“Without Families You Don’t Get Stories”: Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl

In The Cut Out Girl (2018), the Dutch-born English academic Bart van Es investigates his family’s past. At its heart is Lien de Jong, who in August 1942 was given into the safekeeping of van Es’s grandparents by her desperate Jewish parents.

Van Es’s title refers to a paper silhouette that Lien pastes into an album that surprisingly survived the war. Such albums were common in Holland (the famous diary Anne Frank received for her 12th birthday, less than two months before Lien joined her new family, was probably an album of this sort). Friends, family, and neighbours would fill the pages with well-wishes, typically phrased as achingly sententious poetry.

But the title also refers to Lien herself, who is sliced away from life as she has known it—and then, many years later, cut out again, this time by her adopted family. Van Es’s detective work is prompted by the confusion and resentment, the whole no-go zone that surrounds Lien’s place in his family. Is Lien his aunt or not? What happened between her and his grandmother? Most families suffer from blights of this kind: some fight or hurt the causes of which no one is even sure any more but the effects of which persist through the generations. In this case, though, that ordinary event is complicated by war, displacement, and trauma.

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In their first meeting, Lien tells van Es, “Without families you don’t get stories.” For Lien, stories are important because they ensure continuity. They let you make sense of yourself by connecting you to those around you. Van Es would agree, but for him the act of telling is as important as the substance of what’s told. After all, the word Lien uses is stories not story: stories compete with but also complete each other. The plural implies richness, motivation, complexity.

Midway through his researches, van Es is shown a book called Bennekom: Jewish Refuge, detailing the fates of the 166 Jews who were hidden in the town, more than 80% of whom survived. (This is particularly remarkable, since the death rate for Jews in Holland was the exact opposite of Bennekom’s—80% were murdered, higher than anywhere else in Western Europe.) With trembling fingers, van Es finds the entry for Lien:

At Algemeer 33 with Gijs van Laar there was a Jewish girl, Lientje [a diminutive of Lien], in hiding. Lientje belonged to the family and was a total part of it. She attended the Reformed School. She survived the war.

The Cut Out Girl is an attempt to replace this brusque—and, we learn, misleading—narrative with a fuller picture; to take this quasi-official story and to show what it doesn’t or cannot tell; to expose what is self-serving or misguided in it. For van Es also recognizes that stories can blind us. They can confer a false sense of mastery. Which is why he aims to be as self-aware as possible in reconstructing Lien’s story.

That story begins in 1933 in The Hague, when Lien is born to Charles de Jong and Catharine de Jong-Spiero. In the handful of surviving photos, Lien’s parents are attractive, sporty, carefree. That can’t have been the whole story: there was some sort of trouble between her parents when Lien was very small, and she was sent to live with relatives for a year. But her parents reconcile, and Lien grows up an ordinary child living an ordinary life, even after Germany invades Holland in May 1940. But by the next year life is more difficult for Dutch Jews, even ones like the de Jongs who do not identify as such. By 1942, deportation notices are widespread. Lien’s parents look for a way to send her into hiding; in August they entrust her to a resistance organization headed by a couple named Heroma (who seem absolutely heroic and deserve a book of their own). Mrs. Heroma brings Lien to the van Es home in Dordrecht, and later ferries her to the many safe houses she passes through.

Despite some initial difficulties—Lien has always been a finicky eater and her new family has no patience for that sort of thing; she has never slept in a room with other people; her upbringing has been more sheltered and more emotional than the world she now enters—Lien fits in well with the family, who have children close to her age. At first she calls Jans and Henk van Es Auntie and Uncle; later it will be Ma and Pa. Van Es includes heartbreaking letters smuggled from Lien’s parents to their daughter congratulating her on her ninth birthday. By the time she receives them, both have been deported to Auschwitz. Neither survive.

