In 2014, Bart van Es, a professor of English Literature at Oxford University, visits his father’s foster sister, Lien, in Amsterdam.
Lien is one of the Holocaust’s “hideaway” children, and the Van Es family sheltered her during the war years. After the war, Lien joined the Van Es family permanently. Many decades later, there was a family feud, and the siblings lost touch. Van Es is curious about this relative he’s never met. The Cut Out Girl is Lien’s story.
Like many survivors, Lien’s survival was a combination of luck, the kindness of strangers, and the foresight and ultimate sacrifice of her parents. And the odds were not on her side. The Jewish wartime death rate in the Netherlands was 80%, more than double of any other Western country. This is due in large part to the active participation of Dutch citizens who informed on their Jewish neighbors. Their enthusiasm for this work was encouraged by an unusual financial incentive. A price of seven guilders and fifty cents was placed on the head of every Jew. Cash money.
In addition, two independent agencies were given the power of arrest.
The first organization was the regular police force, who established special units for the task. The other was a semicommercial company called Hausraterfassung. This Dutch-staffed firm was originally tasked with the seizure of Jewish property, but expanded their business to the seizure of people too. Despite a small staff of just fifty agents, they tracked down 9,000 Jews.
Lien’s parents, who later die in the camps, send her into hiding in the late summer of 1942. She is initially placed with the Van Es family, but is shuttled to several hideouts over the next few years. Her experiences range from merely uncomfortable to abusive. Lien always yearns to return to the Van Esses.
After the war, with no living relatives, Lien rejoins the Van Es family, Jans and Henk van Es, whom she calls Ma and Pa, and four children.
Lien finishes school and marries a successful chemist with whom she has three children. She remains close to the Van Es family especially Ma. But she is troubled. She attempts suicide and divorces her husband. The traumas of the war years never leave her.
The event that led to Lien’s estrangement from her family began as a small misunderstanding, and fueled by old resentments, insecurities, and betrayals blossoms into a “thing.” In 1987, when Lien is well into middle age, there is confusion over a birthday party invitation. Ma, already unhappy about Lien’s suicide attempt and divorce, tells Lien she doesn’t want to see her again. And Ma dies seven years later without having changed her mind.
A fascinating tale of the Netherlands during the war years and the experience of one of the hideaway children.
Sadly there are no footnotes in the book, which you know I love, but the brief Acknowledgments are interesting.
What Other Reviewers Say
Penelope Lively, winner of the Man Booker Prize: “Quite remarkable—the story of one traumatic childhood, deeply moving, and told with great dexterity, allowing the wisdoms of today to run parallel with the absorbing narrative of wartime events. The surviving photographs provide an intimacy—bring these families to life–as does the author’s determined concern.”
Who Wrote It?
Bart van Es is a professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and a fellow of St. Catherine’s College. He is the author of Spenser’s Forms of History, Shakespeare in Company and Shakespeare’s Comedies. He was born in the Netherlands and now lives with his family in England.