What the judges said: “The hidden gem of the year. Sensational and gripping, and shedding light on some of the most urgent issues of our time, this was our unanimous winner.”
Winner: Best Biography of the Year
The Costa Judges: ‘The hidden gem of the year. Sensational and gripping, and shedding light on some of the most urgent issues of our time, this was our unanimous winner.’
Anne Chisholm, who judged the prize with Rachel Cooke and Andre O’Hagan, said: “The winner, The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es, was chosen unanimously but not without passionate debate. This book, with its delicate interweaving of history, family memoir and personal encounters, succeeds in conveying the harsh reality of holocaust survival through one young girl’s experience, in occupied Holland, of the extremes – good as well as evil – of which ordinary people are capable.”
It’s a moving story of personal and family history, but van Es has a scholar’s objective eye for the bigger picture, noting on a visit to Holland that the Dutch Muslim community “in terms of the hatred directed towards them, is probably closer to the Jews of the previous century than any other”. At one stage he despairs of his project, wondering aloud to Lien if the world needs another book about the war. But Lien, now in her 80s, tells him that repetition is no bad thing: “There are also so many songs about love.” And the story of the fate of the Jews in the war is a story that needs to be told and retold, especially today.
Van Es’s book, the winner of the 2018 Costa award for biography, recounts Lien’s difficult life during and after the war, and also sets her story in a wider context. Although 80% of Holland’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust, Lien was one of many who survived after being adopted or concealed by non-Jewish families, part of a widespread resistance network. At one point, van Es writes that he fears his book adds little to the already large number of Holocaust stories, but his worries are unfounded. Deeply moving, this is a remarkable memoir.
It is an astonishing co-production between subject and author, now professor of English at St Catherine’s College Oxford, and has been recognised with the award of the 2018 Costa Prize for Biography.
It is a story of benevolence and betrayal — and an extraordinary portrait of the refined hypocrisy that still informs so much Dutch politics. The churches and factions bicker, preach high morals and advanced standards. Many of the Jewish survivors of the war were held in camps alongside collaborators who had tormented them.
A chilling portrayal of trauma and its aftermath, The Cut Out Girl is not only a testament to Lien’s resilience, but also to the bravery of the van Es family and others like them, who took great risks to save innocent lives. In both strands of this narrative, van Es remains admirably honest about the complex, contradictory aspects of human interactions. His book is infinitely the richer for it.
Winner of the 2018 Costa biography award, this deeply moving account of Lien’s life is the result of his personal journey into the history of his family and his country’s treatment of the Jews. Many felt their suffering was not adequately acknowledged after the war. Unbelievably, some even received tax demands for the time they spent in the camps. Writing with an almost Sebaldian simplicity and understatement, Van Es weaves together history and Lien’s recollections to tell the story of her traumatic childhood.
Van Es tells Lien’s story with stark simplicity. That’s entirely appropriate, since elegant prose would be superfluous to this harrowing tale. The drama lies in the events, not in the manner of their reconstruction. Descriptions of Lien’s life are juxtaposed with accounts of the author’s experiences while piecing together her war. He found so much that she did not know. Van Es, a professor of English at the University of Oxford, calls her the “cut out girl” because she was so easily removed from one scene and placed in another. She was often unaware of the holes she left behind. In some households she was cherished like a daughter or a sister, only to vanish without a goodbye. One gift Van Es was able to give Lien was evidence that she had been loved.