“This Past”: Bart Van Es, The Cut Out Girl

cut out girlAs with the earlier news that Lien stayed with the neighbours, this information comes as a shock. So there were other Jews in hiding right where Lien lived on Algemeer. When she meet Maartje or Hester Rubens, as Lien must have done if she stayed here in this house, she could have had no idea of who they really were. The notion that Bennekom was a Jewish refuge comes as a total surprise to me. I have spent a lifetime visiting this village and, even now, though I have talked to my mother and her family about the work that I am doing, no one has ever mentioned this past.

Bart Van Es’s The Cut Out Girl is remarkable as much for Van Es’s thoughtful diffidence as a narrator as it is for the story he so carefully pieces together for us, a story that includes both intimate and often heartrending details about individual lives as well as broader historical explanations about the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation. On the train home after a day of research in the National Archives, Van Es begins “to question myself about the work I am doing:

Lien asked me about my motivation. There are so many stories like hers and, besides, the bare facts have already been recorded for the Shoah Foundation archive, which was set up by Steven Spielberg soon after he completed his film Schindler’s List back in 1994. Is there anything that I could add to that?

It’s a fair question–what more do we need to know?–but also, as his book goes on to show, the wrong question. There are always more stories to be told, or more ways to tell the stories; we can never work too hard to counter the dehumanizing mass persecution and murder perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators by giving the people they persecuted and murdered the kind of dedicated attention Van Es gives Lien.

van-esVan Es pursues Lien’s story initially because it is also the story of his family: his paternal grandparents sheltered Lien, absorbing her into their family in Dordrecht as the lives of Jews in the Hague, where her parents lived, became increasingly precarious. One of the most painful documents in a book full of wrenching details is the letter Lien’s mother wrote to the unknown recipients of her 9-year-old daughter in August 1942. “She has been taken from me by circumstance,” wrote 28-year-old Catherine de Jong-Spiero;

May you, with the best will and wisdom, look after her. . . . I want to say to you that it is my wish that she will think only of you as her mother and father and that, in the moments of sadness that will come to her, you will comfort her as such.

Catherine died in Auschwitz in November 1942; her husband died in Auschwitz in February 1943. Lien survives, but the story of her relationship with the Van Es family is a complicated one and full of different kinds of sadness beyond the one her mother no doubt foresaw most clearly. For one thing, she has to leave them and go into hiding elsewhere when her secret identity gets out. Then, when the war is over and it is time to reunite hidden children with their families, the Van Esses turn down Lien’s initial request to return to them. Though they change their mind and take her back, that first rejection is a significant blow to a young girl already at a loss to know where she belongs. Eventually Lien and her foster parents break ties altogether; when Bart meets Lien for their first interview, it has been thirty years since the breach.

took-heromaThe Cut Out Girl alternates chapters about Lien’s experiences during the war with chapters recounting Van Es’s research, including interviews with Lien herself, visits to archives and to places Lien lived while in hiding, and meetings with everyone he can find with something to tell him about Lien or about occupied Holland. He shows us Lien as part of the bigger picture, as one girl among many thousands, but also as profoundly individual, as a very particular young girl suddenly removed from everything familiar and having, over and over, to adapt to new people and new expectations, all under a cloud of fear and secrecy. The people who took care of her also are presented with great distinctness. Because most of what he knows about them comes from Lien, it is easy to lose track of the courage these people showed and the fear they must have felt for themselves. Though, as some of their actions show, they were far from perfect, still they rose to the moral occasion at great personal risk and they and people like them saved thousands of lives. “At least 166 Jews spent time in hiding in Bennekom,”  Van Es learns, for instance, “a village of just 5,000, and more than 80 per cent of them survived. This is the opposite of the national picture.” It is hard not to be awed at the actions of Jan and Dieuke Heroma, for example, key parts of a large network “constructed to resist the Nazis.” It was Mrs. Heroma who came to take Lien away from her parents, cheering her on the train to Dordrecht with funny place names: “Double Sausage Street,” a road called “Behind the Wild Pig.” Nothing about the kindly face shown in this photograph of her seems extraordinary, but that’s one of the points a story like Lien’s makes for us: ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things.

