Finding my fiction’s real-world Jewish inspiration

Katherine Ashenburg (Joy von Tiedemann photo)

When I set out to write Sofie & Cecilia, a novel inspired by two Swedish painters and their wives, I knew I had a lot to learn about Sweden. When I discovered that one of the wives, Emma Lamm (1860-1942), came from Stockholm’s small but significant Jewish community, I realized I had even more to learn about Sweden’s Jews.

Emma Lamm became Cecilia Isaksson in my novel, and the creation of her character plunged me into the rich, absorbing history of Jewish Sweden.

First, I read everything on the subject I could find in English. Then I walked – several times, slowly – through Stockholm’s excellent Jewish Museum; around the Jews’ burial place, the Kronoberg cemetery; and through the Drottninggatan neighbourhood where the Lamms and their circle lived, which is now a commercial stretch near the Royal Palace.


Finally, I worshipped at the Great Synagogue, a beautiful white and gold  square building where the Lamms attended services. Originally Reform and now Conservative, the synagogue opened in 1870, when Emma Lamm was 10. It was there, during a Shabbat service, that I felt her spirit most. In Sofie & Cecilia, Cecilia describes the synagogue’s soft brown and gold interior as “rich but homey – as if God had the taste of an indulgent grandmother whose candy dish was always full.”

The Lamms’ enlightened, liberal community began with a group of German Jews who settled in Sweden in the 18th century. In many ways, their story was a familiar one of gradual prosperity and acceptance, marked by the usual milestones. In 1859, Jews were allowed to attend the public schools. Beginning in 1863, they could marry gentiles. In 1870, they could become full Swedish citizens.

But for me it was the details that were most memorable, and connected this community firmly to Sweden. Wanting to be as Swedish as possible while remaining Jewish, the Lamms and their friends took to reserving their Jewish names for their middle names. Thus, Cecilia and her siblings are named Cecilia Rebecka, Natalie Leah and Fredrik Nathan.

Many of the details that found their way into Sofie & Cecilia came from a delightful essay by Per Wästberg, “The Hirsch Family in Stockholm.” In it, he traces three generations of Hirsches through the minutiae in their wills – it’s always intriguing seeing what people value, whether it’s the 60 pounds of coffee beans left by David Hirsch in 1811 or the two cummerbunds in his son’s will that were worth more than all the rest of his wardrobe.

I enjoyed sprinkling specifics like that throughout the novel, including the eminent restaurant Hasselbacken, founded by Wilhelm Davidson, which has been the site of many Jewish celebrations. Several people in the Lamms’ set appear in Sofie & Cecilia with their real names – the painters Eva Bonnier and Hanna Hirsch, for example.

The Stockholm Jews included more than their fair share of artists and cultural figures, and the Lamms’ cousins, the Bonniers, founded what has become a large media company. In the 19th century, they ran a private lending library that I used as the source of Cecilia’s beloved English novels and the setting for a scene.

Many novelists reach a point when they have their plot and their characters, or so they think, and they don’t want any new information to muddy the waters. By the end of my third research trip to Sweden, I thought I knew Emma Lamm and, through Emma, her fictional counterpart Cecilia. Born in a family of prosperous textile manufacturers, Emma had remained close to her Stockholm family and never severed her ties with Judaism, but lived with her gentile husband, the painter Anders Zorn, in a village in central Sweden. Together they were part of a movement to revive peasant handcrafts, amassing a large collection of traditional buildings and folk crafts.

Katherine Ashenburg’s new novel Sofie and Cecilia

She was busy acting as her husband’s dealer and making her peace with his constant infidelities, and I considered that a full picture. But a friend insisted I meet one of the world’s experts on Zorn’s paintings, Hans Henrik Brummer.

Over coffee in Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel, Brummer told me that in the 1930s Emma had grown increasingly agitated about the possibility of war with Germany and the fate of her family. This made sense, because there were significant pockets of Nazi sympathy in prewar Sweden that continued during the war, in spite of Sweden’s official neutrality.

At first I resisted incorporating that into Cecilia’s character, but it quickly became inevitable. How could she not be aware of these ominous rumblings?

Writing Emma’s worries into Cecilia made her more real – it darkened and deepened her. The advantage of the novelist is that she can take a fact and embroider it into a fictional scene. In this case, it is a fact that the innocent folk dress Emma tried to revive had come to the attention of some of the nationalistic, pro-Nazi elements. They felt that only people born in a particular village – that is, no Jews or foreigners – should wear that village’s local folk dress.

That led to a scene in the novel in which Cecilia, ironically the champion of the local dress, is pressured to not wear it at a traditional fiddling competition she and her husband had founded.

“We worked for decades fanning those small, weak flames back into life,” she thinks about the folk arts she had fostered. “And now I watch as they are added to a bonfire that threatens to consume us.”

When Cecilia dies, full of years, her brother arrives to announce that he is taking her body to Stockholm for a Jewish funeral. After that, she would be returned to the village for burial. Although nothing like that happened to Emma, I wanted to underline Cecilia’s growing connection to her roots in the last decade of her life. Her Jewish funeral, followed by burial in the village churchyard, symbolized in some ways a double life, but it was fitting that she returned at the end to the Great  Synagogue. I like to think that Emma Lamm would have approved.

Katherine Ashenburg is the author of three books. Sofie & Cecilia (Knopf Canada) is out now.