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SIDIC Periodical XXVIII - 1995/3
Women and Dialogue (Pages 09 - 16)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Reflections on the Life and Thought of Etty Hillesum
Joseph Sievers


Many diaries were written by young Dutch Jews during the period of the Shoah, the Nazi persecutions. The most famous is certainly that of Anne Frank, written in a hiding place in the centre of Amsterdam. Less well known, but equally extraordinary are the writings of Moshe Flinker. Anne's senior by only three years, he wrote a diary with a surprising spiritual depth and breadth of vision, while in hiding in Belgium after a boyhood in Amsterdam.' There are others who left exceptional documents, for example, Jona Oberski and Philip Mechanicus. But here, I would like to dwell on Etty Hillesum, whose writings have been known for some time, but perhaps not enough.

In fact a substantial part of her diary was first published in 1981 in the Dutch original and quickly reached 150,000 copies. Translations into English, French, German, Italian, Danish and other languages soon followed.(2) A volume of letters has also been published. (3)

Therefore I would like to offer some reflections on the writings and life of this extraordinary young Dutch Jewish woman referring to her diary and letters but also to the critical and complete edition of what remains of her work. (4)

Etty Hillesum began her diary in Amsterdam in March 1941, when she was 27 years old, and continued it for more than two years, even when she was in the concentration camp of Westerbork. (5) According to one of her friends, as she was leaving Westerbork for Auschwitz on September 7, 1943, Etty told her: "I have my diaries, my small bible, my Russian grammar and Tolstoy".(6) According to the Red Cross, Etty died in Auschwitz on November 30 of the same year. With her were lost all the diaries written after October 13, 1942. Also missing is a notebook covering the period between April 30 and May 18, 1942. Nevertheless, there remain one thousand two hundred handwritten pages and some sixty letters to various friends, (7) all of which were published with great attention to every detail in the critical edition prepared by Klaas Smelik, a noted exegete of the Old Testament, the son of the friend to whom Etty had entrusted the publication.

It is not easy to characterize Etty Hillesum and her literary work. The titles of her works and of those written about her, seek to give some idea of the essence of her life. The first partial edition of the diary expressed its tragic nature: The Disturbed Life or The Interrupted Life.(8) The question then arises: Why was this life, so rich and fruitful, so promising, cut short? The question about the millions of children, women and men who were killed becomes much more immediate and personal. The second book, a volume of letters, has been entitled: Het denkende hart van de barak, "The Thinking Heart of the Barracks", (9) using an expression of Etty herself after her first stay in the concentration camp of Westerbork. Amid so many who said they could not or would not think in that hell, she stated "1 would like to be the thinking heart of this barracks", and later "1 would like to be the thinking heart of the whole concentration camp". (10) The title of the proceedings of the congress on Etty Hillesum (held in Rome in 1988) summarizes very well the fundamental aspect of her thought and action The Experience of the Other, (11) but no title can contain all the richness of this life. Likewise we cannot do justice to so many elements of the life and thought of Etty Hillesum in a short article. Therefore I would like to concentrate on four points: 1. The paradoxes of her life: 2. The roots of her thought and actions; 2. Her Jewish identity; 4. Her relationship with God and with others.

There are many contradictions in Etty Hillesum's life, beginning with her family. Through her father her family roots were Dutch upper class. He was a school principal in the city of Deventer. Her mother, Rebecca Hillesum Bernstein, was born in the Tsarist empire and so Russian culture was part of Etty's heritage. Etty was often in strong conflict with her parents, especially with her mother, but after having obtained a doctorate in jurisprudence, she studied and taught her mother's language, Russian.
Etty began to write her diary at the age of 27 (she was born on January 15, 1914), probably on the advice of her therapist, Julius Spier. He had been a business man, but having discovered a talent for interpreting he lines of the hand, he had studied psychotherapy with Carl Gustav Jung. He then practised psychotherapy first in Berlin and later, after his flight from Germany in 1939, in Amsterdam. Etty became not only Spier's patient but also assistant. He called her his "Russian secretary", (12) Although Etty was already living with a 62-year old widower, she began a relationship with Spier that would change her whole life and which is reflected in every page of her diary. It is in the vital relationship with this man, against every rule of professional conduct, that Etty found her main spiritual guide that helped her to seek and find a profound relationship with God and with people. Thus we find a very high morality and integrity in a life which, in many respects, goes against all the precepts of Jewish as well as Christian ethics (13)

