Deviation and The Cut Out Girl - bystanders to barbarity

FT, January 18, 2019

by Rebecca Abrams

Writing in 1937, in a new preface to his painfully prescient essay collection, The Wandering Jews, the novelist and journalist Joseph Roth, warned that “Centuries of civilisation are no guarantee that a European people, by some ghastly curse of fate, will not revert to barbarism.”

In the Netherlands that year, 4 per cent of the population voted for the Dutch Fascist party. Resentment of migrants had been on the rise throughout the 1930s, aggravated by the admission of thousands of Jewish refugees from Germany and eastern Europe. But there was little to predict that by 1945 the Dutch would have actively assisted in the murder of 80 per cent of their Jewish population, a death rate more than double that of any other western European country, including Germany and Austria.

How this could have happened in a country famed for centuries of religious and social tolerance is just one of several important and timely questions explored by Bart van Es in The Cut Out Girl. The answer he proposes, as shocking as it is plausible, is that the Dutch culture of tolerance played a key part in enabling complicity with the Nazis. As van Es puts it: “This is a country of . . . letting people get on with things, not minding others’ business if it does not interfere with your own.”

The ease with which ordinary civilians can become perpetrators of or bystanders to barbarity, while others, conversely, manage to hold on to their humanity even in the most desperate circumstances and at enormous personal risk is one of the great and painful questions of civilisation. It is a subject addressed unsparingly by The Cut Out Girl and a newly translated Italian novel, Deviation. Each of these books, albeit in very different ways, makes for disturbing but essential reading.

Alongside its disquieting inquiry into the pathways to moral bankruptcy, The Cut Out Girl, winner of best biography in this year’s Costa Book Awards, is the deeply moving account of the author’s quest to uncover the story of Lien de Jong, the Jewish child hidden by his grandparents during the second world war and fostered by them after the end of conflict. Van Es, a professor of English at Oxford university, knew very little about Lien when he was growing up. His desire to find her was prompted in part by a wish to understand why after the war his grandparents cut all contact with the child whose life they’d saved, and led him not only to uncovering Lien’s story, but to the discovery of uncomfortable family secrets.

Now in her eighties, and living in Amsterdam, Lien was just eight years old in August 1942, when her parents made the agonising decision to place their only child in the safekeeping of strangers. Lien left her home with little more than a family photograph album and a letter from her mother, who writes with heartbreaking restraint to her daughter’s unknown guardians: “It is my wish that she will think only of you as her mother and father and that, in the moments of sadness that will come to her, you will comfort her as such.” Less than four months later, both Lien’s parents had been killed in Auschwitz, along with all but two of her large extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins.

The sanctuary of the van Es household lasted for just over a year, before Lien was moved on. From then until 1945, she is hidden by a succession of people, often moved with no warning, sometimes for no more than a few days at a time. Some of the people who shelter her are kind to her, some are not. In the last family she was placed with, at the age of 10, she is repeatedly raped. With each move, her capacity to feel and think is progressively stunted, a survival mechanism that enables her to endure what is happening to her at the time, but which will have severe repercussions in her future. As van Es observes: “A person is the product of the life they have lived.” For Lien, this is a life lived for crucial years in the shadows, abruptly cut out of the life she should have had.

In 1972, years after the war and apparently happily married with three young children, Lien tried to kill herself. Only after surviving this second, despairing attempt at self-excision does she begin the slow and painful task of recovery, eventually making a new relationship and becoming a social worker.

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.

Trauma, memory and moral accountability are equally central concerns in Deviation by Italian novelist, Luce d’Eramo, who died in 2001. Published for the first time in English, 40 years after its original publication in Italy, it is a thinly veiled autobiographical novel based on d’Eramo’s experiences as the daughter of bourgeois Italian fascists and her agonising emergence from what she came to regard as a form of intellectual and emotional deviancy.

Born in Reims, France, in 1925, she returned with her parents to Italy in 1938. Active members of the Fascist party, her father was a government official in the Republic of Salò, and during the war while at university in Rome, she joined the Association of Fascist Students. Aged 18, d’Eramo decided to disprove what she then regarded as lies about Nazi atrocities by volunteering to work in a labour camp in Germany. Horrified by what she encountered, and driven by shame at her own complicity, she joined a group of deportees to Dachau but eventually managed to escape, only to be severely paralysed while trying to rescue people from a collapsed building. Most of her memories of these years were repressed for more than a decade, only gradually emerging in the 1950s and 1960s.

The novel evokes this repression through its non-chronological structure, fractured narrative, and shifting viewpoint. Nightmarish and surreal in its detailed but emotionally vacant depictions of the labour and death camps, Deviation takes the reader into a horrifying world of chaos and depravity, in which the sole imperative is survival and where “the absolute normality of crime, physical violence, informing on others, and perversion as routine practice in day-to-day dealings” all rapidly come to seem natural and familiar.

D’Eramo’s realisation that the world inside Dachau is “not another reality but merely an extreme form of the same order that existed outside” is as traumatic as the physical deprivations she endures and witnesses. This anguished awakening to the fact of her own complicity, however passive, with a mindset that blinded her to the reality of fascism and Nazism lies at the core of the novel.

Difficult, disturbing, even repellent at times, Deviation raises vital questions about the paralysing effects of the belief systems people hold and how hard it can be to break free of them when they not only shape our social identity but appear to serve our immediate best interests.

With the far-right on the rise once more, both this book and The Cut Out Girl could hardly be more relevant, urgent reminders of how rapidly even the most liberal, tolerant and cultured societies, and the individuals within them, can lose their way.