“a balm for all wounds”: on the life of Etty Hillesum under Nazi occupation

It’s hard to know how to preface an essay about the Dutch-Jewish diarist Etty Hillesum, who lived in Amsterdam under Nazi occupation, and whose last journal entry was written a year before she was murdered at Auschwitz, while living between Amsterdam and Westerbork, a labour camp for Jews in the Dutch east. I want to say something about how many of us all over the world today, regardless of our specific circumstances, share a sense of the walls closing in; how I know that few terrors compare to murder in a concentration camp; but how, nevertheless, people who have lived through the most brutal forms of oppression without their spirits being crushed, have something to tell any of us at any time. The preface does not come neatly – but in short, I’m sure there is nobody on earth today who cannot learn from Etty Hillesum.

Etty’s diaries, published as An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43, commence when she was twenty-seven. They describe yellow stars and ghettoes, Jews forbidden to buy in stores frequented by non-Jews, some days the sound of “planes, ack-ack fire, shooting, bombs”. Etty suffers sore and blistered feet because of having to walk all over Amsterdam along designated streets, since Jews are not allowed on the trams. In June, 1941, she records:

More arrests, more terror, concentration camps, the arbitrary dragging off of fathers, sisters, brothers. We seek the meaning of life, wondering whether any meaning can be left. But that is something each of us must settle with himself and with God.

In that moment, Etty could not see beyond this paradox: “Everything is chance, or nothing is chance. If I believed the first, I would be unable to live on, but I am not yet fully convinced of the second.”

Etty’s whole journal is an extraordinary record of her successful transformation of this sense of meaninglessness at a time that seemed to allow for it least. Against the odds, Etty prevailed in her desire to “mature… enough to assume my destiny, to cease living an accidental life.” She succeeds through constant introspection, reflection, and writing, even as she frequently asks herself – and is asked by others – if these inclinations are not “escapist,” in the context of genocide. But her diaries record stark confrontation with the prospect of annihilation, not escapism. She writes, “[t]here are few illusions left to us. Life is going to be very hard. We shall be torn apart, all who are dear to one another. I don’t think the time is very far off now.” A few pages on, this reality only confirms her need to become more in touch with herself, God, and her inner resources:

I see no other solution, I really see no other solution than to turn inward and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves. And that seems to me to be the only lesson to be learnt from this war. That we must look into ourselves and nowhere else.

By February 1942, Etty had to visit the Gestapo hall, where an officer was shouting at Jews to take their hands out of their pockets, and other paranoid things, and Etty merely found him pitiable. Noticing the expression on her face, the officer yelled at her to “get the hell out of here.” She wrote:

I am not easily frightened. Not because I am brave, but because I know I am dealing with human beings and that I must try as hard as I can to understand everything that anyone ever does. And that was the real import of this morning: not that a disgruntled young Gestapo officer yelled at me, but that I felt no indignation, rather a real compassion, and would have liked to ask, ‘Did you have a very unhappy childhood, has your girlfriend let you down?’ Yes, he looked harassed and driven, sullen and weak. I should have liked to start treating him there and then, for I know that pitiful young men like that are dangerous as soon as they are let loose on mankind. But all the blame must be put on a system that uses such people. What needs eradicating is the evil in man, not man himself.

There is an important catalyst to Etty’s inner transformation and remarkable courage: her relationship with Julius Spier, a Jungian analyst and palm reader Etty meets at the outset of her diary (the first entry being dated March 1941). Spier becomes Etty’s therapist, and then her friend and lover. In fact, Etty’s journal entries are more preoccupied with her inner life, love of Rilke, and her relationship with God and with Spier (referred to as ‘S.’ in her entries) than the intensification of Nazi persecution around her. It is the way Etty processes her entanglement with Spier in tandem with asking herself what the violence she is living through demands of her that ultimately leads to her growth.

A feminist reader may find it difficult to feel kindly toward Spier. Not only because of his breach of professional boundaries and his rather tactile treatment methods but because of the three-decade age gap between himself and Etty. Yet, by the end of the text, it would take a hardened heart indeed to deny the extraordinary bond of love and respect between them, and the way it fosters Etty’s inner growth. In early April 1942, Etty writes,

With every new phase of our relationship I look back and say to myself, ‘The bond between us has never been as deep and strong as it is now.’ With every fresh step the relationship seems to gain in intensity and all that went before seems to pale in comparison, so much more many-sided and colourful and eloquent and inward does our relationship become all the time.

At the same time, Etty is determined not to succumb to feelings that she “wanted to ‘own’ him … wanted him to be part of me.” Early in her journal, she reflects on her lifelong codependency, saying: “All my life I had had the feeling that, for all my apparent self-reliance, if someone came along, took me by the hand, and bothered about me, I would be only too willing and eager to deliver myself up to his care.” Because of this, she admits that “[m]y immediate reaction when meeting a man is invariable to gauge his sexual possibilities. I recognise this as a bad habit that must be stamped out.”