Etty lived through the dramatic and tragic months of the Jewish community in the Netherlands. She was aware, perhaps more than many others, of the gravity of the situation, but she was able to call 1941 "a year that was for me the richest and most fruitful, and also the happiest of all".(14) Even afterwards, when she was sure that the Nazis were pursuing their plan to exterminate all the Dutch Jews, she could say that life was beautiful. She loved life, but she did not want to accept the hiding place that friends offered her on several occasions and that could have saved her life. (15) She even volunteered to work in the transit camp of Westerbork and longed to return to it, to see friends but also and especially to assist the persons who were awaiting their deportation to Poland, in particular the children and the sick.
Etty saw very clearly the contradictions in her own life, but instead of being shattered by them was able to follow a clear direction and hold everything together: sorrows, concerns, little and great joys. At the beginning she expresses this attitude by quoting the Austro-German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (18751926) Rilke: "The one who reconciles the many counter senses in his own life and assumes them with gratitude in one symbol..." (16) Later she managed to find serenity, trust in God, joy, love for everyone, even in the most desperate situations, even when her friend died, even when she was an eye-witness of the mass deportations. For example, she writes in July 19421 "Every day I am in Poland, on the battle fields, or we could say in the slaughter fields. Sometimes I have like a vision of a battle field running green with venom. I am with the hungry, the tortured, the dying every day, but I am also near the jasmine and the piece of heaven outside my window. In life there is space for everything. For a faith in God and for a miserable death". (17)

But where did she draw the strength for this? Without any doubt we can affirm that Spier opened the way, in spite of the not very orthodox circumstances. There were other friends who served as guides in certain cases, in particular Henry Tidemann who also belonged to Spiels circle. Her reading was very formative and she devoted much time to it. In September 1942 she remarks "I am increasingly aware that Rilke has been one of my great educators in recent years?' (18) The reading of Dostoyevski, Rathenau, St. Augustine was also formative for her, and increasingly so was the Bible. Not only did she read it, but she lived it. For her the Bible naturally enough included what she called, according to the Christian usage, the Old and New Testament. Several sentences from the Sermon on the Mount recur in the Diary, especially "Do not be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself '.(19) Even the hymn of love in the first Letter to the Corinthians became dear to her.(20) But it was not only a matter of certain verses. Increasingly the Bible became her most important book.
She writes: "Those psalms which have become part of my daily life were excellent fare on an empty stomach... Something elemental flows out of the Old Testament and something homely as well. Splendid people live in its pages, poetic and austere. The Bible is so rugged and tender, simple and wise. And so full of wonderful characters too" (21)
This living with the Bible became increasingly intense. After she had seen close up the departure of a train with a thousand deportees, she writes: "If I think of the faces of the armed escort in green uniforms, my God, what faces! I observed them one by one, from my hidden position behind a window. I was never more frightened than by those faces. I had difficulty with the Word that is the leitmotif of my life: "And God created man in his image". This Word lived a difficult morning with me (22)

In her last surviving postcard, thrown from the train that was bringing her to Auschwitz, Etty writes: "Christien (the name of the recipient), I open the Bible at random and I find this: "The Lord is my refuge" (23) I am sitting on my rucksack in a crowded freight car...the departure came rather unexpectedly, in spite of everything. A surprise order sent purposely for us from the Hague. We left the camp singing.. (24)

In the Netherlands there has been a great deal of discussion on the Jewish or Christian nature of Etty Hillesum's thought. Certainly she drew from many sources and was not concerned whether they came from Jewish, Christian or secular areas.
If we wish to know how observant Etty was as a Jew, it is clear that she was far from any traditional observance. She mentions in her diary that Spier sent her flowers with a note "So that you may not forget me completely and that you may know that it is Pesach" (that is, the Jewish Passover) (25) In a letter to a friend in the Westerbork camp she wrote a day after Yom Kippur: "Did you fast and pray well yesterday? And did everything go well with so many people?" (26) Three months later, in a letter to the same friend, she states that "the Hanukkah lights in the large barracks are a particularly precious memory because you were there also".(27) These seem to be the only references to the Jewish feasts in all of Etty's works. (28) I have not found any references to Palestine or to Israel, even if some of her friends were active in Zionist movements.