Lien does, though it is a near thing. One day in early 1943 two policemen arrive at the house, looking for Jews. (Holland was the only country to offer cash rewards to those who turned in Jews.) Lien narrowly escapes: Auntie sends her to a neighbour where she cowers in the unused sitting room). Thus begins the most difficult phase of her time in hiding. She is moved from one safe house to another, often staying only a day or two in any one place. Eventually, she is placed with a family in Bennekom. The van Laars are pious and self-righteous. Yes, they have taken a risk by accepting Lien into their home, but they also treat her as a servant. Lien spends the rest of the war with the van Laars. By this time, events have taken a toll on her. She loses a clear sense of who she is: her life was on low heat, she tells van Es. She lived in a dreamworld, she sometimes felt herself flying over her surroundings. She regresses, wetting her bed, losing weight. She becomes numb, disassociated, feelings that only intensify when Gijs van Laar’s charismatic but violent brother, a man she has also learned to call Uncle, sexually abuses her. The van Laars turn a blind eye—it is understood that Lien and her Uncle have a special friendship. What this means is that the man takes her into the forest and rapes her.

Lien is desperate to escape. When the war ends, Mrs. Heroma asks her what she wants to do. She wants only to return to the van Esses. At first they refuse. It is a great blow. In the time Lien has been away they have had another child; Henk is increasingly involved in socialist politics and the postwar reconstruction effort; bringing Lien back into the house would just be too much. But Mrs. Heroma senses it is a matter of life and death, and eventually the family relents.

A happy ending? Not quite. Lien is happy, she becomes one of the family again, even more so than before. But she never fully fits in. There’s an unhappy incident when the van Esses basically browbeat her into not applying for the gymnasium, the academic high school: the practical school was always good enough for them. But Lien finds her way. She trains to be a social worker, specializing in troubled children. Unsurprisingly, she is perfectly suited to the work. One day, in 1953, she is at home for a few days from school and falls ill. Dozing on the sofa, she is awakened by Pa kissing and stroking her. It is yet another terrible hurt, but, amazingly, this incident, which Lien keeps to herself, doesn’t separate her from the van Esses. That happens later, around 1980, after Lien has married and had children and gotten divorced. The ostensible reason for the falling out is banal, but presumably it’s just a stand-in for the sense both Lien and Ma have long felt that she never quite fit with them. Ma writes Lien an icy letter: she doesn’t want to see her again. Lien becomes part of murky family lore: thirty years pass until Bart van Es reaches out to her.

*

I certainly enjoyed The Cut Out Girl, reading it in a single day, drawn into the mystery van Es sets out to solve. But I wasn’t only reading for the plot. I had another agenda, another question in mind. Would I teach this book? On the face of it, The Cut Out Girl fits perfectly with the concerns of a course I teach called Literature after Auschwitz, which explores “postmemory,” Marianne Hirsch’s influential term for the experience of those who did not live through the Holocaust but whose lives have nonetheless been strongly shaped, often disfigured, by what those close to them (usually their parents) did experience.

Van Es’s memoir would usefully add a third-generation perspective to the class, plus one that isn’t Jewish. My interest in it as a teaching tool lies elsewhere, though. Ever since Helen Epstein first wrote about the children of survivors in the 1970s, the language of generations has dominated scholarship on the after-effects of trauma. Last year I was at a conference where Erin McGlothlin suggested that we retire or at least question this language, which she finds unnecessarily biologizing, as if there were a genetic component to trauma. Recent neurological research suggests this might in fact be true, but we should consider the relationship between these findings and the racism and biological essentialism of fascism. And what do we lose if we emphasize neuroscience? What happens to history, personal or otherwise, if we think about generations in a primarily genetic sense? What would be narrative’s place in understanding trauma? What would happen to Lien’s stories?

The Cut Out Girl adds to this conversation by advocating a non-biological sense of family. Movingly, at the end of the book Lien introduces van Es to her friends as her nephew, the man who is going to tell her story. (Too bad van Es dilutes this moment by adding an epilogue, though it’s lovely to read that in her 80s Lien has formed a relationship with a man she knew briefly as a child.) I think the book’s expansive, generous definition of family (or at least its willingness to challenge the dominance of biology in our thinking of family) will interest students.

