Bart van Es, a professor at Oxford University, sets out to research a breach in his Dutch family of origin. His father was the youngest child of the van Esses whose family included an adopted daughter who ought to have been Bart van Es’s aunt. But in 1988 she had been expelled from the family by Bart van Es’s grandmother, and Bart has had no contact with her. In 2014, the aunt is still alive, in Amsterdam, and Bart approaches her (by email) and goes to visit.
His aunt, Lien, was taken in by the van Esses during the second World War. Born in 1933, she was Jewish, handed over by her secular parents to non-Jewish foster carers when it seemed there was no other way for her to survive. The parents were right; both died in Auschwitz, victims of the very efficient Dutch operation to round up and deport its Jews, some of them able to trace their Dutch ancestry back to the period of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Lien spent the war being moved from safe house to safe house, though was lucky to spend two extended periods with just two but rather different families. At the end of the war, and with no credible Jewish relatives to claim her, she is asked to choose between the Social Democratic and warm van Esses and the Calvinist and cold van Laars. She chooses the van Esses, not least because she has been sexually abused by a van Laar uncle. In due course, the van Esses learn about this,
All goes as well as might be expected given her start in life, until one day in 1988, Bart van Es’s grandmother writes to her adopted daughter to sever all relationships with her. The van Es grandfather had died in 1979; other family members more or less fall into line with the exclusion. What has gone wrong?
Rather like Philippe Sands in East West Street (reviewed here on 5 February 2018), van Es combines the interviews with his surviving aunt with archival research and interviews with those still alive who knew the van Esses, the van Laars, and knew Lien. So instead of writing a family history, he ends up writing a history of the Netherlands from the 1930s and well past the end of World War Two. But he focusses on the war period, on the Dutch Jewish experience of the war, and on the lives of those non-Jews who became helpers. I found all this very interesting, partly I think because though we are used to reading about the German experience and to some extent the French one, the Netherlands in the Nazi period is not so familiar to English readers. His narratives of the complexities of Dutch society were all new to me.
I feel there is a strange lacuna in the book. Maybe I have missed something but I will proceed as if I haven't. It may be that it is a lacuna which cannot now be filled. In one sense van Es solves the puzzle of the family breach, and thereby achieves a work of reparation (there is a sub-plot of reparation of difficulties within his own family). But he does not examine the most obvious narrative which explains it, even though he provides all the evidence. Lien’s exclusion begins immediately after the death of her adoptive father in 1979. His widow - Lien’s adoptive mother - leaves Lien’s name off the printed death notification to which the names of mourning family members are, as convention dictates, appended.
In 1953, at the age of twenty, there was a moment, during a weekend visit home, when Lien's adoptive father made sexual advances to his adoptive daughter. She repulsed them and they were not further pressed; but from Lien’s point of view the damage was done. To me, an obvious narrative is the one which says that the mother somehow knew about this, or at least sensed it, and that the death of her husband freed her to act, making it clear that she blamed her adoptive daughter for whatever had happened. There was a strong motive to exclude Lien at that point, even though the breach was not fully finalised until ten years later. It’s possible that the father made a death bed confession, or that he confessed to someone else at an earlier point who then re-told the story, maybe much later.