Friday, June 26, 2015


    “...I am also thinking of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch girl of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz. At first far from God, she discovered Him looking deep within her and she wrote: “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again” (Diaries, 97). In her disrupted, restless life she found God in the very midst of the great tragedy of the 20th century: the Shoah. This frail and dissatisfied young woman, transfigured by faith, became a woman full of love and inner peace who was able to declare: “I live in constant intimacy with God"...”
      Pope Benedict XVI, 13 February 2013  in his first general audience on Wednesday after his resignation

I decided to read her diary and letters which give us the fullest possible portrait of this extraordinary woman in the midst of World War II. In the darkest years of Nazi occupation and genocide, Etty remained a celebrant of life whose bright intelligence, compassion, heroism were themselves a form of inner resistance.

Certainly the adult counterpart to Anne Frank, Etty testifies to the possibility of  courage and a deep spirituality in the face of the most devastating challenge to one's humanity. She died at Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine.

“God is not accountable to us, but we are to Him. I know what may lie in wait for us.... And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful."

With her Family
From the day when Dutch Jews were ordered to wear a yellow star up to the day she boarded a cattle car bound for Poland, Etty endeavored to bear witness to the inviolable power of love and to reconcile her keen sensitivity to human suffering with her appreciation for the beauty and meaning of existence (shades of Viktor Frankl). For the last two years of her life Etty kept a diary, recording her experiences and her interior response. Published four decades after her death, this book was quickly recognized as one of the great moral documents of our time.

Esther (Etty) Hillesum was born in 1914 in  Middelburg, where her father Levie (Louis) had been teaching classical languages since 1911. In 1928 he became headmaster at the gymnasium in Deventer. He remained there until his dismissal, in 1940, ordered by the occupation government imposed by Nazi Germany following the invasion of The Netherlands.

Unlike her younger brother Jaap, who was an extremely gifted pupil, Etty's marks were not particularly worthy of note. At school she studied Hebrew and for a time attended the meetings of a Zionist young people's group in Deventer. After completing her school years, she went to Amsterdam to study law. In 1935 she took her bachelor's exams in Amsterdam.

Not much is known about Etty's university years. She moved in left-wing, anti-fascist student circles and was politically and socially aware without belonging to a political party. Her acquaintances from this period were amazed to learn of her spiritual development during the war years, a period in which she adopted clearly different interests and a different circle of friends, although she did maintain a number of her pre-war contacts.

In  early 1941 Etty entered into therapy with Julius Spier- who himself underwent instructive analysis with C. G. Jung in Zurich. It was Spier who encouraged Etty to begin a diary.  Spier had a very great influence on Etty's spiritual development; he taught her how to deal with her depressive and egocentric bent and introduced her to the Bible and St. Augustine.

C. van der Heyden-Ronde
In the diaries, one can clearly see how the deepening anti-Jewish measures
affected Etty's life. One also sees her determination to continue her spiritual and intellectual development. She found work providing  a bit of support for the Jews as they were preparing themselves for transport at Westerbork. It  was due to this work that Etty consistently turned down offers to go into hiding. She said that she wished to "share her people's fate."  “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”

Etty's departure from Amsterdam on 6 June proved definitive, for on July 5, 1943 an end was put to the special status granted to personnel at the camp she worked at. Half of the personnel had to return to Amsterdam, while the other half became camp internees. Etty joined the latter group as she wished to remain with her father, mother, and brother Mischa. On September 7 the Hillesum family were deported from Westerbork to Auschwitz.

Etty's father and mother either died during transport to Auschwitz or were gassed immediately upon arrival. According to the Red Cross, Etty died at Auschwitz c. November 30, 1943. Her brother Mischa remained in Auschwitz until 7 October 1943.

Fortunately, before her final departure, Etty gave her diaries to Maria Tuinzing. Etty asked her to pass them along to the writer Klaas Smelik with the request that they be published if she did not return. Klaas Smelik's attempts to have the diaries published in the 1950s proved fruitless. They were published posthumously in 1981. Her diary and letters have been translated into dozens of languages and  there is now
The Etty Hillesum Research Centre (EHOC) of Ghent University, which provides opportunities for research and exchange for scholars world-wide working on Etty Hillesum's writings.

That Etty Hillesum could rise above hated in the midst of the horrors of her people reveals a tremendous inner strength.  I would recommend this book to all who love the diary of Anne Frank. It is an inspirational reading experience.
Our world needs the example of this Jewish woman who achieved a transformation in her life in so few years. Food for thought for us all!

“Sometimes I long for a convent cell, with the sublime wisdom of centuries set out on bookshelves all along the wall and a view across the cornfields--there must be cornfields and they must wave in the breeze--and there I would immerse myself in the wisdom of the ages and in myself. Then I might perhaps find peace and clarity. But that would be no great feat. It is right here, in this very place, in the here and the now, that I must find them. ”

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