In our family, not surprisingly given my interest in book reviewing, books are always exchanged at Christmas. My daughter happened to give me The Cut Out Girl by Bart Van Es (Fig Tree. £16.99) which was chosen as Radio 4’s Book of the Week last August. An interview/memoir dealing with the Holocaust from the perspective of a Dutch Jewish woman, hidden as a child during the occupation of Holland, it also raises questions acutely pertinent today: the new undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Europe which is linked to Muslim immigration (briefly alluded to be the author); the nature of child sexual abuse; and what is now recognised as PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Lien de Jong was not yet nine, when in August 1942, with the increasing persecution of Dutch Jews, she said goodbye to her parents in The Hague to be cared for elsewhere in Holland by a Dutch family, the Van Esses. Her parents were to die soon after in Auschwitz, although she only came to know this gradually, years later. Forced to keep her Jewish identity secret, living with the ever-present danger of discovery by the Dutch police, having to be moved to another family, the Van Laars, when the Van Esses came under suspicion, enduring appalling but unspoken sexual assault and rape from a Van Laar male relation, separation from all her relations and often having to miss school – these were the features of Lien’s life before she entered her teens.
Her story is told in a series of interviews by Bart Van Es, a professor of English Literature at Oxford and a grandson of the couple Lien called “Ma” and “Pa”, who welcomed her into their family. Although he begins by stating that recording Lien’s story “is important, especially now, given the state of the world, with extremism again on the rise”, his account suggests that Van Es mainly wanted to find answers to personal questions relating to his grandparents before it was too late; in particular, why an uneasy relationship between Lien and her foster parents after the war finally led to a total breakdown in contact sometime after “Pa” died in 1979, when the author was seven.
Exorcising the ghosts of the past was painful both for interviewer and interviewee. Van Es writes with honesty and sensitivity about his grandparents, describing their generosity and courage in helping Lien and others, but also noting their ambivalence towards their foster-daughter after the war and their human flaws of character. He also discovers some humbling parallels between Lien’s emotional difficulties as a young woman and his own step-daughter’s. As someone born in Holland but growing up largely in the UK, Van Es also has to confront some painful truths about the Nazi occupation of Holland.
Noting that the Jewish wartime death rate in the Netherlands was 80%, more than double that of other European countries, he comments, “For me, vaguely brought up on a myth of Dutch resistance, this comes as a shock.” The Dutch, obedient, organised and bribed by financial gain to hand over Jews, proved an efficient tool of the Nazis. The Protestant Reformed Church also emerges badly for their lack of moral leadership during the war: Van Es remarks, “Law and order are the mainstays of their civic values and that belief sits uneasily with any resistance to Nazi plans.”
The Dutch Catholic bishops’ protest in July 1942 against the Nazi persecution of Jews and their insistence that Sunday collection money be given to the Resistance, was commendable, but as Van Es also records, it led to a new wave of arrests and transportation, including that of the Jewish convert, Edith Stein, then a Carmelite nun in supposed sanctuary in a Dutch convent.
By the end of the book, family rifts and painful misunderstandings are (largely) healed: Van Es welcomes Lien as his new-found “aunt” and she, now in her mid-eighties, greets him as her “nephew”. All this makes for absorbing reading. However, for me as a mother one of the most haunting chapters in the book occurs when Lien’s mother, aged 29 and soon to die in a gas chamber, tells her young daughter she is going away to stay somewhere else “for a while”, then writes to Lien’s foster parents (whom she does not know) “Imagine for yourself the parting between us…I want to say to you that it is my wish that she will think only of you as her mother and father and that, in the moments of sadness that will come to her, you will comfort her as such.”
The love, self-sacrifice and self-restraint of this letter remain with the reader of this meticulously researched and affecting family history.