Etty Hillesum was a secular Dutch Jew living in Nazi occupied Amsterdam. In March 1941 she began a substantial diary which ends in October 1942. Beyond that date, and the start of her second spell as a volunteer social worker at Westerbork concentration camp's so called 'hospital', we learn of her from the many letters she wrote including those after June 1943 when she too was interned in the camp.
In the diaries and letters we read of a remarkable women who speaks to us with intellectual integrity about feminism and human relationships, about the poet Rilke and the power of art to transform the world, about inner peace and love in a time of war and hate, about the acceptance of suffering and death and above all, about her own spiritual journey in which she is transformed by prayer and her encounters with the God within. “That part of myself; she writes, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call God” ( Etty p. 519) This God, who she must help (Etty 484, 488-9) by her faithfulness to her ideals, sustains her belief in the goodness of human beings and the beauty of life even in the horrors of the concentration camps from where she addresses the transcendence of the future (us) with her hopes for a better society in which goodness, beauty and love can flourish in everyone. She continued to write her diary after October 1942 but like her own life it was lost in the fires of the holocaust. Etty's murder at Auschwitz was record by the Red Cross on November 30th 1943. She was 29.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has described the Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum as “a Confessions of St Augustine for our own day” and one reviewer “the most spiritually significant document of our age.” According to Alexandra Pleshoyano, Etty is “a vehicle and a voice for God in the midst of evil.” (1)
But according Lawrence Langer, she displays “breathtaking naivete” in her understanding of her suffering to come. He finds her “efforts to reconcile hope with annihilation pathetic rather than praiseworthy.” preferring the eloquent despair recorded by many victims of the holocaust to what he calls, Etty's “rhetoric of hope.” For him, “the unexpressed secret of the Diaries” is that the writer is “a latent convert to Christianity.” (2)
Etty was no stranger to this last charge and her response in the Diary was, “Yes, Christianity, why ever not?” (Etty p.529) She borrowed freely from many traditions; she spoke of her “Buddhist quarter of an hour” in meditation and took a copy of the Qur'an as well as the Bible with her to the concentration camp but this represented no latent conversion. She was a Secular Jew in search of spiritual strength and enlightenment and drew on many sources. Her most constant companion and guide in this search was the poet, Rilke and yet the philosopher, Helene Cixous, has remarked that “Rilke owes an immense amount to Etty Hillesum.” (3) As for hope, the theologian John D. Caputo points out in his masterly work The Weakness of God, “hope is most authentically called for when everything is hopeless.” (4)
Etty's Diaries relay her struggle to pray and to write effectively about her inner life. For her, the posture of prayer, particularly the willingness to kneel, is important and is, she writes, “often more intimate even than sex.” (Etty, p. 148) She writes candidly about both prayer and sex but her struggle to write about that 'deepest and richest part of her' (God) concerns her most; not for egotistical reasons but out of her belief that in understanding herself she can better understand and help others.
Self-reflection – especially verbal self-disciplining, conjuring up metaphors, ironic and self-deprecating humour, meditative practice and the writing of the diary itself are some of the techniques of spiritual self-investigation she employs and lead her to assert a mystical love for humanity which refuses bitterness and hatred. Through the metaphors it inspires the trauma of her self-induced abortion becomes a source of spiritual growth as do the emotional strains of being in a sexual relationship with two men at the same time. Transforming these sufferings into spiritual growth through the techniques that allow her to reach and express her inner sources help to prepare Etty for the physical and mental suffering of the concentration camps and allow her to attempt their transformation too. She writes:
We have to accept death as part of life, even the most horrific of deaths. I often see visions of poisonous green smoke. I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying everyday, but I am also with the Jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life. For belief in God and for a miserable end. Am I blasé then? No. It is a question of living life from minute to minute and taking suffering into the bargain. And it is certainly no small bargain these days. But does it matter if it is the Inquisition that causes people to suffer in one country, and war and pogroms in another? To suffer senselessly, as the victims would put it? Suffering has always been with us – does it really matter in what form it comes? All that matters is how we bear it and how we fit it into our lives and yet continue to accept these. (Etty p. 459-60)
Here are a further 2 short extracts which display her attempt to transform the senseless suffering of the holocaust into a positive source for spiritual growth:
