Costa prizewinner talks about Holocaust memoir The Cut Out Girl at St Jude’s Proms
PUBLISHED: 13:34 21 June 2019 | UPDATED: 13:34 21 June 2019
Bart van Es is among a line up of talks at the Hampstead Garden Suburb festival’s lit fest weekend
In May 1942, just before Anne Frank's family went into hiding in an Amsterdam attic, Lien de Jong-Spiero's mother sat her down at their house in The Hague and told her a 'secret' - that she was going away.
She was eight-years-old, and after travelling to the home of Jan and Henk van Es, she never saw her family again. Bart van Es was initially worried that his memoir of Lien's life would be lost amid a slew of survivor stories.
But The Cut Out Girl (Penguin £9.99) won the 2018 Costa Book of The Year. What marks it out is his deep personal connection to her story - Jan and Henk, who risked their lives to shelter Lien from the Nazis, were his grandparents.
But rather than following a triumph over tragedy arc, his haunting prose follows her lifelong struggle to come to terms with the wartime trauma of abuse and devastating loss.
A Renaissance literature academic, used to writing on Spenser and Shakespeare, van Es was curious about a woman who had been part of his family history when he arranged to meet Lien in December 2014.
"The first thing she said was 'I don't have a story'" he says.
"She was emphatic about that. At the end of the war there was no audience for those stories. It was 'we've all suffered, get on with your life'. She didn't think or talk about it until the 70s, and then it was still a private thing."
But van Es was to have what he calls "the most transformative event in my life."
"I was aware of the sheer number of biographies about the war and it was intimidating to wonder what I could add to that, but from the moment Lien described that family farewell that she didn't know was a final farewell, her story completely took possession of me. I wanted to find a way of telling it so it became my story as much as hers, to recreate how this has made me think and see my country."
He spent the next month interviewing Lien: "I felt I was in a book in a weird way, that total immersion into someone else's life was such a strange, powerful emotional experience."
Lien's story made the Dutch-born academic look afresh at the Netherlands and the accepted trope that "everyone resisted". Before the Nazis invaded in 1940, some 35,000 Jewish refugees fled - of the 140,000 who stayed, 80 percent perished. Lien was among 4,000 Jewish children who survived in hiding, but van Es discovered from Dutch Police archives just how much they collaborated in rounding up Jews.
"It's a country so neat and tidy and modest, there's a national myth that they were all cheering when the British came, but they hadn't been nearly as clear on where they stood back in 1940. Having grown up in the Netherlands there was nothing the Dutch were more insistent upon than that they were not like the Germans. I had no idea how far the entire police force had cooperated, that it was Dutch companies who built those barracks along the Atlantic Wall and that the people who rescued Jews weren't remembered after the war.
Van Es says Dutch tolerance and the desire to 'let everyone get on with their thing' made them vulnerable to the Nazis.
"They have a long tradition of toleration of pornography, drugs and brothels and in 1940 that meant no-one protested or said 'we as a society find that intolerable'. There weren't many shared society goals beyond keeping the streets tidy. There's a real national amnesia about a past that is much more murky and compromised, for too many people didn't do anything."
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While Lien's time with Jan and Henk was happy, danger of discovery meant frequent moves. She ended the war with strict Protestants the Van Laars, enduring domestic drudgery and sexual abuse. Van Es says it was idealists, left wingers like his grandparents or Christians who sheltered Jews.
"It was having a network or an engagement with something bigger than yourself, a political party or professional association like the GPs that made people behave nobly. My grandmother said 'we were not brave but if someone lands at our door what are you going to do?' I ended up admiring my grandparents even more - we forget how invincible the Germans looked. They weren't resisting for the length of the war, this looked like it was forever. Which is why the collaborators collaborated. It's easy to see why an individual might keep their head down and do nothing."
Partly told through the eyes of a child and partly in third person The Cut Out Girl reads like a novel, with van Es reconstructing Lien's memory gaps. In November 42, Lien wasn't able to write for her father's birthday, and let the rings her parents' gave her slip through the floorboards.
"After that she wasn't able to visualise them, her reaction to trauma was to block things out and it became more pronounced as the war goes on. You become this atomised individual being moved from one place to another, you stop seeing and remembering."
Through meticulous research of survivor testimonies, weather reports and asking questions he tried to "spark memories" and fill in these "enormous gaps".
"I wanted the reader to encounter those gaps as shocks to describe what she would have seen then say she doesn't remember them. The conventional war story presents physical survival as happiness, but the book doesn't stop with the end of the war because that repeatedly wasn't the case - not for the survivors, the rescuers or the baddies there are post war consequences."
The process of writing was "profoundly collaborative"
"In a sense it was more emotional for me than for Lien. if I had contacted her 10 years earlier she would have shut the door, but she had come to terms with the past and it was history for her. I felt I had lived her life over the course of those interviews, it changed me in profound ways to live someone else's experience like that, it has given me more empathy.
"I had been a very lucky person all my life; academically able, from a stable background, and I was relatively unempathetic for people who found life difficult and couldn't think why someone would commit suicide.
"But seeing Lien from the inside, her total lack of self worth after the war, I could totally empathise. The war had worn away her identity, her sense that her actions had consequences, and given her an emotional distance that no one really mattered to her. I wouldn't have understood that without going through her story."
The title comes from how as a mother of three living a seemingly perfect life she couldn't go on.
"She seemed a long way from the little girl who had been abused during the war but she couldn't escape the past and didn't feel part of the world, like many Holocaust survivors driven to commit suicide at that moment when you are safe and have a moment to think."
Imagine he says, going to your old school and seeing the names of all your classmates on a memorial.
"If every person died in gas chambers in organised mass murder it would make you feel you should be among the dead."
Linking her story to contemporary right wing bigotry, anti-Muslim sentiment he ultimately wanted to personalise Lien not as a victim but as someone "with a sense of humour and a love of life that came as an end point of an incredibly long pursuit of resolution with the past."
Bart van Es talks at the Proms at St Jude's Festival on June 22 at 3.30pm promsatstjudes.org.uk
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