The story of loss and hope that won the Costa Book Prize

Bart van Es's memoir traces the story of the Jewish girl sheltered by his grandparents during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Last week it won one of the UK's most prestigious book awards. Keren David met him.


The picture on the front page of last week’s JC was particularly heart-warming, an aunt hugging her nephew with evident love and pride as he was awarded one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes for a book he’d written about her life.

The story behind the picture — the one told in Bart van Es’s winning book The Cut Out Girl — makes it even more touching. The book healed a long and sad rift between the elderly woman, Lien de Jong and the family who saved her from being killed by the Nazis when they took her in as a terrified eight-year-old Jewish girl during World War Two. Bart van Es is the grandson of the couple who first sheltered Lien, and his book traces his quest to find out her story and discover why she became estranged from his father’s family.

When we meet, the day after the Costa Book Awards ceremony, Lien de Jong is on a plane back home to Amsterdam and van Es still wears the air of a man who can’t quite believe what has happened. The Costa is a notoriously difficult prize to call, as it pits novels against biography, children’s books and poetry. This year Sally Rooney, the Irish author, was widely tipped to win with her second book Normal People, and just before the announcement was made, de Jong whispered to van Es that she thought Rooney was the winner. “I just went very quiet,” he says, of the moment he heard he had won. “I felt really emotional. This was more than my own. Lien and I had won this together.”

He’d always known that his grandparents had sheltered Jewish children, but none of the details, nor the reasons for the estrangement. As an academic — he is Professor of English Literature at Oxford University — he thought it was down to him to pursue this bit of family history. His mother had kept in touch with de Jong (against her mother-in-law’s wishes) and so he was able to email her. “I write academic books,” he wrote, “and I would like to write something about your story.” When they met in Amsterdam, de Jong quizzed him about politics in Britain, Israel and the Netherlands. He passed her test.

“It is really Hitler who makes Lien Jewish,” writes van Es in the book, describing her early years as an only child of parents whose Judaism was limited to belonging to a Jewish sports club and eating matzah for Pesach. Van Es describes the incremental way that Jewish lives were restricted in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation — registration, banned from certain jobs, forbidden to go to the cinema or cafes. From 1941 Lien had to go to a Jewish school, and life was restricted even further — no visits to libraries, markets, parks, museums and swimming pools. were allowed. “Slowly moving from tepid to hot water,” van Es calls the process.

He was born in the Netherlands, but grew up as an expat and since he was a teenager has lived in the UK. He’s now 46. So his view of his birthplace is an insider/outsider one. He’s suspicious of Dutch “politeness that can be chilling”, the way that conformity and consensus is valued, the good opinion Dutch people have of their society and their society. In Holland, he points out, there’s a saying that “being normal is mad enough, ” pointing to a mindset in which liberal tolerance can become oppressive. He admits to preferring British “messiness,” our complex class system, and unwillingness to be orderly —or to kowtow to EU rules.

His book dissects the way the Dutch often colluded with Nazi rules and regulations, making them bystanders to genocide. Against this background, the heroism of those who hid adults and children is even more striking — from the students who took Jewish babies and pretended that they were their own, fathered by Nazi soldiers; to the ordinary families who created hiding places in their homes, or passed off children as their own.

In the late summer of 1942, Lien was told by her mother: “You are going to stay somewhere else for a while”, and the next morning, after “a kiss, with a hug that hurts a little” her mother hands her over to a brisk lady who tells her about funny place names, as she takes her from The Hague to Dordrecht. There she is handed over to the van Es family, with, unknown to her, a letter from her parents which reads: “It is my wish that she will think only of you as her mother and father.”

Lien never saw her parents again.

van Es is “intensely proud” of his grandparents. Hiding a child took “a much deeper courage than being a soldier — everybody knows a soldier needs to be brave, but this was all hidden.” At the time, the occupation was “the new reality”, there was no reason to think that it would end. “To risk your lives and your own children took incredible courage.”

At the van Es home, with their children, Lien found comfort and a family life. It only lasted half a year though. Then the police came and nine-year-old Lien had to run to a neighbour. From there the resistance took her, and moved her. Her memory of this is fragmented, but van Es pieces together her story, talking to family members, searching archives, and following Lien’s story to the village of Bennekom, which, by an extraordinary coincidence is where his mother comes from. There, she was sheltered but treated as a servant, and raped by her new ‘uncle’.

After the war Lien was in limbo. Only two adults had survived from her extended family; another cousin who survived later committed suicide. Her wish was to go back to the van Es family, and — after a first refusal, which hurt her terribly — they agreed. “That was the only place where I felt safe and could be a child and play with the other children,” she recalled this week.

What happened to Jewish children who were in hiding after the war? Many lost all traces of their Jewishness along with their murdered families. But Lien, as a young adult, came to Amsterdam to train as a social worker and joined a Jewish students’ society. There she met a young man, Albert, who had also survived the war in hiding with his parents. An Orthodox family, they had been sustained throughout the years of hiding by their religion. Lien married Albert in 1959, in the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, built in 1675 and in continuous use ever since, apart from its closure in the 1940s. Lien’s married life as part of the Orthodox Jewish community, bringing up her children as Jewish in a kosher home, almost seems like a miracle.

But it was not. Albert found comfort and strength in ritual, Lien found herself increasingly alienated, haunted with questions about her identity. He could not comprehend what she was going through. Eventually she suffered a breakdown and attempted suicide. This sowed the seeds of her estrangement from her adoptive parents.

“The suicide attempt was outrageous for my grandmother,” says van Es. “She felt it was selfish to sacrifice a life when so many others had made sacrifices to save her.” Later on, when his grandfather died, Lien was not included as part of the family on the funeral card. The omission cut Lien to the heart. And — as Albert could not understand her grief — it led to the end of their marriage.

As a divorced woman of 47, Lien finally began to make her own choices. She was no longer a “cut out girl” pasted into other people’s lives.

Now, van Es tells me, Lien is part of a Buddhist group and finds meditation very useful but she is not a Buddhist. With that group she visited Auschwitz and read to them a list of the family members who perished there and in other camps. She is still part of the Jewish community, going on trips with the Jewish social services in Amsterdam. One son lives in a West Bank settlement, her daughter is an academic in Belgium.

“Lien has become an incredibly decisive person,” says van Es. “She won’t take any nonsense. For a time she suffered from moral paralysis. She went along with things, but at the end of that she has rediscovered herself.” Deciding to trust him to tell her story was one such decision.

When the book was published last year, it received little attention. It only got one review, in The Oldie. “I was worried,” says van Es. “There were so many family memoirs out there”. It was Radio Four’s book of the week but once that was over, nothing much changed.

Then came the Costa— first the shortlist, then winning the biography category, and then the ultimate prize. The chair of judges, the BBC’s Sophie Raworth said: “It has resonance, both for the displaced people of today, and for those stories that could go untold. It’s beautifully written, understated. We felt like it was a hidden gem we wanted to put a spotlight on.”

The book has healed family rifts and brought Lien’s children closer to her, as well as restoringthe link with the van Es family. “The great thing is that everyone has found it an enrichment,” he says.

The epilogue to the book provides an ending that is so happy that if a novelist had invented it, they would have been criticised for creating something too neat, almost sentimental. In old age Lien found love again, with a man she’d been at school with, at the Jewish school in The Hague. Together they revisited their old school, and see the memorial there, designed as a climbing frame.

On the steel tubing are engraved the names of 400 murdered children. Somehow, these two had escaped their fate. 

The Cut Out Girl is published by Fig Tree

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