What they [the Nazi's] are after is our total destruction, I accept it. I shall not be bitter if others fail to grasp what is happening to us Jews. I work and continue to live with the same conviction, and I find life meaningful – yes meaningful – although I hardly dare say so in company these days. Living and dying, sorrow and joy, the blisters on my feet and the jasmine behind the house, the persecution, the unspeakable horrors – it is all as one in me, and I accept it all as one mighty whole and begin to grasp it better if only for myself; without being able to explain to anyone else how it all hangs together: I wish I could live for a long time so that one day I may know how to explain it, and if I am not granted that wish, well, then somebody else will perhaps do it, carry on from where my life has been cut short. And that is why I must try to live a good and faithful life to my last breath: so that those who come after me do not have to start all over again, need not face the same difficulties. Isn't that doing something for future generations? (Etty p. 461-2)
Life is beautiful and meaningful too. It is meaningful even in its meaninglessness, provided one makes room in one's life for everything, and accepts life as one indivisible whole, for then one becomes whole in oneself. But as soon as one tries to exclude certain parts of life, refusing to accept them and arrogantly opting for this and not for that part of life, yes, then it does become meaningless because it is no longer a whole, and everything then becomes quite arbitrary. (Etty p. 466)
In a letter about Westabork written in Amsterdam following her first voluntary stay at Westerbork, Etty argues that “bodies saved at any cost” are not enough to offer the future. Rather, the future will need new meaning to have been drawn from the distress and despair in the camps which may become a common basis for moving forward. But such meaning must not exclude suffering as though it were not part of the human condition. The difficulty of the task, she admits, runs up against the realities of real people's suffering. “What use is my philosophy”, she asks, “when I have to face them.” (Etty p. 586-7) Nevertheless, she concludes this letter with the insight that the gift they can offer the future is the refusal to hate and a willingness to love. She writes, “Perhaps I have persuaded you, with my chatter, that I have now told you something about Westerbork. But when I let Westerbork rise in my mind's eye, in all its facets and with all its spiritual needs, I can see that success has eluded me. Furthermore, this is a very one-sided story. I could have told quite another, filled with hatred and bitterness and rebellion. But rebellion born only when distress begins to affect one personally is no real rebellion and can never bear fruit. And the absence of hatred in no way implies the absence of moral indignation. I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place. And I also believe, childishly perhaps but stubbornly, that the earth will become more habitable again only through the love that the Jew Paul described to the citizens of Corinth in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter.” (Etty, p. 590-91)
To read Etty's complete and unabridged Diaries and letters is to draw alongside her; to share in her physical and spiritual journey and, when the tragic circumstance of her biography forces a parting of the ways, we both appreciate more clearly the unspeakable atrocity of the holocaust; that six million people are six million individuals with their own stories to tell and recognise that Etty has inaugurated in our own biographical journey a spiritual transformation which attends to the comparatively trivial bitternesses and hatreds we may possess, builds our own courage in the face of suffering and death, motivates in us the social action of love and, perhaps, most significantly of all, inscribes in our heart and in our mind the address of God.
I think Etty would have approved of web pages on the internet. She writes that the brotherhood of man “will only have a chance of becoming reality once copyright is abolished: When everyone can draw freely on the great communal reservoir created over the centuries by all mankind.” (Etty p.222) Having said this, she admits to not much liking lending libraries; which, her self-analysis leads her to conclude, reflects her desire to be original and “to draw everything from my own sources”. ( Etty p. 272).
Whether you choose to borrow or buy it, her book is 'a must read'. So here are the details.
Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, (ed. Klass A. D. Smelik ET. Arnold J. Pomerans) Eerdmans 2002). ISBN 0 8028 3959 2. (quotes above are taken from here)
There is also an abridged version:
Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, (New York Holt, 1996) ISBN 0 8050 5087 6.
There exist a number of biographical sketches which provide references to other biographical works and scholarly articles. These include:
P. Woodhouse, Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed (London: Continuum 2009)
Meins G. S. Coetsier, Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis (Columbia: University of Missouri Press 2008) ISBN 978-0-8262-1797-4
There is also a recent selection of Etty's writings which focuses on the spiritual themes of the diaries:
Annemarie S. Kidder, Etty Hillesum: Essential Writings (New York: Orbis Book, 2009) ISBN 978-1-57075-838-6
A collection of essays from a symposium on Etty Hillesum held in 2008 at the Etty Hillesum Research Centre, Ghent University is due to be published in the autumn 2010.
1. Rowan Williams Foreword in P Woodhouse, Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed (London: Continuum 2009) p. ix and Elizabeth O'Connor quoted in Michael Downy, The Balm to All Wounds: The Spiritual Legacy of Etty Hillesum in Spirituality Today Vol. 40 (1988) p. 18. Alexandra Pleshoyano, 'Etty Hillesum: A Theological Hermeneutic on the Midst of Evil' in Literature and Theology Vol. 19 no 3 2005. pp. 221-237.
2. Lawrence L. Langer, 'Understanding Atrocity: Killers and Victims in the Holocaust' in Michigan Quarterly Review 1985 Vol. 24 pp.130-131.
3. Quoted in Susan Guber, 'Falling for Etty Hillesum', in Common Knowledge Vol. 12. no. 2. 2006. pp. 281-282
4. John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2006) p.96. This work calls out for a reference to Etty but it never comes.