces always nod their understanding and perhaps even their empathy.
However, he emphasized in the dramatic crescendo to which his voice always rises at this point, contemporary Israeli writers are first and foremost contemporary Israeli writers. I myself hope that my writing does not wallow in the mire of the past, but carries my soul and the souls of my readers to what is the present and to what will be in the future.
The game went on. In the way that people ask him everywhere, the Dutch asked if the characters populating his books are typical Israelis. And he replied, the way he replies everywhere, that in his view, his characters are universal.
For a moment, he thought about deviating from his custom and telling them, this particular audience, how hard he works in his writing to refine his characters so that each of them is Everyman. In each movement to capture all the movements which have ever been and will ever be. To formulate the core of the words, their very core.
Like every writer’s characters, he said as he always does, my characters, too, live and act in a reality I am closely acquainted with. As a writer who lives in the Israeli reality, it is only natural that my characters are connected with that reality as well. But the stories I tell about these characters tell about Man wherever he breathes, about Man wherever he loves, about Man wherever he yearns.
The publisher’s red cheeks flushed even more deeply as he read to his guests from the New York Times book review: “It is hardly surprising that Yoel Blum’s books have been translated into more than twenty languages and that he has been awarded some of the most prestigious literature prizes. Yoel Blum is a magician, the wave of whose wand turns every human anecdote into the nucleus of every reader’s personal story.”
The color of the Dutch cheeks turned a deep purple as he continued reading: “You pick up a Yoel Blum novel and are assured of it revealing your deepest secret: the secret whose existence you weren’t even aware of.”
A few more familiar, unavoidable questions, and Yoel already estimated that the evening was drawing to its expected conclusion.
But then he was asked an unexpected question by a man introduced to him earlier as a local journalist by the name of Neumark, or maybe Neuberg.
If I’m not mistaken, called the questioner from his seat at the right-hand edge of the circle of chairs. If I’m not mistaken—Mr. Blum, Yoel—you were born here, in Amsterdam?
A stunned silence engulfed the room. Yoel too was shocked, since to the best of his knowledge, this fact did not appear in any printed or virtual source dealing with him and his history. He tried to recall the journalist’s name. Neustadt? Neumann? Is he Jewish?
As he did so, he heard himself calmly answering: That is correct. Technically, I was indeed born in Amsterdam. But my family immigrated to Israel when I was a baby, and so I’ve always regarded myself as a native Israeli.
Afterward he managed to divert the talk from his personal history back to the collective Israeli one and say a few more words about Hebrew literature in these changing times. But it seemed that the matter of his Dutch origins had been placed in the center of the circle and that none of those present could ignore it. Yoel presumed that they expected him to provide further biographic details, aside from the one already provided by Neuhaus, or Neufeld, according to which the famous Israeli writer is a scion of an old Jewish-Amsterdam family uprooted in the wake of the events of World War Two.
They couldn’t have imagined that the Israeli writer himself knew no further details about it either.
This reading group guide for House on Endless Waters includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Emuna Elon. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
At the behest of his agent, renowned author Yoel Blum reluctantly agrees to visit his birthplace of Amsterdam to promote his books, despite promising his late mother that he would never return to that city. While touring the Jewish Historical Museum with his wife, Yoel stumbles upon a looping reel of photos offering a glimpse of prewar Dutch Jewry, and is astonished to see the youthful face of his beloved mother staring back at him, posing with his father, his older sister . . . and an infant he doesn’t recognize.
This unsettling discovery launches him into a fervent search for the truth, shining a light on Amsterdam’s dark wartime history and the underground networks that hid Jewish children away from danger—but at a cost. The deeper into the past Yoel digs, the better he understands his mother’s silence, and the more urgent the question that has unconsciously haunted him for a lifetime—Who am I?—becomes. Evocative, insightful, and deeply resonant, House on Endless Waters is an unforgettable meditation on identity, belonging, and the inextricable nature of past and present.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Do you think Yoel is right to visit Amsterdam despite his mother telling him not to? Why or why not?
