A professor’s story of how he found and befriended an estranged member of his extended family, a Jewish woman his grandparents had adopted during World War II.
When van Es (English Literature/Univ. of Oxford; Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction, 2016, etc.) returned to his native Holland to meet Lien, an elderly Jewish woman, he knew only that she had grown up with his father as an adopted sister. Later—and very mysteriously—she had received a letter from the author’s grandmother severing all connection to the family. Through correspondence and interviews, van Es learned that Lien’s mother sent her daughter to live among Christians willing to protect her from the Nazis. For a year and a half, she lived quietly, missing the parents she never saw again but loving her adopted family. When the van Es home was raided by local Dutch authorities, Lien fled. For more than a year, she moved from hiding place to hiding place, focused solely on surviving. Eventually, she made her way to central Holland, where she spent the next year living with the stern Van Laar family and getting raped by the brother of her adopted father. When she returned to the van Es family in 1945, she had become a brooding teenager. She appeared to grow out of her unhappiness, training first to become a social worker, and then marrying and having children. Yet her “perfect” life did not stop her from later trying to commit suicide. The author’s grandmother saw her behavior as selfish and put what would become a permanent distance between them. Unlike his grandmother, van Es saw that the trauma Lien endured had made her feel cut off from herself and Jewish heritage, like a “cut out” figure in someone else’s culture and life. Compassionate and thoughtfully rendered, the book is both a memorable portrait of a remarkable woman and a testament to the healing power of understanding.
A complex and uplifting tale.