As will its unflinching portrayal of sexual abuse during wartime, which emphasizes how easily victims can be re-victimized. This aspect of the book is so relevant to our own time, as we finally begin to acknowledge the scope of abuse and assault in society writ large. Van Es’s frankness fits with a sea change in Holocaust studies: in the past many Holocaust stories would have passed over such material in silence, though we are learning how common such experiences were. (I could usefully contextualize this material by assigning an Ida Fink story and brief selections from Molly Appelbaum’s diary that also depict the sexual abuse of Holocaust victims.)

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As you can see, then, there is a lot to like from both a readerly and a pedagogic perspective about The Cut Up Girl. Yet I also have reservations, particularly about its style and structure. I found it pedestrian at the level of the sentence, and I’m always nervous about teaching texts that I don’t think are especially amenable to close reading. (I’ve barely quoted from the book, because it’s the content much more than the expression that’s interesting.) In terms of structure, van Es does a few things well. At times, he doubles back when narrating Lien’s experiences, explaining that she has no memory of the events he’s just told. He’s forthright about how he put the story together, how he supplemented Lien’s telling with other sources, where he is speculating, etc. His telling is self-aware, which is an essential component of Holocaust literature. (But why oh why must he write in the present tense? I hate that it’s become the default narrative mode.)

But van Es’s own story is not very interesting. Of course, it’s never going to match Lien’s, nor should it. But his exercise routine, his trips to the archives, his nights clubbing with his cousin, they are all so prosaic. The point of including his own story, I think, is to assert how easily familiar terrain can become unfamiliar. How could this village have been filled with hidden people? How could this pleasantly anodyne fitness center have been the home of a family dispersed and destroyed? Sudden revelations—where what you think you know vertiginously reveals a hidden face—are as much a part of family history as of geography.

But for this conceit to really work the book would need more of van Es’s past. We would need to know more about his childhood memories, more about his own (much more modest) dislocation, between England and Holland, more about what being Dutch means to him. And we would definitely need to know more about his relationship with his stepdaughter Josie, which has been fraught in ways that, he hints, resonate compellingly with Lien’s experiences. (Not the abuse part; the having a hard time accepting someone who is thrown into your life part.) I totally get why he won’t tell us more, but it’s frustrating to be asked to imagine these connections.

But if in talking about himself van Es is too elliptical, in telling Lien’s story he uses indirection to good effect. He ably delays the big reveal (what happened between Lien and Ma?) And, more interestingly, when the answer turns out to be pretty underwhelming, he is smart about the significance of what it means that we feel let down. In other words, he has a lot to say about our desire to explain and understand. On the one hand, order is central to self-understanding. As Lien says, once she understood her own experiences as part of a pattern (a sentiment she thinks of in Buddhist terms) she was able to live more fully and freely. But on the other, we can value order too much. Patterns can become templates, sense can become cliché. The villains in The Cut Out Girl—aside from the obvious ones of the Nazis, who, true to the experience of most of their victims, barely figure in the story, or the Dutch collaborators (and there are quite a lot of these)—are those, like Mother van Laar and even Ma, who live with unshakeable conviction about how the world works. Rigidity can be a way to handle the troubles the world throws at you, not least when you’re risking your life to hide someone in your home, but it can also cause further trouble. (This paradox is similar to the one van Es proposes when he considers the Dutch tradition of tolerance, which has involved staying out of other people’s business, leading to the creation of a siloed society comprised of “pillars” (Protestants, Catholics, liberals, etc.) that seldom overlap. Could that very separateness, he asks, have been what allowed the Germans to act as they did in Holland?)

In this regard van Es’s use of the poems from Lien’s album is interesting. At first I wondered why he felt the need to include so many of them. They’re objectively terrible. Here’s one:

Roses big and roses small

Soft as velvet on a wall

But the softest petal part

Is the rose of Lietje’s heart.

But the contrast between the sentiments they express—the things Lien’s loved ones wish for her: health, happiness, success, long life—and the reality of her experience is important, and not just because of their ironic juxtaposition. Instead van Es explores an analogy: conventional form is to idealized (that is, false) sentiments as unconventional form is to accurate experience. The clunky poetry of the well wishes is so kitschy because it can’t express actual experience. To do so, especially in a time of war and disruption, would require a more unconventional way of telling.