lienThe Heromas’ antagonists are those like Harry Evers, one of many Dutch police officers who eagerly enforced Nazi policies, tracking down Jews to meet “the targets set by their German masters.” Evers too is otherwise ordinary, “unremarkable, modestly educated, fond of a drink …. not especially political.” He turns in the opposite direction to Mrs. Heroma, though, joining the Fascist Union and then flourishing in the Political Police, tracking and capturing the same people the Heromas and their allies are working so hard to protect. Van Es goes through boxes of files about Evers, including hundreds of witness statements about his appalling actions. “As I read these things,” Van Es comments quietly, “I think of Lien in hiding.” He tells us about one particular case very close to hers but with a different ending. Miepe Viskooper, age 7, was also sent by her parents into hiding with sympathetic people, in the hope that she would be safe. Discovered, Miepe is caught by Evers and his colleagues as she tries to run from them: “Evers came in right behind her, pointing his revolver, shouting ‘It’s the choke hole for you’ at the little girl.” She was brought to join her parents, who had also been arrested, at Westerbork. “As I read this,” says Van Es,

I think of my own wife and children and imagine that unwanted reunion. I can see the smile of recognition on the face of the child.

Miepe’s father survives, “but he returned to Holland alone.”

As a story of loss and survival during the Holocaust, The Cut Out Girl is engrossing, moving, and sometimes surprising and infuriating. Lien’s particular hardships, it sadly turns out, go beyond the loss of her parents and her constant danger and displacement: there are other villains in her world besides the Nazis and their agents. All the traumas of her childhood play a part in the complications that develop in  later years between her and the Van Esses, and Lien also implicates Henk Van Es, the man she calls “Pa,” Bart Van Es’s grandfather, in a further offense, recalling a terrible day when “before she knows what is happening, he is kissing her and stroking her hair.” It is another later incident, though, a seemingly innocuous miscommunication, that leads Lien to write what her foster mother Jans Van Es calls “the terrible letter,” which in turn prompts Jans to sever ties with her. Lien spent years after that, Bart learns, trying to come to terms with her own history and her relationship with the earlier generations of his family.

Bart-Van-EsThe Cut Out Girl is not a triumphant story: one thing it drives home is that survival by itself is only part of the battle. On a personal level, though, it does end on a hopeful note: Lien has found happiness in a new phase of her life, and gradually new bonds are being formed between her and the family she was first pasted into then cut out from. There is something lovely about the book’s cautious movement towards this happy ending and the self-effacing way Bart reveals that, in ways he could never have anticipated, his work finding out Lien’s story has done more than fill in a gap. The process has led him to think hard about history but also about his own immediate family, especially his relationship with his stepdaughter Josie. Van Es never presents himself as any kind of heroic discoverer: he is learning as he goes, about himself as well as about Lien.

This inviting diffidence–this care to avoid grandstanding or moralizing–extends to his understated observations about parallels between the time he is researching and the time in which he is doing the research. A different (a worse) book might have made this the pitch. Instead, Van Es just quietly points them out as they occur to him, and as a result their implications linger. Driving to Bennekom one night in 2015 he hears on Dutch radio the news of the shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which is followed by comments and speeches connecting the attack to the shooting of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004. As he drives along,

the radio shifts to a panel discussion in which the phrase ‘Islamic fascism’ recurs. Tomorrow there will be new developments in Paris: a siege at a kosher supermarket that ends in more killings, this time directly targeting Jews. As I pick up speed in the darkness, I am struck again by the obvious overlap between the present epoch and the last one: absurd conspiracy theories, economic recession, and a loss of faith in moderate politicians, who seem to many people to be irrelevant and corrupt. The little car pulls past container lorries that carry goods into Europe: fridges, televisions, furniture, plastic shoes. From the look of these roads nothing is left of the old Europe, but its ghost remains.

Dordrecht-Town-CanalThere have been some shifts, though, some changes in who is feared or hated and how. One day, looking for the exact location of Lien’s first residence in Dordrecht, Van Es realizes his pacing and staring have attracted attention from the current residents: “a middle-aged man in a kameez comes towards me, asking suspiciously, with a heavy accent, what I am doing. . . . ‘You ought not to be spying on people,’ the man tells me.” As he walks away, Van Es is

reminded of the obvious fact that the Muslim community, in terms of the hatred directed towards them, is probably closer to the Jews of the previous century than any other. There are no easy parallels but, all the same, the language of Geert Wilders (whose Party for Freedom has hit 15 per cent in national elections) has an air of the 1930s to it . . . He has spoken of the threat of an ‘Islamic invasion’ and wants no more Muslims to enter the country at all.

50 people were murdered in New Zealand yesterday by someone wielding the same hateful rhetoric along with his high-powered weaponry. Thinking of the suspicion and scrutiny the new inhabitants of the Bilderdijkstraat endure, Van Es is ashamed that he came by “pointing a camera, only to look and not tell.” The project he is there to further, though, is surely part of the larger responsibility we all have not to look away, and then to reflect on the meaning of what we have seen.