Bart van Es
Fig Tree 2018
This beautifully written book that explores the feelings of being a hidden child during the holocaust and the psychological trauma she lived with. Bart, an oxford historian, realizes a family member, Lien, does not figure in family histories. His grandmother and Lien had a terrible row and she cut off contact. Bart approaches Lien by email. He befriends her and she tells her story. She was a Jewish child in Amsterdam and is hidden by his family in Central Holland during the second world war. She retells her story and we experience it thorough her eyes. She was 8 when her parents gave her for safe keeping to their friends. On her 9th birthday she heard from them but then silence. He captures the pain she experienced, silence, then tears. She had forgotten a lot. It was not easy being a refugee, she had to work almost as a house maid in one home. She and another refugee escaped at one point. She did not understand what was happening, then become silent and withdrawn, then a slow anger built up, initially she was warm but then hot. Feeling unwanted was a major part of her experience. Aged 12 she was raped frequently by a family uncle. After the war she worked in child care and then trained as a social worker. When she did talk about her rape it was acknowledged by the family but not acted upon. She had different religions, brought up Jewish, then followed Dutch reform, at university she joined the Jewish student society. She married a Jew Albert and enjoyed the Jewish rituals. She is now Bhuddist.
She repressed many feelings, it was all too painful. Later in life she acknowledged her refugee status. She takes Bart to Schouwberg, the departure point for Dutch Jews to the concentration camps and they look at her parents names. She was helped by a conference in Amsterdam for child refugees and the conversations it opened up. The then mayor of Amsterdam was himself a child refugee. She makes peace at Auschwitz by performing Buddhist rituals there over a week with her Dutch friends.
She was v sensitive to being excluded by the family. At her wedding she was surprised that people were joking “is the husband Albert good enough for our Lien?”. She was hurt being excluded from the family funeral announcements of Pa Heromas death. She had a small birthday party that she did to mention to Ma Heroma. The two then exchanged angry letters, Lein wrote that she felt a second rate person in the family. Ma heroma had no further contact with her. These letters one can write because it an emotional release but one should not send them because they can hurt so much.
Bart the historian is fascinated by Lein’s story, he backs up his work academically checking on the files of Dutch informers. Through his interest he gains Lein’s trust. She visits Oxford and meets his family. In her her Amsterdam flat and she introduces him to her friends as “my nephew who will write my story”. The detective work has produced family healing.
Occasionally there is too much background, such as the description of the Dutch informers, it gives useful context. His fluent Dutch makes him at home there.
There are two journeys in this book; Lien’s story of being a child in hiding, and van Esses story of getting Lein to talk, the background research that he did on Dutch informers. It is his journey in writing the book. Bridges have been rebuilt within the family. He describes his visits to Holland, seeing the towns and understanding Dutch history well.
Being half Dutch there were many personal resonances for me in the book. I recognized the grandparents generation and the academic exploring Holland. My mother repressed her PoW experience, she was in Japanese prisoner of war camp aged 18-20. She coped by rarely talking about the experience. It made her a survivor when she faced problems.
So I admire Bart van Esse in getting his aunt to talk about her experience. My mother kept her story inside.