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The Cut Out Girl by Oxford English professor Bart van Es has been named Costa Book of the Year, after previously winning the biography category of the awards. Professor van Es triumphed ahead of literary figures including novelist Sally Rooney. Read our Q&A below with Professor van Es, whose book tells the story of Lien de Jong, a young Dutch girl hidden from the Nazis during World War II.
The last time Lien de Jong saw her parents was in the Hague, where she was collected at the door by a stranger and taken away to be hidden from the Nazis. She was raised by her foster family as one of their own, but a falling out after the war put an end to their relationship. What was her side of the story, wondered Oxford University's Professor Bart van Es, a grandson of the couple who looked after Lien.
Professor van Es, of St Catherine's College and Oxford's English Faculty, talks to Arts Blog about the journey that led to the publication of his new book, The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found.
How did you discover the story of Lien de Jong?
I had always known that my grandparents had been part of the Dutch wartime resistance and had sheltered Jewish children, but I had never looked into what actually happened. Then in November 2014 my eldest uncle died and I knew that if I did not pursue the matter now this history would be lost forever. Thanks to my mother’s maintaining of an old connection, I got to meet Lien, who was by that time over 80 and living in Amsterdam. As a young Jewish girl Lien had lived in hiding with my grandparents and after the war she had continued to live with them. However, a row in the 1980s had cut her off from the family, which meant that she and I had never met. Lien was cautious when we met in late December 2014, but, once trust was established, we struck up a powerful partnership. Lien agreed to work with me and shared a wealth of materials: letters, photographs, official documents, and also a poetry book that she kept up throughout the war. Through many tens of hours of recorded interviews, Lien shared a story that was immensely moving and far more complex than I could have imagined.
Can you describe the process of researching and writing the book?
Starting out from those interviews with Lien, this became an archival research project as well as a literary journey. In January 2015 I decided to visit the places of Lien’s childhood: her parents’ home in The Hague (now a physiotherapy gym), my grandparents' old address in Dordrecht (now in a deprived area inhabited mainly by recent immigrants), and a series of other hiding addresses across the Netherlands, including my mother’s home village, where Lien spent time. These places brought their own stories, which I then began to investigate. Among other things I spent a lot of time at the Dutch National Archives looking at the prosecution material on 230 Dutch police officers who were investigated after the war for their role in the Holocaust. What I ended up with was a huge amount of material: the intimate narrative of Lien’s life from childhood to old age combined with archival evidence on resistance networks, police collaboration, and the wider history of Jews in the Netherlands. The challenge was to put this into a single book.
How easy was it to combine academic research with such a personal story?
It was challenging to combine the two kinds of material I had to hand, and I had some sleepless nights over what I was doing. After various experiments I opted for a double narrative with one strand in the first person (describing my travels and the documentary evidence I encountered) and a second strand that was much more novelistic (written in the third person, voicing the childhood experiences of Lien). I’d never written in such an emotionally intense way before. It was exciting and all-consuming. At the same time it was important to remain academically objective: there could be no factual errors about what happened in the war and afterwards, both because of its historical importance and because there were real, still-living people involved.
Are there any moments from your conversations with Lien that particularly stand out?
The things that stand out for me are the documents that Lien has kept with her. For example, there is the letter that Lien’s mother wrote to my grandparents in August 1942, in which she gave up her child in the hope that Lien would survive the war even if the rest of the family could not. There is also the last letter that Lien ever wrote to her mother, which was not delivered because her parents were already in Auschwitz by the time it would have been sent via the secret post. Also very powerful are the wider stories of resistance activity that came to me in the course of my research. In one case a group of young Dutch women decided that the only way in which they could save Jewish babies would be to claim them as their own illegitimate children, fathered by German soldiers. This brought absolute safety to the babies, but also, of course, terrible shame to the women themselves.
In the book I try to answer some big questions, including:
- Why was the Netherlands so compliant with the Nazis, so that 80% of the country’s Jews were killed, a far higher percentage than elsewhere in the West?
- What was it that made some brave people (such as my grandparents) resist the Nazis?
- What were the psychological consequences for survivors and rescuers?
- And, most pressingly as far as The Cut Out Girl story is concerned, how could my grandmother (who rescued Lien and brought her up as her own daughter after the war) have ended up quarrelling with the person she saved from the Holocaust? How could she have sent her a letter, in July 1988, that cut Lien out of her life?
Answering those questions will, I hope, give a new perspective on what happened in World War II.
The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es is published by Fig Tree, 2 August, priced £16.99.