For Etty, the process of ‘stamping out’ her neediness is not as merciless as the phrase would suggest: it involves constant, gentle self-observation, inquiry, reassurance, writing, and prayer. And slowly, Etty discovers that by resisting the temptation to attach her love desperately to “one man … one paltry man,” the love inside her begins to swell, enhance her “human warmth,” and become the very force that enables her to meet her “destiny” in the impossible circumstances of Nazi occupation. As Etty patiently watches herself, she sees that “[s]omething in me is growing, and every time I look inside, something fresh has appeared and all I have to do is accept it, to take it upon myself, to bear it forward, and to let it flourish.” She gradually discovers within herself an

exultation that all kinds of human beings should feel free to open themselves to me, that no human being is alien to me any longer, that I can find the way to people of every sort … joyful love for all the many kinds of people, and happiness because I shall always be able to find my way to each one of them.

It seems today that humankind is getting better and better at talking about ‘love and kindness’ as the world around us burns, and while we are saturated with objectified sex – from pornography to the glorification of prostitution, to making Pride flags for every conceivable and inconceivable sexual orientation, to dating on Tinder as though it’s a form of online shopping, to the usual Hollywood preoccupation with romance. What Etty shows us is that love is not just a fuzzy feeling or some sort of abstract, high moral value, but a force, a real living energy that, when set free from our compulsive and possessive attachments, enables us to meet the real challenges of our lives. “We could fight war and all its excrescences by releasing, each day, the love that is shackled inside us, and giving it a chance to live.”

By April 1942, Etty describes many moments where she is “certain that no matter where I was in the world I would always find stars and be able to flop down on a bed, or on a floor, or anywhere else, and feel absolutely at home.” Whilst she suspects that her ‘privilege’ relative to other Jews may make it easier for her to entertain such ideas, she writes with starkness and conviction:

I am not really frightened of anything, I feel so strong; it matters little whether you have to sleep on a hard floor, or whether you are only allowed to walk through certain specified streets, and so on – these are all minor vexations, so insignificant compared with the infinite riches and possibilities we carry within us. We must guard these and remain true to them and keep faith with them.

Etty’s seriousness, clarity, and courage are increasingly apparent, as is her certainty that what she is practicing is not escapism. In July 1942, she writes, “We try to save so much in life with a vague sort of mysticism. Mysticism must rest on crystal-clear honesty, can only come after things have been stripped down to their naked reality.”

That same month, to her own dismay, out of a need for income, Etty accepts a job at the Jewish Council, which (as Eva Hoffman explains in the Preface to An Interrupted Life), “was formed at the instigation of the Germans to mediate between the Nazis and the mass of Jews. The Nazis gave orders to the Council and then let it decide how to implement them. The Council was under the illusion that by negotiation it could save the Jews from the worst.” Etty finds it dismal to work there:

My letter of application to the Jewish Council … has upset my cheerful yet deadly serious equilibrium. As if I had done something underhand. Like crowding onto a small piece of wood adrift on an endless ocean after a shipwreck and then saving oneself by pushing others into the water and watching them drown. It is all so ugly. And I don’t think much of this particular crowd, either. I would much rather join those who prefer to float on their backs for a while, drifting on the ocean with their eyes turned towards heaven, and who then go down with a prayer.

As she begins work, a street round-up of Jews takes place in Amsterdam: the Jews were taken to Westerbork, close to the German border. Westerbork was a transit camp – between life in Holland, and Auschwitz. Amazingly, Etty notes that the call-up notice for deportation informed recipients that “the journey is free, oh yes free, and they are not allowed to take any pets with them.”

From here, Etty’s understanding of her “destiny” only becomes more radical as she begins to understand that “God is not accountable to us for the senseless harm we cause one another. We are accountable to Him!” In one passage, she reflects, “If we have to share a prison cell with several others, isn’t it our duty to keep our bodies and souls clean and fresh?” It is dawning on her that she wants to go to Westerbork voluntarily. Despite her friends telling her this means “that I have given up,” she begins preparing:

Have I really made so much progress that I can say with complete honesty, I hope they will send me to a labour camp so that I can do something for the sixteen-year-old girls who will also be going?…

When I tell others, Fleeing or hiding is pointless, there is no escape, so let’s just do what we can for others, it sounds too much like defeatism, like something I don’t mean at all. I cannot find the right words either for that radiant feeling inside me, which encompasses but is untouched by all the suffering and all the violence.

Etty goes. For a time, special permits from the Jewish Council allow her to travel between Westerbork and Amsterdam, and she brings letters and messages and medicines. At the times she is prevented from returning to Westerbork because of illness, she becomes frustrated about being unable to return, and her commitment is palpable. She writes: “I so wish I could put it all into words. Those two months behind barbed wire have been the two richest and most intense months of my life, in which my highest values were so deeply confirmed. I have learned to love Westerbork.”

Etty’s grappling with God seems to resolve itself as she commits to becoming the “thinking heart of the barracks”; doing all she can to safeguard God within herself (“they may succeed in breaking me physically, but no more than that”); comforting the Jews at Westerbork; easing their suffering, and volunteering in the hospital. Writing to God in her diary, she says:

Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God.

Inevitably, Etty’s ability to gain passes to travel back to Amsterdam came to a halt. She was under no illusions about this. In September 1943, she was sent to Auschwitz, and to reassure her friends, she wrote a postcard from the train and threw it out the window. The postcard was discovered by a farmer and delivered to the address. It read, “I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning. On sudden special order from The Hague. We left the camp singing …”

A year earlier, the last line in Etty’s diary had read: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.” It seems that is just what she did.

To learn more about Etty Hillesum, watch this video from 43:57, and read ‘An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43’.

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