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The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es - Review

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

This book is the May choice for my book club. We've met virtually a couple of times now and it's been really nice, and has been something to look forward to while in lockdown. I didn't read the last book -  I couldn't get into it - but I attended the meeting anyway because it was nice to talk to people. I bought this book secondhand on eBay and it arrived in plenty of time.

It's a strange genre of book, because it's a mixture of life writing, biography, memoir, and non fictional research. I actually liked it, I liked how it flipped between genre, but it means I'm not really sure where to start with this review!

It's about a woman called Lien de Jong. She was born in The Hague in 1933, to Jewish parents, and part of a large extended family. Her family was not particularly religious, but were registered as Jewish by the Dutch government who had ceded to the Nazis quite early on in the war. As the Nazis started to deport Dutch Jews from The Netherlands to death camps in the east, Lien's parents decided to give her up to go into hiding.

She was helped by a couple called Jan and Took Heroma and went to live with a family called van Es in 1942. They were 'Auntie' and 'Uncle', and their children Ali, Kees, and Marianne. Lien wasn't exactly happy there, but was safe and loved. As the Nazis moved throughout Holland, Lien's hiding place became less safe and she had to move. She was shunted from place to place until the end of the war. At that point, the Dutch government intervened as they tried to deal with many Jewish children who now did not have any family. Of Lien's family, there were only two adults remaining and neither were considered suitable to adopt her. Lien asked to go back to the van Esses, and stayed there throughout her teens and early twenties as she qualified as a social worker and later got married.

Bart, the author of the book, is the son of Lien's adoptive brother Henk, so basically her nephew. At the beginning of the book he has gone to Amsterdam to meet her and record her life story. He knows that there has been a schism between Lien and the family, but isn't sure why. She isn't mentioned by the family, only in passing, even though she went back to live with the family after the war and that the van Esses were the only family she knew after the deaths of her parents in Auschwitz.

So part of the book is life writing about Lien's life. It's taken from her descriptions of her life, but made somewhat fictional by descriptions added and some of Bart's other research. Lien's memories aren't always complete - which isn't surprising from any survivor of trauma, especially someone who has lived through the Holocaust. The reader does feel for Lien, though, throughout the book. Most of the book concentrates on her life during the war, which makes sense as that's definitely where the interest lies.

Other parts concentrate on Bart and his research in The Netherlands. Did you know that Dutch Jews had a death rate that was more than double any other country? This was partly due to the Dutch government's policies towards the Nazis, and also because they had done such an efficient job of registering Jews prior to the war. Bart travels throughout The Netherlands, seeing where Lien lived, where she escaped to, and meeting people she knew. He talks about his own family and Lien's place in it, his children and his life with them, and the lives and religious views of his ancestors. I liked this - I understood how the families combined and what it meant.

There are lots of photos in the book, mostly of Lien's family, the people she stayed with, and her history. It's actually really amazing that so many of her photos survived the war. There's also pages from her poesie book, which was a kind of autograph book. I really liked seeing the photos - it helped me anchor everyone into the story and, for Holocaust victims especially, it gives them a visibility they may not otherwise have.

There are also parts about what was happening in the war alongside what was happening to Lien, and about the post-war efforts to rebuild the country and reunite families. I found all this absolutely fascinating. I like learning about the lives of ordinary people throughout war times, and I know quite a lot about the Holocaust but didn't know much about what happened to Dutch Jews. I found it all extremely sad, of course, but also very interesting. I found I couldn't put the book down at all. I've never been to The Netherlands but really want to go, and I would definitely put some of the Jewish sights and memorials on to a to do list.

I have to give trigger warnings for, among others: genocide, holocaust, trauma, rape, abuse, suicide. This is a difficult book to read but I really wanted to know Lien's story.

I'm looking forward to finding out what everyone else at book club thought! I'm giving this five out of five.

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