Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 5, 2020

The Cut Out Girl (2018), by Bart Van Es

This book came to my attention because the author is a guest at the forthcoming Adelaide Writers’ Week and I came across it when browsing the program.

The Cut Out Girl was the Costa Book of the Year in 2018,  taking out the prize in the Biography category as well as the overall prize for the work, worth £30,000 to the author.  According to the BBC, this is the first winner from the biography category since Helen Macdonald won it in 2014 for H is for Hawk and is only the fourth biographer to take the prize this century.  This is the BBC description of the book:

The Cut Out Girl tells the story of a young Jewish girl, Lien, who was taken in by strangers during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Her family were all killed but, like 4,000 other Dutch Jewish children, she escaped the Holocaust by being hidden from the Nazis by a non-Jewish family.

Bart van Es, a Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, has a personal connection to the story – his own grandparents were the couple who fostered little Lien in the Hague during the occupation. The Cut Out Girl interweaves the story of Lien in the 1940s with his own experience of uncovering it, a burgeoning friendship with the elderly Lien and some uncomfortable truths about Dutch collaboration during the occupation.

What intrigued me about the book was that there was a falling out between the adult Lien and her foster family, and I could not imagine how that could be.  I have always admired the astonishing courage of people who saved Jews during WW2, and the stories of children who were fostered by complete strangers seemed like a miracle of bravery and kindness.  What The Cut Out Girl reveals, however, is that rescuing these children was much more complex than just avoiding detection and the terrible risk of Nazi reprisals, and that while some people were open-hearted and generous, others did it because they felt they ought to for religious reasons, when they were not really the kind of people who should have the care of damaged young children.  And inevitably, some of those who had access to these vulnerable children took advantage of them in the worst possible way.

(It’s an entirely different scenario, of course, but there are awful stories about children evacuated from the Blitz who were placed with people who had no idea how to care for traumatised children and some who exploited them as domestic help or worse.)

By making contact with Lien who was by then in her 80s, Bart Van Es was able to discover her childhood journey from loving home to the insecurities of not really belonging anywhere.  The memoir is not really a story of the Holocaust though Lien lost her entire family to Auschwitz.  It is the story of how with research, documents and mementoes and sensitively conducted interviews, Van Es was able to retrace Lien’s movements from one family to another, across a network of safe houses.  As you might expect, because she was only a little girl, she had blanked out the memories of being taken from place to place, of running and hiding, and — like many a fostered child — longing to be returned to one family where (under the circumstances) she had been quite happy when she had been removed to somewhere else.  But also, because she was only a little girl, she was also not aware that even the kindliest of her foster parents found the strain of caring for extra children, especially during The Hunger Winter of 1944-5, was a burden that was sometimes hard to bear.

Along the way, Van Es confronts some disquieting truths not just about anti-Semitic Dutch collaboration with the Nazis, but also how they failed to care for the orphaned children after the war, and did not adequately acknowledge the bravery of their saviours.  As elsewhere in Europe, there were many who, postwar, appropriated houses and property and refused to give them back.  These people perhaps did not have the genocidal intent of the Nazis, but they were only too enthusiastic about deporting Jews out of their country and reaping the proceeds afterwards.

Nevertheless, The Cut Out Girl is not a bitter book.  It concludes on a note of reconciliation and hope, and it was lovely to read that Lien was ultimately able to build a satisfying life — as a social worker, helping troubled children…

For more scholarly thoughts than mine, visit this review and this one.

Author: Bart Van Es
Title: The Cut Out Girl, a story of war and family, lost and found
Cover design: designer not acknowledged but images are from the author’s own collection and from Shutterstock
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, 2018
ISBN: 9780241978726, pbk, 281 pages
Source: Kingston Library



  1. Are you going to Adelaide, Lisa?


    • Ah, no. I hibernate indoors during the summer months, and unfortunately for me the AWW is all held outdoors. It’s a pity because this year’s program is really good, the theme is Being Human.


  2. I appreciated this book but was less enamored:


    • Readers… do follow that link to our discussion on this book which takes place there.


  3. Over the last two or three years I’ve re-read Anne Frank, and another book about her family and also The Children’s Camp of Belsen by an Australian Jewish/Dutch survivor. So I was aware of let us say, of the ambivalence of the Dutch. Still, for some reason the idea that there might also be abuse hadn’t occurred to me.

    I’m not a fan of Holocaust stories but it is becoming clear, has probably been clear since the last Balkans war, that as the Right in Aust, the US and elsewhere are busy demonstrating, racism continues just under the surface in all communities. We still need reminding of the consequences.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting review Lisa. Some of this (the moving of the kids, the fact that they were abused) is reflected – though not in depth – in House on endless waters. Also covered is the fact that after the war many never rejoined their parents, many of course because the parents had not survived. Like you, when I first heard about this wartime practice, I was all admiration, thinking how brave those families were (and of course many were genuine), but in recent years of course we’ve become only too aware of how children in these circumstances could be and were abused and/or neglected. Another point made in House on endless waters is the difficulty many of them had in forming good relationships in adult life.

    (Oh dear, too many “of courses” here!


    • There’s another factor too. I think there would have been cases where people felt enormous sympathy and took them in, and then (especially if they didn’t have children of their own) found that they’d taken on more than they could handle. And as the war went on, and the Germans more aggressively pursued the Jews and punished anyone who helped them so severely, these people realised just what danger they were in, and what danger they were putting their own children in.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, you are sure to be right about that. So much more complex than it would initially appear.

        Liked by 1 person

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