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All the lost and wounded children…

Bart Van Es’, account of what happened in the Netherlands, during the Second World War, is both a history of Holland which sits rather uneasily with most of our perceptions (certainly mine) of a country which is liberal, tolerant, and moved by notions of fairness, and a personal history of his own family, during that time.

Most of all, it is the history of Hesseline (Lien) de Jong. Lien, a young Jewish girl, was part of a generation of more fortunate Jewish children who were secretly fostered by those involved in the Resistance and otherwise opposed to the occupying Nazi forces.

Lien and others ‘more fortunate’ because, of course, many were swept up and became part of the monstrous death toll of the Holocaust.

I was extremely shocked to discover that, the percentage of Holland’s Jews, who ended their days in the extermination camps, was particularly high, compared to those from other occupied countries. The Netherlands had certainly been a liberal haven, compared to many other European nations, in its attitudes towards its Jewish citizens at a much earlier time in history.

The Jewish wartime death rate in the Netherlands, at 80%, was almost double that of any other Western country, far higher than that in France, Belgium, Italy or even Germany and Austria themselves. For me, vaguely brought up on a myth of Dutch resistance, this comes as a shock

Although the reasons for this high percentage was complex, Van Es does not flinch from concluding that ‘ the active participation of Dutch citizens – who also did the work of informing on neighbours, arrest, imprisonment and transportation – also played a significant part’

Van Es’ own family, his grandfather and grandmother, politically active on the left, were part of the network which fostered Jewish children, either hidden in plain sight as part of their own family, or hidden more literally. It was to this family that young Lien, not quite 9, is initially fostered after her own family send her away for safety via the well-organised network organising this secret fostering. All of her closest relatives, and most of her extended family will not survive.

Lien regarded her first foster family as the golden ones, of those years. Again and again she was moved on to other, less happy fosterings, because discovery was imminent. Some of the places were horrific, and though children were being fostered by those who wanted to keep these children safe, human psychology being the complex thing it is, not everyone was altruistic, compassionate and caring. And the severely traumatised have their own challenges, as traumatic events make ‘normal socialisation’ challenging. Over a succession of foster homes, some, frankly with people who should not have been in care of vulnerable children at all, Lien is clearly dissociating, and blocking out experiences too painful to engage with.

After the war, she eventually returns to her first foster family, with whom she had a fairly close relationship, – though challenges are certainly present – until she completes her education, and begins to make her own way and vocation – working with vulnerable children. Later she marries and has children of her own. At some point, – and this is no spoiler, as it is part of the journey Van Es is exploring, a terrible, unhealable rift develops between Lien and her foster mother and father (Van Es’s grandparents)

In essence, the journey of Van Es’ book, though painful, is a journey towards some kind of redemption and understanding, as he seeks to understand the history of his family, and his country, through historical research – and through conversations with Lien, now in her eighties. There is a slow growing of a sense of ‘family’ between Van Es, and Lien. Van Es’ father Henk, had been born just after Lien’s return to the van Esses, after the war, aged 12.

Bart van Es writes engagingly, simply, clearly. Although this is Lien’s story it is also the writer’s; change and transformation happens for each.

And, as Lien says, in the opening sentence of the book:

‘Without families you don’t get stories’

The conversations between the two, Lien’s personal memories, the artefacts, letters and photographs which stimulate them, and the geographical research which Bart van Es undertakes, visiting places from Lien’s story, fleshes out a story which is both personal, and of time and place. In visiting places in our times, Bart van Es also reminds us of parallels we may not particularly wish to engage with, on the lessons of history which unfortunately seem not to have been fully learned

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