But Etty felt profoundly her Jewish identity. In a passage that is given only in the complete edition she states: "I am glad that he (Spier) and I are Jewish" (29) - and she wrote this the day she became obliged, as a Jew, to wear the yellow star. According to the testimony of Klaas Smelik sr., she explained her refusal to hide by saying: "I want to share the fate of my people".(30) She felt strongly that she was living a unique chapter in Jewish history and she wanted to capture it in her writings,(31) even if she was not sure that others would be ready to understand it: "I would not be surprised if others do not understand what is at stake for us Jews" (32) "I have already said that there are no words or images that can describe a night like that one (the departure of a train of deportees for Poland). And yet I must note something for you (her friends in Amsterdam) - one always feels like the eyes and ears of a piece of Jewish history, at times one feels the need to be also a little voice".(33) We could mention many other examples which show how Etty felt herself a citizen of the world, but also profoundly Jewish: "And tonight it will be a new day and I'll be seeing somebody else in trouble, a Catholic girl. For a Jew to be able to help a non-Jew these days, gives one a peculiar sense of power.(34)

Etty's relationship with God was both very complex and very simple. No doubt, we note an enormous growth in the two and a half years that we can glimpse through her writings. In the beginning God is mentioned very little while, after July 1942, there are whole pages in the diary and in the letters that are prayers.(35)

Without a doubt, there is a strong influence of Rilke, who sought to develop in his poetry an image of a non transcendent God, not as a "You", but as the spiritual quality of the worldly reality. From this there seems to emerge a concept of God that is found often enough in the diary: "When I pray, 1 never pray for myself; always for others, or else 1 hold a silly, naive or deadly serious dialogue with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience) call God". (36) But the idea of God that we find in Etty's writings is not univocal and is not only a code word for a psychological reality, but it is based on a long personal search:
"To have the courage to pronounce the name of God. S(pier) once said to me that it took quite a long time before he dared to say "God", without feeling that there was something ridiculous about it". (37)

"This thought has pursued me for weeks: We have to dare to say that we believe. Dare to pronounce the name of God" (38) Here we note a conflict with the Jewish tradition of not pronouncing the name of God. But Etty does not seem aware of it - and in the original Dutch (God uitspreken) the conflict seems less strong than in translation.

Some of the maturation of the image of God is seen in a letter to Benny Tidemann mentioned above: "Do you know that you too are one of the precious gifts that God has given me in this life?
I say so openly, as if it were nothing: God. Through you I have learned to pronounce this name, at every moment of the day and night, through you and through our friend (Spier), of whom I have already taken leave on the moors of Drenthe...(in the camp of Westerbork). The great work that he has accomplished in me: he has unearthed God in me and given him life and now I must continue to dig and seek God in the hearts of all the people I meet, in whatever corner of this earth".(39) The detachment from Spier was a long process in her, which began long before the death of her friend. In fact, back in December 1941 she had written: "The foolish and passionate desire to lose myself in him has long ago vanished, has grown sensible. All I have left of that
feeling is the will to yield myself up to God, or to a poem...(40)

A week later, on September 17, 1942, two days after Spier's death, Etty wrote: "The feeling I have of life is so intense and great, serene and grateful, that I do not even want to try to express it in just one word. In me there is a happiness so perfect and full, my God. Probably the best definition would again be his (Spier's) repose in oneself, and perhaps it would also be the most complete definition of how I experience life: I rest in myself And this myself, the most profound and richest part of me in which I rest, I call "God". In Tide's diary (Henny Tidemann) I often found this phrase: Father, take him softly into your arms. That is how I feel, always and uninterruptedly: as in your arms, my God, so protected and secure and permeated with
etemhy".(41) A few weeks after the death of Spier she wrote "we remained alone, God and 1. There is no longer anyone else who can help me".(42) The idea of God within and outside oneself are here inextricably interwoven.

"In short, my life is an uninterrupted listening within (hineinhorchen, in German) myself, others, God. And when I say that I listen within, in reality it is God who listens within me. The most essential and profound part of me that listens to the most essential and profound part of the other. God to God". (43)

"I do not have many illusions on the way things really are, and I even renounce the pretext of helping others; I will always start with the principle of helping God as much as possible and if this works, so much the better, because it means that I will also be helping others. But on this point we must not have heroic illusions". (44)

