Head’s Blog: The Ada Benson Lecture and Reflections on The Cut Out Girl

11 October 2019

Yesterday evening’s Ada Benson Lecture sowed many seeds of thought and feeling, several of which will doubtless germinate in our minds in the coming weeks and months.

The first is that Ada Benson, the founding Headmistress of Oxford High School and the woman in whose memory the Lecture is held, is a fascinating subject for study in her own right. A ground-breaker in girls’ education, of course, she was also a working wife (married to the Secretary of the G(P)DST) and mother who combined a high-profile professional role with bringing up her children at a time when stifling Victorian social codes discouraged such ambitions. Her lifelong struggles with mental health problems also give her biography a particular resonance in our own times, reminding us that the terrible price paid by many high-achieving women is not a novelty of the present day. Ada Benson, I conclude, deserves to be better known in the canon of women history-makers.

The lecture which Professor Bart Van Es, Fellow of St Catherine’s College, delivered to us, based on his Costa Award-winning book The Cut Out Girl, gave us food for thought on many levels. Most obviously, this is a compelling human story – of a young Jewish girl, Lien de Jong, sent away from home by her parents to escape persecution in The Netherlands under Nazi occupation and sheltered by the author’s grandparents.

Every dictator who ever strutted upon the stage of history has tried to make of his people a population of ‘cut-out men and women.’

It has all the drama of a novel, as Lien’s story unfolds, and all the intricacy of a work of detective fiction, as Professor Van Es weaves together the narrative from Lien’s testimony with threads from a range of other witnesses and records. His exploration of the actions of the key protagonists mines the depths of human nature and also causes him to question his own motivations in pursuing the research.

Beyond that, his work shines a light on an aspect of the Holocaust that is relatively unfamiliar to us – the Dutch experience beyond the attic in which Anne Frank hid. It challenges easy platitudes about the past, including neat demarcations between heroes and villains, reminding us that the Holocaust, which has arguably cast the longest and deepest shadow over modern lives of all historical events and which seems to be such well-trodden ground, is still not fully understood.

The apparent reluctance of Dutch society to memorialise these aspects of its national past, preferring to engage in a form of collective amnesia, provides fertile ground for extremist movements that seek to project a simplistic, jingoistic national narrative in the service of current political ends. A nation’s history is the domain of national memory and, hence, always a potential battleground of ideas. Every dictator who ever strutted upon the stage of history has tried, through rewriting history and controlling the big ideas in this sphere, to make of his people a population of ‘cut-out men and women’, disconnected from their past and their culture, and thereby easier to manipulate and control.

Professor Van Es intends his book to be a rallying call for social and political engagement. He says, ‘you have to look beyond yourself, you have to have some larger vision, because in the war the people who acted, who did something for the Jews, were largely people who were part of organisations that spanned racial divides…’ The study of History, English and the Humanities in general, by encouraging a healthy scepticism and rewarding precision, gives us that ‘larger vision’ that allows us to see beyond the demagogue’s spin.

More than this, by reminding us that the Other, whether remote in time or space, was and is human too, it inoculates us against the ignorance and arrogance that fuel war and genocide. Surveying some of the pressing concerns of the present day – rising populism, challenges to democracy, fake news – the conclusion is inescapable that the ‘larger vision’ that Professor Van Es describes, and which is vividly exemplified in his book, is needed as much now as it was in Lien de Jong’s day.

Read more about Bart Van Es’s story here.

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