Spiritual joy: Etty Hillesum

Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam when the Netherlands was occupied by German troops in 1940. Although Etty did not survive the war, her diary and letters are a remarkable chronicle of spiritual transformation in response to suffering. The diary begins in March, 1941, when Etty, then age 27, was a student of Russian language and literature, having previously completed a degree in law. The early diary entries deal primarily with Etty’s search for a better understanding of herself and her calling in life, with her romantic life, her enjoyment of music and socializing with friends, and her love of nature, literature and poetry. The war and the treatment of Jews are scarcely mentioned in the first year of the diary. This changed abruptly in the early spring of 1942 when German repression of Dutch Jews escalated. As Etty notes in her diary, Jews were forced out of jobs and professions, restricted from many parts of the city, required to be off the streets by 8:00 p.m., required to wear a yellow star in public, etc. Jews were also forced to relocate from small towns into the city where they faced overcrowded housing and shortages of food. Then there was news that all Dutch Jews were to be deported to concentration camps in Poland and elsewhere, and a chilling report was heard on an English radio broadcast that 700,000 European Jews had died at the hands of the Nazis in the previous year. It became evident that the lives of all Jews were in peril.

As oppression of the Jews intensified, Etty took a clerical job with the Jewish Council in Amsterdam which offered assistance to Jews who had been uprooted from homes and jobs; however, she found the situation draining—not only the overwhelming deluge of desperate Jews, but a troubling apprehension that the activities of the Jewish Council were facilitating the efforts of the Nazis to deport the Jews. After several weeks in this setting, which she described as “midway between hell and a madhouse,” she volunteered to accompany the first group of Jews who were sent to Westerbork. Westerbork was a sort of transit concentration camp enclosed by barbed wire and guard towers where Dutch Jews were forcibly assembled before being loaded on trains bound for Auschwitz or other concentration camps in Poland.

Etty was assigned to assist people as they arrived at Westerbork by the trainload and was later assigned responsibility for the “hospital barracks.” (Although there were Jewish doctors among the inmates, there was little they could do without medical supplies and facilities.) Usually after a short stay at Westerbork people were loaded into freight cars which were bare except for a bucket in the center of the car, and each car was jammed with seventy people for the three-day journey to Poland. People were generally not informed until the middle of the night that they were to be on the train leaving in the morning.

Etty’s diary records the unfolding of these events, but it also traces the course of her inner life in response to these events. When the calamity facing Jews became clearly evident in early 1942, Etty initially struggled simply to face what was happening—in her words, to “take everything in.” “The threat grows ever greater, and terror increases from day to day,” she wrote in her diary. And she noted that “though my mind has come to terms with it all, my body hasn’t. It has disintegrated into a thousand pieces, and each piece has a different pain.” There were times when she felt “sick and confused…full of cold fear and uncertainty…” But at the same time she was aware that “something in me is growing” in a kind of “organic process,” “a growing sense of self-certainty.”

When Etty was able to summon her inner strength, she found that she could “bear everything and grow stronger in the bearing of it, and at the same time feel that life is beautiful and worth living and meaningful.” About the same time she wrote: “Something has crystallized. I have looked our destruction . . . straight in the eye and accepted it into my life, and my love of life has not been diminished . . . I have come to terms with life, nothing can happen to me . . .”

She also became aware of a “directive force deep down . . . a soundless voice that tells me what to do . . .” as well as “ . . . an inner regulator, which warns me every time I take the wrong path by bringing on a ‘depression’.” In this way she was guided to “remain honest and open with myself…and to do what my conscience commands…”

As the world around her disintegrated and prospects for her own survival dimmed, Etty’s interior life increasingly became the center of her existence. Nurturing the inner qualities of courage, integrity, love and peace gave a sense of meaning to her life, and she realized that these qualities could not only survive adverse conditions but grow stronger in response to them. Etty wrote in her diary that the past year, the year in which the crackdown on Jews occurred, was “my most beautiful year…because my life is increasingly an inner one, and the outer setting matters less and less.”

In a letter from Westerbork, written some months before she was deported to Poland, she said: “You know, if you don’t have the inner strength while you’re here to understand that all outer appearances are a passing show, as nothing beside the great splendor…inside us—then things can look very black here indeed.” With this understanding she rested in the assurance that “essentially no one can do me any harm at all.”