"I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters; that we safeguard that little piece of you, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well... I bring you not only my tears and my forebodings on this stormy, grey Sunday morning, I even bring you scented jasmine. And I shall bring You all the flowers I shall meet on my way, and truly there are many of those. I shall try to make You at home always. Even if I should be locked up in a narrow cell and a cloud should drift past my small barred window, then I shall bring you that cloud, oh God, while there is still the strength in me to do so.(45)

This concept that God needs help is not easily reconcilable with the idea of an omnipotent God. In fact, this concept is practically absent from the Bible and other religious texts; instead they frequently invoke God's help. But it is interesting that in the book of Judges (5:23), there is a passage according to which it would be an obligation to help God. It is a verse in the canticle of Deborah, certainly among the oldest parts of the Bible - and considered the oldest by many scholars. There we read: "Curse Meroz (a place otherwise unknown), says the angel of the Lord, curse bitterly its inhabitants, because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty". The commentators have either overlooked this difficulty or have sought to eliminate it in some way. The Targum (the old Aramaic translation), instead of "to the help of the Lord" says "to the help of the people of the Lord". Likewise Rashi, the most famous Jewish exegete of the Middle Ages, comments that to help Israel is - if it were possible - as if we helped the Shekhinah, the presence of God. Hence, even if this idea of "helping God" is found in this surprising verse of the Bible, it certainly does not seem to be the source from vithich Etty drew. It seems more probable that this idea also was suggested to her by Spier, but it is difficult, if not impossible to reach certainty on this point. (46)

In fact, in the last letter to him that has been kept (July 1942?) Etty writes: "You must take care of your health; if you want to help God, this is your first sacrosanct duty. A person like you, one of the few who are still an honest lodging for a piece of life and suffering and God...has the sacrosanct duty to maintain his own body, his earthly dwelling in the best way possible, in order to be able to give hospitality to God as long as possible...This piece of infinity, as we live it now, I can carry it all on my shoulders without being crushed by the weight and I can now forgive God that the situation is no doubt the one that it should be. That one can have so much love as to be able to forgive God! (47)
In the same period, Etty writes in her diary that stupendous and disconcerting "Sunday morning prayer" in which she says among other things "Neither do I hold you responsible, but later you will declare us responsible".(48) This is a theology, a theodicy not made up of abstracts but which is born of the tragic experience of every day. Perhaps it is difficult logically to affirm that God needs help, needs to be forgiven, is not responsible for events. But we see how, in Etty, there is a seeking for God which is increasingly intense and profound. Christian influences, like kneeling to pray, are certainly present. Yet Etty poses the question of God in terms in which feeling co-responsible partners with God is sometimes expressed forcefully.
Etty Hillesum's work is of an extraordinary vital richness and rare poetic beauty, even if it comes out of the brief space of the darkest period of Jewish and European history. We can underline various aspects that I have not even touched upon. But perhaps I can underline a trait that seems like gold that becomes increasingly clear in her: the bond with everything and everyone, with the present, the past and the future.

“Living and dying, sorrow and joy, the blisters on my exhausted 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 lime so that one day I may know how to explain it, and if I am not granted that wish, well,
have to start all over again, need not face the same difficulties." (49)

Perhaps, in some way, we can take upon ourselves this heritage that Etty Hillesum left us.

Dr. Joseph Sievers teaches at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Sidic Association and the Advisory Editor of the Sidic Periodical.