2. After Yoel and his wife, Bat-Ami, see the images in the museum of Yoel’s mother, he is plagued with questions. However, when he returns to his hotel room afterward, he doesn’t call his sister, Nettie, to tell her what he just discovered. Why is he so reluctant to tell Nettie what he learned?
3. We learn that Yoel was the only one who didn’t know about the other sibling. Why do you think his mother and sister kept this from him? Do you agree with their decision? Why or why not?
4. Yoel begins to contemplate all the relationships around him, including the one with his wife, daughters, and grandchildren. Why does the revelation about his mother instigate this? What does it say about the relationship we maintain with our mothers?
5. Why would Yoel’s mother always remind him that “You’ve got a mother and you’ve got a sister and you’ve got yourself. That’s all; nothing else matters”?
6. Do you agree with Yoel’s mother’s decision to isolate them from making friends and partaking in “the great human celebration”? Why or why not?
7. On page 60, it reads: “And he’s sure that great danger is hovering over him: that they, all the people passing by in the street right now, can see he’s a Jew and they’re determined to murder him.” Why does Yoel suddenly become paranoid about being Jewish in Amsterdam?
8. Yoel picks the smallest room in his hotel with a balcony. What purpose does this serve in his writing process?
9. When Sonia is first introduced, who do you think she is? How does your perspective change as you keep reading?
10. Does it make Sonia selfish when she says that “their life is complicated enough without being overburdened with what is going on in other places”? Why or why not?
11. As a child, Yoel didn’t eat unless spoonfed by his mother. What did you think about his character after learning this? What did you think about his mother’s personality?
12. Do you think Raphaels’s anger at his parents, biological and nonbiological alike, is justified or should he understand he was given away for his own safety? Why or why not?
13. What does the oak tree that Sonia notices growing horizontally in the park symbolize?
14. Sonia’s nursing friend Bett tells her about how she and her husband gave their child away but changed their mind. But by this time, the child could not be found. If you were in their shoes, would you give your child away, too?
15. Sonia expresses resentment toward Sebastian, a toddler, one day when she encounters Anouk with him on the stars at their house. What does it say about Sonia’s character to feel such animosity toward an innocent child? How does this make you feel?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Spend some time with Emuna Elon’s 2007 novel, If You Awaken Love, and see if you can discover any similar themes between the two books.
2. House on Endless Waters takes place in Amsterdam and has many scenes in the Jewish Historical Museum. Take a moment to do some research on the history of Jewish heritage in Amsterdam. You can start here: https://www.amsterdam.info/jewish/.
3. The relationship between mother and child can sometimes be very complex. Explore this with your book club: What was your relationship like with your own mother? Did you learn anything about your mother that surprised you? If your mother has passed, were you left with any unanswered questions? How has your relationship with your mother affected you as an adult?
A Conversation with Emuna Elon
Why did you decide to write House on Endless Waters?
Actually, it’s not me who decides which story I am going to write. A new novel occurs to me when a specific character begins to gain control over my thoughts, followed by glimpses of images, phrases, and visions. Then I feel a powerful urge to start writing in order to find out what’s going on.
House on Endless Waters began with two characters: lonely, caged-within-himself Yoel on one side, and young vivacious Sonia on the other. At first I didn’t know if there was any connection between the two of them, but I sensed that there was a personal secret that Yoel needed to reveal. When I spent a few days in Amsterdam, which was initially just another beautiful city I enjoyed visiting, I was stunned to see the past—Yoel and Sonia’s past—come to life right before my eyes.
What sort of historical research informed the book?
My extensive research included reading books, articles, and other archival materials and watching filmed testimonies concerning Dutch history, Dutch Jewry, and Holland during World War Two. I also interviewed Dutch Holocaust survivors and children of survivors, trying to understand not only the historical facts but also their long-term implications. And I spent long periods of time in Amsterdam, taking in the sites and absorbing the atmosphere in which the story takes place.
As I worked on the story of Yoel’s stay in Amsterdam, alone in a shabby hotel overlooking the neighborhood, I too stayed alone in the exact same setting, and many of his daily experiences were derived from my own.