Etty’s relationship to suffering initially had been adversarial—a determination not to let her spirit, her aliveness, be broken by it. But she gradually came to an acceptance of suffering and death as an integral part of the experience of being alive, and recognized that suffering has the potential to stir compassion for others and to bring a greater appreciation for the preciousness of life. Too often in the face of suffering, she said, “we cease to be alive, being full of fear, bitterness, hatred, and despair . . .” The main source of this problem, she believed, is our thoughts and ideas about suffering rather than the suffering itself: “man suffers most through his fears of suffering.”

And Etty came to understand that “we have to accept death as a part of life . . .” This does not mean succumbing to hopelessness; in fact, she wrote, it sounds paradoxical but “by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich it.” “Living and dying, sorrow and joy…it is all as one in me,” she wrote, “and I accept it all as one mighty whole…”

Etty also became keenly aware of the interconnectedness of the interior life and happenings in the world. She wrote, “we carry everything within us, God and Heaven and Hell . . . the externals are simply so many props…which does not mean we cannot devote our life to curing the bad. But . . . we must begin with ourselves, every day anew.” In a letter Etty related a conversation she had with a friend at Westerbork in which she said, “we have so much work to do on ourselves we shouldn’t even be thinking of hating our so-called enemies…. each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.”

Her own absence of hatred, Etty said, “in no way implies the absence of moral indignation,” but she was determined not to add to the hatred. “It has been brought home forcibly here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place.” “Ultimately,” she wrote, “we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves . . . and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”

“Many feel that their love of mankind languishes at Westerbork,” Etty wrote, “because it receives no nourishment—meaning that people here don’t give you much occasion to love them . . . But I keep discovering that there is no causal connection between people’s behavior and the love you feel for them.” Love for others, Etty said, “is like an elemental glow that sustains you.”

Although Etty was able to accept with equanimity her own suffering, it remained deeply painful to her to witness the suffering of those around her: “I . . . know that one can only accept for oneself and not for others,” she wrote. But she developed an inner resilience which enabled her to cope with the suffering. In a letter she wrote, “the misery here is quite terrible; and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk . . . along the barbed wire. And then time and again, it soars straight from my heart . . . like some elementary force—that feeling that life is glorious…”

However, Etty’s resilience was tested when her parents and one of her two brothers arrived at Westerbork as inmates. “Living in fear for your loved ones,” she wrote, “is something few can bear . . . I feel perfectly able to bear my lot, but not that of my parents.” It was at times difficult, she said, “not to be overwhelmed by pity for my parents.”

Etty’s resilience was particularly tested by the suffering of children. In a letter Etty told of a night in August, 1943, when, once again, hundreds of inmates were awakened during the night and told to prepare to board a freight train in the morning bound for Poland. What was most difficult to bear was “those tiny piercing screams of the babies, dragged from their cots in the middle of the night.” The suffering of the young children, some of them left abandoned when their parents were transported to Poland ahead of them, was also a source of great anguish. One child confided to Etty “how hard it is to die.” Another child, panic stricken, ran away to hide; although he was soon found, fifty more Jews were ordered onto the train as a reprisal for the boy’s action. And through it all there was the sound of the babies “whose pitiful screams punctuate all the frantic activity in the barracks.” “There was a moment,” Etty wrote, “when I felt in all seriousness that after this night, it would be a sin ever to laugh again.”

A few weeks later, the names of Etty and her family appeared on the list of those to be deported to Poland. This came as a particular shock to Etty since she had been informed earlier that same day that she and other remaining members of the Jewish Council would be staying in Westerbork for a while. After Etty’s departure, a friend of Etty’s at Westerbork wrote a letter saying, “for Etty it was a complete surprise . . . which did in fact literally strike her down. Within the hour, however, she had recovered and adapted herself to the new situation with admirable speed.” And just hours later he observed Etty on the train platform, “talking gaily, smiling, a kind word for everyone she met on the way.” Etty and her family all boarded the same train, and all died at Auschwitz.

[Source: Etty Hillesum, Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996).

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