1. Young Mashe's Diary: The Spiritual Torment of a Jewish Boy in Nazi Europe, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem 1965.
2, E.T. Etty: A Diary, 1941-1943; Introduced by J.G
Gaarlandt, trans. by Arnold J. Pomerans, Jonthan Cape, London, 1983. (will be referred to as Diary)
3. Letters from Westerbork, (Introduction and Notes, Jan G. Gaarlandt), Jonathan Cape, London, 1987. (will be referred to -as Letters).
4. ETTY; De nage/Ater, geschrifien van EtE Hillesum 1941- 1943, edited by Klaas A.D. Smelik, Amsterdam, 1986, 3rd ed. 1991, 874 pp. (will be referred to as Etty).
5. Letters p.116 (August 18,1943 to I fenny Tidemann).
6. Diary, p.220 (Letter of Jopi Vleeschouwer, September 6-7 1943).
7. Etty p.786, cf p.605
8. Haarlem,1981, New York 1983.
9. Haarlem, 1982
10. Diary, p.191, (October 3 1942; p.169 September 15
11. L'esperienza dellAltro: Studi su Etty Hillesum, edited by Gerrit Van Oord, SantOreste (Roma), 1990
12. Diary, p.63 (December 17, 1941)
13. In this regard see the enlightening comments of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini who says that he has advised many people to read Etty Hillesum's Diary, considering it "particularly fascinating" and the expression of a mystical experience, without however approving all the aspects of the life from which Etty comes (Martini, Nei swore dell Chiesa e del mondo, Genova: Marini, 1991, pp.53-54).
14. Diary, p.66 (December 31, 1941)
15.Etty, pp.749, 792; cf. Diary', July 9, 1942.
16. "War seines Lebens vide Widersinne versOhnt and dankbar in sin Sinnbildftsst" Rainer Maria Rilke, Das &under:- Ruch in Samiliche Werke b p.263, quoted in Etty,p205 (December 21, 1041)
17. Eny, p.485 (July 2, 1942
18. Diary (September 26, 1942)
19. Mi.6:34; cf. Prov.27' I.
20. 1 Cor 13; part of this hymn will later be written on Julius Spier's tombstone. CE Etty, p.777 n.546.
21. Diary, p.137 (July 5, 1942).
22. Letters, p.124 (August 24, 1943 to Hans Wegerif and others)
23. This quotation is imprecise. It probably refers to Psalm 18:3. Note that the Dutch word “vertrek” can mean either “refuge” or “departure” and that the play on words may have been intentional.
24. Letters, p-146 (September 7, 1943, postmarked 15/9/43).
25. Etty, p.342 (April 5,1942. The Jewish Passover had begun on the evening of April 1).
26. Etty, p.604, letter to Osias Kormann, September 22, 1942
27. Letters, p.37, ( December 26, 1942).
28. The few times that she mentions the dates of religious recurrences, they are Christian: Good Friday and Pentecost. Etty p. 334 (April 3, 1942); p.390 (May 24 1942).
29. Etty, p.372 (AO 29 1942).
30. Etty, p.792 n.633. In this context we may recall the words of Edith Stein to her sister Rose when they were about to be deported: "Come, let us go for our people" quoted in Edith Stein, Briefauslese 1917-1942 nth einem Dokumentenanhang zu ihrent Tod e, Freiburg, 1967, p.136. Etty Hil/esum wrote in her diary of "two sisters from a strictly orthodox family, well-to-do and very intelligent from Breslau (Wroclaw)". It seems certain that she is refening to a meeting with Edith and Rose Stein which took place in Westerbork between August 3 and 7,1942. Etty p.554 (September 20,1942).
31. Diary, p.146 (July 10, 1942)
32. Diary, p.130 (July 3, 1942)
33. Letters p.124 (August 241943). This letter was published that same year by the Dutch resistance.
34. Diary p.128 (July 1 1942)
35. On this topic see ICIaas A.D. Smelik, "L'immagine di Dio in Etty Hillesum" in L'esperienza dell' A /fro, Studi su Etht Hillesson, edited by Gerrit Van Oord, SantOreste (Rome) 1990, pp.161-168.
36. Diary p.154-55 (July 15 1942)
37. Diary p.62 (December 14, 1941)
38. Diary p_69 (January 1I, 1942); of Etly, p235
39. Etty, p.602 (letter of September I / 1942, written four days before Spieds death).
40. Diary p.53 (December 17, 1941)
41. Diary p.173 (Sept./ 7, 1942)
42. Diary p.192 (October 5, 1942)
43. Diary, p.173 (Sept. 17, 1942)
44. Diary p.148 (July 1 I, 1942)
45. Diary pp.15 I (July 12, 1942)
46. In the rabbinical literature there is often the idea that God suffers, even weeps. See R Kuhn, Gates Trauer und K/age, 1978. He asks advice of others (L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 6 vols. Philadelphia: JPS, 1909-38. Vol .I pp.51-52. Also in the Hasidic literature we find the idea that God needs human help. See L. Newman, Hasidic Antholokw, p.I28 In modern philosophy it is sometimes affirmed that God cannot be good and omnipotent at the same time. See Hans Jonas, Der Gottesbegriff nosh Auschwitz, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1987 (English: God after Auschwitz). Similar ideas were also expressed by certain philosophers of the last century (See John Stuart Mill. Three Essays on Religion (I R74), but it does not seem possible to define a precise source from which Spier drew the idea
47. Etty. p.600
48. Diary, p.I51 (July 12, 1942)
49. Diary 11130 (July 3, 1942)


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