Did any of the research surprise you?
Many of my findings surprised me, especially since beforehand I was under the (mythical) impression that Jews in Holland met a comparatively “good fate” during the Holocaust.
I was especially astonished to learn about Holland’s hidden Jewish children, and to realize that many of their stories have remained murky and untold to this very day.
What inspired you to explore the mother-son relationship at the center of House on Endless Waters?
I think family ties are always fascinating, and mother-child relationships are one of the world’s greatest mysteries. I find myself drawn to this mystery in every story I read or write, and can’t say I have figured it out even now, when my own mother is no longer alive and I myself am the mother of six wonderful children who have already become six wonderful adults.
What motivated you to structure the novel as a story within a story?
Amsterdam has not changed for many years, so when I was there it was really natural for me to see the story of the city’s past come to life within the story of the present.
Another reason for this structure was that Yoel Blum had to use his imagination in order to fill in the gaps of the story his sister told him. I knew that he had to be a storyteller, a writer, and that my novel would describe the writing process of his novel.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?
I doubted my ability to tell a story from the perspective of a male protagonist, and I tried to switch to a female one but couldn’t bring myself to reject Yoel Blum’s plea that I write him. I felt a little more confident when my [Israeli] publisher promised me that the book would have a male editor, and I was more than relieved when that editor, professor of Hebrew literature Yigal Schwartz, gave Yoel’s thoughts and motions his unreserved approval.
Have you ever discovered anything shocking about your own family history?
When House on Endless Waters was published in Dutch (under the title Sonia’s Son), I met with an audience in Amsterdam and someone asked me: “If Yoel Blum is a writer, why did he ask you to write his story rather than do it himself?”
That was when I decided it was time for me to write my own family history, which is what I am working on right now. I don’t know if I will discover anything shocking, though I am already shocked by the mere realization of how little I know about the lives that yielded mine.
What are you hoping to leave your readers with?
I think my hopes are fulfilled when readers tell me that they feel as if this story is about them. We haven’t all been through the exact same experiences that Yoel or Sonia have, but just like them, each and every one of us walks alone in this world. Each one of us reaches out to be loved and understood. Each one of us craves belonging and searches for meaning.
I felt rewarded when a woman told me that reading this book helped her comprehend her mother’s behavior throughout the years; when a man said it gave him a new, more forgiving perspective of himself; and when a young mother confided that after she finished reading the book, with tears running down her cheeks, she went over to her child and gave him a big hug.
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.
“House on Endless Waters is extraordinary—a vibrant, page-turning family mystery that not only carries us deep into Amsterdam’s little-explored wartime history, but into the fascinating, complex and often painful process by which history is crafted into story.” —Jennifer Cody Epstein, internationally bestselling author of Wunderland and The Painter of Shanghai
“Intricately woven and lushly layered…With achingly exquisite, delicate prose, Elon explores the creative mind’s power to reimagine a life and memory’s power to recognize truth. An unforgettable read.” —Lynda Cohen Loigman, author of The Two-Family House and The Wartime Sisters
“House on Endless Waters is a haunting and lyrical meditation on who we are and where we come from, on how our past shapes our present and our art. Emuna Elon’s gorgeously intricate novel is beautifully written and moving.” —Jillian Cantor, bestselling author of The Lost Letter and In Another Time
"An elegant, eloquent novel—a story in which time and language melt to reveal truths that could be told in no other way."—Rachel Kadish, bestselling author of The Weight of Ink
"I read this book in excitement and wonder. It's not only a touching and fascinating book, but a sophisticated one as well." —Amos Oz
“A story of love, loss, and yearning. Lyrically phrased and often powerfully visual…this deeply felt tale offers a rewarding meditation on survival.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“Readers will find Elon's lyrical prose haunting as she moves between past and present, constructing a heartbreaking, moving tale that brings understanding and acceptance.” —Booklist
“Emuna Elon’s powerful House on Endless Waters is essential Jewish fiction . . . a deeply immersive achievement that brings to life stories that must never be forgotten.” —USA Today