Review: The Cut Out Girl

The Cut Out Girl, by Bart Van Es, won the Costa Book of the Year prize in 2018 after being named biography of the year.  It is non-fiction about a Dutch girl of Jewish heritage who was placed by her parents in the care of others in 1942.  As such, it bears some resemblance to The Diary of Anne Frank, but the girl, Hesseline (Lien) de Jong is moved on multiple occasions to escape being sent to the to the death camps, where most of her family, including her parents were murdered.  The story is told by the grandson of the couple who were Lien’s principal foster parents.  Bart Van Es, who was born in the Netherlands in 1972, researched the story and is a professor of English literature at Oxford University.

Bart Van Es

Lien de Jong is now over 80, living in Amsterdam; she has children of her own.  Born into a middle-class, secular Jewish family, she was seven years old when, in 1942, her parents decided to place her into a Christian family for her safety.  At the time Jews were being deported to the death camps and had already been stigmatised.  Over 80% of the Jews living in Holland at the beginning of the war died in the Holocaust.  This is a gripping story of bravery on the part of many non-Jews in the Netherlands during the war; they risked their own lives to save thousands of children.  The story proceeds along two tracks: Lien’s story – her background, the events of the war years, and the after war years; and the author’s account of his thorough and painstaking research into the events, the people and the places that Lien experienced, as well as into the culture and circumstances as they affected Jews in Holland during the war years.  Since the author had heard that his grandparents had fostered Lien and that at one time she was considered part of the Van Es family, he wanted to understand why, after the war, Lien had fallen out with his grandparents.

The title is derived from Lien’s ‘poesy album’ in which she kept notes and little poems written by her friends, and in which there are pasted several cut outs of old fashioned girls.  But Lien, herself is a cut out girl being moved from one family to another without notice.

This story is timely, as Antisemitism is once again on the rise in Europe.  The author’s fear that this is just another Holocaust story is un-founded.  It is told with such detail of the events, the feelings and motivations of the people involved that it is difficult to put down.  One is almost literally trans-located to the cities, villages, and houses in war-time Holland.  The author’s writing is straight forward and without extra emotional embellishment.  One has to admire the meticulousness of his research into people, places and events.  He clearly established a remarkably close relationship with Lien, the central figure, nearly twice his age, who had fallen out with his family.  My only quibble about the book is that I found it difficult to keep track of the numerous families who provided shelter to Lien, and what their relationships were to one another.  Clearly, though, Lien didn’t know this either.

This is without a doubt the best biography I’ve read in a long time.  It’s one that gives you faith in human nature is spite of all the evil around us.

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