The Cut Out Girl by Bart Van Es

I was one of the 9 judges who chose The Cut Out Girl as Costa’s book of year 2018. It wasn’t a difficult decision. A hidden gem, we called it, one that deserved to have a bright light shone on it. It tells story of Lien de Jong – an 8 year old Jewish girl living in Nazi-occupied Holland in 1942. One day a stranger comes to the house and her parents hand her over. They literally give her away to try to save her life. It’s the last time she will ever see them. Lien is taken in and raised by foster families – one in particular the Van Es family. She stays with them after the war but then much later, in the 1980s, inexplicably breaks off all contact. Years later Bart Van Es – an Oxford academic – and the grandson of the couple who hid her – finds her again. Lien is now in her 80s and slowly, through numerous interviews, he tries to piece together what happened to her both during the war and afterwards. The result is this extraordinary, understated, incredibly moving biography, a story that would never have been told if Bart hadn’t gone in search of it. It’s written both from his perspective now as he tries to solve a 70 year old family mystery, and from young Lien’s perspective as her traumatic childhood is painstakingly recreated. At times what she went through made me gasp out loud. In 1940, around 140 thousand Jews lived in the Netherlands. By May 1945, more than 100,000 were dead. Many lost their lives after being handed over by Dutch collaborators who were offered a bounty for the identification of a Jew. Lien was incredibly lucky to survive. At times, it looked like she may not. “If I was to do something before these people and their memories disappeared forever, it must be now” writes Van Es. The book is important on many levels. Its story of displaced people and the harrowing experiences they endure echoes across the decades and still resonates today given the huge number of refugees fleeing for their lives around the world. It’s about trauma and how it silences people and robs them of their stories. It’s about families and misunderstandings that can have devastating lifelong effects. And ultimately it’s about reconciliation and how the past can, to some extent, be healed. I was standing on stage at the Costa Book awards as the winner was read out. Bart and Lien were sitting quietly side by side. They’ve become the best of friends since the first tentative steps of their collaborative project began in 2014. The two of them looked stunned when they realised they’d won. They’d genuinely not been expecting to. Watching a rather fragile Lien being ushered up onto stage by Bart was an extraordinary, spine-tingling moment for anyone who’d read that book. After spending most of her life being cut out of families, both her own and other people’s, 85 year old Lien de Jong was finally standing there on stage in front of hundreds of people, a Cut Out Girl no more. The room went totally silent as she edged towards the microphone. “I always said without family, you don’t have a story” she almost whispered with glistening eyes. “But now, thanks to Bart, I have a story and I have a kind of family again too”. Like the book, her words were simple. Yet they reduced many, including myself, to tears. 

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