Lien de Jong, in 1945

Lien de Jong, in 1945

‘Without families you don’t get stories.’

The woman who tells me this stands making coffee in her apartment in Amsterdam. Her name is Hesseline, Lien for short. She is over eighty and there is still a simple beauty about her: a clear complexion without noticeable make‑up; a little silver watch but no other jewellery; and shiny, unpainted nails. She is brisk in manner but also somehow bohemian, dressed in a long, dark grey cardigan with a flowing claret paisley scarf. Before today I have no memory of ever having met her. All the same, I know that this woman grew up with my father, who was born in the Netherlands immediately after the war. She was once part of my family, but this is no longer the case. A letter was sent and a connection was broken. Even now, nearly thirty years later, it still hurts Lien to speak of these things.

From her white open-​­plan kitchen we move to the seating area, which is full of winter sunlight, filtered partly through stained-​­glass artworks that are fitted against the panes. There are books, museum catalogues and cultural supplements spread beneath a low glass coffee table. The furniture is mod‑ ern, as are the pictures on the walls.

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She was once part of my family, but this is no longer the case. A letter was sent and a connection was broken. Even now, nearly thirty years later, it still hurts Lien to speak of these things.

We speak in Dutch.

‘You wrote in your email about being interested in the family history and about maybe writing a book,’ she says. ‘Well, the family thing doesn’t really play for me. The van Esses were important in my life for a long time, but not now. So what kind of writing do you do?’

Her tone is friendly but also businesslike. I tell her a little about my work as a professor of English Literature at Oxford University  – writing scholarly books and articles on Shakespeare and Renaissance poetry – but she knows most of this already from the Internet.

‘So what is your motivation?’ she asks.

My motivation? I’m not sure. I think hers could be a complex and interesting story. Recording these things is important, especially now, given the state of the world, with extremism again on the rise. There’s an untold story here that I don’t want to lose.

  • The Cut Out Girl


    'Luminous, elegant, haunting - I read it straight through' Philippe Sands, author of East West Street

    'Superb. This is a necessary book - painful, harrowing, tragic, but also uplifting' The Times Book of the Week

    The last time Lien saw her parents was in the Hague when she was collected at the door by a stranger and taken to a city far away to be hidden from the Nazis. She was raised by her foster family as one of their own, but a falling out well after the war meant they were no longer in touch. What was her side of the story, Bart van Es - a grandson of the couple who looked after Lien - wondered? What really happened during the war, and after?

    So began an investigation that would consume and transform both Bart van Es's life and Lien's. Lien was now in her 80s and living in Amsterdam. Reluctantly, she agreed to meet him, and eventually they struck up a remarkable friendship. The Cut Out Girl braids together a powerful recreation of Lien's intensely harrowing childhood story with the present-day account of Bart's efforts to piece that story together. And it embraces the wider picture, too, for Holland was more cooperative in rounding up its Jews for the Nazis than any other Western European country; that is part of Lien's story too.

    This is an astonishing, moving reckoning with a young girl's struggle for survival during war. It is a story about the powerful love and challenges of foster families, and about the ways our most painful experiences - so crucial in defining us - can also be redefined.

    'Deeply moving. Van Es writes with an almost Sebaldian simplicity and understatement' Guardian

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