• Mary Dingee Fillmore
  • [SWP: Behind the Book] My Journey to Publishing An Address in Amsterdam: How the story of...
[SWP: Behind the Book] My Journey to Publishing An Address in Amsterdam: How the story of Amsterdam’s Jews became mine

Debut novelists are warned not to treat our books as if they were prized, long-awaited babies.  I’m guilty as charged – but, after all, I spent 13 years researching and writing and rewriting An Address in Amsterdam.  It’s the story of a young Jewish woman who joins the underground against the Nazis.  The book is partly an expression of my love for the city – its ravishing canals, the endless subtleties of centuries-old houses reflected in the water, the half moon shape of the city center, and so much more.  But, as any lover learns, beauties also hold other truths.  Every person has a shadow side; why wouldn’t the city? As I wandered the canals and did research over five winters and springs, Amsterdam revealed the dilemmas and calamities and courage of the Holocaust period.  As a Gentile, I had mostly avoided the subject, but it surfaced undeniably a few weeks after I arrived for my first long Amsterdam stay in 2001.

If I hadn’t already fallen in love with the city, I might have left when I learned that 80% of its Jewish population was deported and murdered.  Rather than try to go deeper than those bare facts, I might have gone to a different city and tried to put the Holocaust out of my mind.  But I couldn’t; I lived in Amsterdam, if only for six months.  The photos of the Nazi-defined Jewish Quarter showed streets and canals I’d walked along, and they looked almost the same:  narrow, with high tilting houses on either side.  It was easy to imagine “then” as now, to project myself into the grainy grey photographs.  When I learned that our beloved apartment was inside the barbed wire marking the Jewish Quarter, my heart lurched. 

What about the people like me, who watched as their neighbors were rounded up?  Before, it would have been easy for me to judge and dismiss the colluders and collaborators, but now I’d bought potatoes and tulips from their children and grandchildren.  What pressures might have caused their forebears to work with the Nazis, collude by minding their own business – or join the underground?  The more I learned about Nazi threats and punishments, the more amazed I was that anyone had resisted at all.

An Address in Amsterdam was born in 2002 in our second apartment, when our landlord revealed that Jewish people had been hidden in an attic just above us.  They were last seen trying to escape over the rooftops as the police shot at them.  I felt their presence, and imagined who they might have been and what had brought them there.  My heroine, Rachel Klein, and her parents began to come to life, first in faint pencil sketch lines and slowly filling in.  I hungered to learn more about their world.  Somehow, I had been placed in the midst of it, and it was my obsession and duty to find out what their lives had been like, and what had configured their choices. 

No matter where I was, I read and read about this period, including studying photographs, legal and (mostly) illegal. Whenever I was in Amsterdam, I searched out addresses all over the city, just as Rachel does in her work as a messenger.  She was like many brave women in real life who were responsible for communications, the lifeblood of the underground.  They did the right thing again and again, in peril of their lives.

By my third long stay in the city in 2005, Amsterdam looked different to me. As I walked past familiar landmarks or obscure but significant corners, I lingered in the past as well as the present.  The city’s history in 1940-45 had somehow sunk into me, to the point that the images of that time felt like personal memories rather than collective ones.  Meanwhile, Rachel and her parents and friends were living more and more independent lives in my imagination.  When I sat down to write about them, they told me more.

I returned in 2009 with a very scattered draft that needed a lot of historical verification and sequencing.  Six years later, after more research, I arrived in Amsterdam with a 330-page manuscript annotated by an independent editor, and reworked it according to her suggestions, losing 16,000 precious words (ouch!!).  At that point, I’d shopped the book around and had found the best possible place for me:  a community of women writers with high standards who support each other.  Thank you, She Writes Press!

Why was I haunted by the Jewish people of Amsterdam, and led ever more deeply into their world?  Their missing descendants might have been a cellist I’d go to hear at the Concertgebouw, the doctor who would have bandaged me up, or the grocer who would have saved my favorite apple for me.  Somehow, the story of the murdered people spoke to me, and then the stories of those around them – who chose how to respond, just as we all do today. 

Even though I’m a Gentile born after the war, this story somehow became mine and is mine.  Partly because of my love for the city and the way it fascinated and embraced me.  Partly because I could well have been a colluder or collaborator, watching my neighbors being rounded up – or a resister.  But it’s also my story because it’s that of everybody who has ever been hated.  Each of us has hated, and been hated.  The book is about where that hatred can lead, and how one young Jewish woman found the courage to resist.  So can we.



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  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

    Love this post and loved An Address in Amsterdam! I'm so looking forward to what I know will be its wonderful journey! So much of what you've written mirrors my research experience with Even in Darkness and I'm very excited for you, Mary!

  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

    Love this post and loved An Address in Amsterdam! I'm so looking forward to what I know will be its wonderful journey! So much of what you've written mirrors my research experience with Even in Darkness and I'm very excited for you, Mary!

  • Joanne C. Hillhouse

    Two periods in history that fascinate me perhaps above all others are the period of African enslavement in the Americas (counting the Caribbean where I'm from here) and the period of the second World War and the accompanying Holocaust. I'm pained and fascinated by both, and eternally trying to understand I think not just the people actively engaged but the people actively unengaged while something so unimaginable became normalized. I'm fascinated in part because I know the past is not past, and the question is always there what would we do if we lived in such times...we like to think that we would do better but they were human just like us...is it possible we are, have lived in such times and are doing not nearly enough.  I like the insights your post suggest and will be adding this book to my to-read list.

  • Patricia Reis

    Mary, this is a beautiful "behind the book!" You write so well about what it means to be nspired - or called - to move outside of our lived experience. I, too, am eager to read your book and have recommended it to a friend who lived in Amsterdam during those years.

  • Michelle Cox

    I traveled around Europe for a college semester with a friend and spent 2 days, one night in Amsterdam.  It was incredibly beautiful, and I felt a strong pull to stay.  But we hadn't scheduled our travels that way, so we left.  It is one of my biggest regrets of the whole semester.  I would love to go back.  So I can understand your love of the city, Mary, and its history.  Can't wait to read your book!

  • Jude Anne Crump

    The topic is fascinating and anchoring it in a city you love makes it doubly so. You have served history well by writing this story. I look forward to reading it.

  • Suzanne Linn Kamata

    The book sounds wonderful!

  • Patricia Robertson

    What a wonderful journey! Thank you for sharing.

  • Joan Z. Rough

    I can't wait to read you book, Mary. As a 4 year old I lived n post-war Germany while my father did work for the army.  Because of that exposure I have always been interested in the plight of the Jews during the war as I played among the ruins with German girls who were my age.  I spent time in their homes and at their dinner tables and to this day I can not forget the influences they have brought to my life-long thinking.  Congratulations on your hard work and birthing this baby so rest of us can know another story of the horrors of those times.

  • Iris Waichler

    Thank you for telling this story Mary. Hopefully others will learn from it. I admire you for the time, initiative, and reasons you wrote this book. Wishing you the best of luck with this amazing project.

  • Chantal Walvoord

    Thank you for sharing your journey.