In the end, I’m unconvinced van Es has found such a form. His book is nothing like those poems, but neither is it like the daring comparison of the story of a family and the story of a people that structures Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million or the elegant prose of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes, to name two books doing similar work to The Cut Out Girl. In the end, van Es’s book reminds me a bit of the doggerel that Lien’s friend Lily, who copied the lines I cited above, added at the bottom of the page: “I lay in bed and mucked about / so mum got cross and started to shout.” A lot better than the canned poem, and an engaging and daring act of non-conformism in a conformist society, but not exactly great art.

Still and all, I think I’ve talked myself into assigning the book. Do you agree? A couple of years ago I did something similar with Sara Kofman’s memoir of her time as a hidden child in Paris, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat. And Kofman has been a staple of the class for years. Students love it. Indeed, I might describe it as the book Lien might have written. That is, it is totally fractured, cryptic, and fragmented. It’s like an expression of trauma, whereas van Es’s book is a consideration of trauma, if that makes sense. The latter is less striking, but also, perhaps, more necessary. Certainly more healthy.

 

Rohan’s post on The Cut Out Girl is well worth reading. She liked it more than I did, but in general we agree about its merits. She also mentions an important sub-plot, as it were, when van Es visits the street where Lien first lived in Dordrecht, which has now become public housing inhabited mostly by Muslim immigrants. A man gets upset at him for taking pictures—van Es agrees that coming to look and not to tell is a problem. Which leads me to wonder: when does a story end? What would happen if we juxtaposed that man’s story with Lien’s?

 

 

7 thoughts on ““Without Families You Don’t Get Stories”: Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl

  1. Hmmm, I heard an interview with the author, was it on CBC, or Histories of the Unexpected podcast? (one of my faves) and, even in the interview, I found a diffidence to the author’s voice that was too opaque for me to be keen to read his book. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on it, though! (I’m awaiting a pprbck version of Elisabeth Asbrink’s post-Holocaust 1947: Where Now Begins. Read it? Heard of it? Thoughts?)

    • Thanks, Kay. Sometimes I like reviews that let me say, well now I know what’s up with that book and I don’t have to read it. So if my piece did something like that for you, I’d be pleased!

      I had not heard of the Asbrink–but will see if the library has it. DEfinitely looks interesting. I have Ian Buruma’s book about 1945 (I think maybe it’s called Year Zero?) so maybe I should that first.

      Re: the immediate postwar period I’m reading Dan Stone’s The Liberation of the Camps, which is pretty specialist, but certainly eye-opening, if you want to get into the weeds on that stuff.

  2. I have been waiting to find out your thoughts on this book. As you note, I did like it more than you did. I don’t disagree, overall, about the sentences not being remarkable, but I appreciated what struck me as diffidence on the author’s part: he doesn’t push himself to the center of the telling, which I think a more overtly ‘literary’ style might have done. I don’t have the context or expertise you do, though, especially about the question of whether it would be a good book to assign or not.

    • You’re right, it wouldn’t have been right for van Es to focus on himself. But I think he fell between two stools: wanting to make connections between past and present, but not quite knowing how to do it. Again, Mendelsohn’s achievement in The Lost seems all the more amazing in comparison.

      In some ways, I think I am not the best reader for this book. Sometimes you can know too much (his discussion of the Dutch Jewish Councils isn’t a patch on Bernard Wasserstein’s, for example, but he can’t do everything).

      In the end, the only way to find out if a book is worth teaching is to try it, usually at least twice. We’ll see…

      • As you know, I share your admiration for The Lost – but at the same time there are ways in which it is kind of a showy book. That’s not necessarily a criticism, but for me there was something honest about Van Es so clearly just trying to do his best. I think you have a good point about audience, though. It is hard for an expert, perhaps, not to expect too much from a single example aimed at non-experts.

      • I’d like to read The Lost again. I read it when I was much less of a specialist than I am now. I wonder how I would feel about it now.

        You’re right about van Es: he’s clearly trying to do his best. Which is more than we can say of so many!

  3. Pingback: June 2019 in Review | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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