The extraordinary war story that won Costa Book of the Year
Anita Singh meets Holocaust survivor Lien de Jong and her biographer Bart van Es, whose grandparents saved her from the Nazis by pretending she was their daughter
Lien de Jong did not believe her life was out of the ordinary. "I never thought I had a story," she shrugs. Professor Bart van Es disagreed. He had always known that his grandparents, members of the Dutch resistance in the occupied Netherlands, had taken in a Jewish girl and passed her off as a member of their family. He wanted to find out more.
That story became a book, The Cut Out Girl. This week, it won the Costa Book of the Year and De Jong, now 85, joined van Es at the awards ceremony. The next morning, when we meet in a café, the author is still riding high on its unexpected success.
"It's still sinking in," he says. "The book came out in July and… almost nothing. It didn't get any reviews. So this is great." De Jong, however, appears a little bemused. She recounts her childhood experiences unsentimentally, often smiling as she reminisces, including the last time she saw her parents. It was August 1942 and De Jong was eight years old.
An only child, she lived with her mother, Catharine, and father, Charles, in The Hague. She had a comfortable life, with ballet lessons and tram rides to the beach. But following the Nazi invasion in 1940, things began to deteriorate. She was forced to leave her school and attend one for Jews; she wore a yellow star, and other children taunted her. But, by and large, the war had not made much impact on her young life. As her mother tucked her into bed that night, she said to her: "I must tell you a secret. You are going to stay somewhere else for a while."
Looking back now, De Jong remembers feeling excited. "I thought it would be very nice to go somewhere and stay with other people for a while. I wanted to share it with my friends." Under no circumstances was she to tell anyone, her mother warned.
Two days later, after a party with family and a goodbye hug from her mother, she was escorted to another town by a woman she had never met before and taken to the home of the Van Es family, Christians who had volunteered to be her foster family and pass her off as an orphaned niece. Unbeknown to her, there was a letter in her coat pocket.
Most Honoured Sir and Madam,
Although you are unknown to me, I imagine you for myself as a man and a woman who will, as a father and mother, care for my only child. She has been taken from me by circumstance. May you, with the best will and wisdom, look after her.
Imagine for yourself the parting between us. When shall we ever see her again? On 7 September, she will be nine. I hope it will be a joyful day for 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.
If God wills it, we will all, after the war, shake one another by the hand in joyous reunion.
Directed to you as the father and mother of Lientje.
De Jong had some difficulties adjusting - she suddenly had siblings, the food was awful, and she cried for her parents. The book contains letters that De Jong received from her parents while in hiding, heartbreaking to read now: her father sending a guilder for her birthday and telling her they would be reunited soon to have "a nice glass of lemonade"; her mother sending a book called About A Happy Holiday.
But gradually, De Jong - out of necessity - began to erase memories of her parents from her life. After a year, when the police came knocking, she had to leave the Van Es' house and was moved to a succession of other hideouts (the book's title is a reference to how she kept being "cut out" of various families). There were more horrors to come, including being sexually abused by a brother of one couple who took her in.
When the war ended, she asked to be returned to the Van Es family. "It was the only place during the hiding time where they let me be a child."
Did she wonder what had happened to her parents? "It was like…" she struggles for the word in English and turns to Van Es. "Elastic," he translates. "There was no more stretch in her emotions." Her parents, it transpired, had been arrested two months after sending her away. Catharine was killed at Auschwitz in November 1942, and Charles in February 1943.
The book looks at the wider picture of the Netherlands' complicity in the Holocaust. The Jewish wartime death rate in the Netherlands was more than double that of any other Western country. A price of 7 guilders and 50 cents was placed on the head of every Jew and policemen acted as "Jew-hunters", identifying adults and children and sending them to their deaths.
The country dealt with this shame by burying it.
De Jong completed her education, married and had three children. The story is complicated by the fact that she became estranged from her foster family, a petty squabble spiralling into decades of silence - hence Van Es having no contact with her until he sent an email in 2014, asking to meet. "I thought it would just be nice to sit down and see him," she says now. "I did not think it would be a book."
She insists she had not deliberately turned her back on the past, it was just that motherhood and life got in the way.
But De Jong had shut down her emotions from the moment she arrived on the Van Es family's doorstep, and eventually something had to give. When her oldest children were eight and 12, she attempted suicide and then had therapy. "I had problems in myself," she says. "I was depressed, I didn't feel right, I was out of balance. I thought, 'I oughtn't to be here. I oughtn't to live.' I had no foundation."
There followed years of counselling, trying various strategies, including Zen Buddhism and meditation. She also began a career as a social worker. "When you experience a lot, you can understand a lot. So it's easy for me to speak with people and to understand people," she says with a smile.
De Jong lives in Amsterdam and is happy to be back in the embrace of the Van Es family - Bart, a Professor of Renaissance Literature at Oxford University, and his wife and children. She is no longer cut out of the picture. But she is still reluctant to admit that her story is extraordinary. "I think I had a difficult youth, but when I hear people tell about their youth, you don't need a war to have terrible things. So it's common, in a way. It was not easy, but a lot of people have no easy background."
The Cut Out Girl is published by Penguin