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My broken body shared like bread

January 15 this year marks 100 years since Etty Hillesum, who was killed in Auschwitz on 30 November 1943, was born in the Netherlands

HONG KONG (SE): “She looked at me strangely and said, ‘You don’t understand me’. Then she said, ‘I want to share the destiny of my people’,” Klaas Smelik relates in describing the resignation to fate of Etty Hillesum.

Her resignation is somewhat explained in the last lines of her dairy where she expresses her readiness to offer herself to the Holocaust.

The young Jewish woman from Amsterdam went to her death with a clear vision of what she was doing. Friend and former lover, Smelik, recounted his last attempt to persuade her to go into hiding.

“If we were to save only our bodies and nothing more from the camps all over the world, that would be enough… If we have nothing to offer a desolate postwar world but our bodies saved at any cost, if we fail to draw new meaning from the deep wells of our distress and despair, then it would not be enough,” she wrote in her dairy, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork.

On January 27, United Nations Holocaust Memorial Day, an 87-year-old survivor of both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, Olga Horak, will speak at the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre to rekindle the memory.

January 15 this year marks 100 years since Hillesum, who was killed in Auschwitz on 30 November 1943, was born in the Netherlands.

Her dairy ends with the words, “I have broken my body like bread and shared it out among men. And why not, they were hungry and had gone without for so long.”

Hong Kong-based Father Gianni Criveller says that the imagery, at once deeply religious and profoundly physical, reflects her lifelong, troubled search for her true identity.

“The extensive diaries and letters bequeathed by Hillesum are being read by an increasing number of people, who open pages at random to find insight or comfort, in much the same way that the young Jewish woman did during her lifetime with the bible,” he says in an article entitled, Give me a small line of verse from time to time, published on the website of the Sunday Examiner.

Father Criveller describes Hillesum as nattering her inner confusion at the beginning of her dairy in March 1941, as she searches for emotional security by clutching at men.

She fell in love with one, Julius Spier, her therapist, and begins to read—Jung, Dostoevsky and Rainer Maria Rilke.

But she also reads the bible, especially the psalms, the gospels and St. Paul, as well as St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi.

Although she lives in a world of Nazi madness, her inner world is seen from her window as she gazes at the night sky—at a horizon of flowers. Drinking in this reality is her conscientious objection to barbarism.

“It is not that I am cutting myself off from all the suffering around me, nor is it a dulling of the senses. I take everything in and store it away, but I go my own way,” she explains.

She stares at a tree and asks if it is the tree that has changed or is it herself, but still she keeps her perspectives in two worlds.

“It still all comes down to the same thing; life is beautiful. And I believe in God. And I want to be there right in the thick of what people call horror and still be able to say; life is beautiful,” Hillesum writes.

In the deportation camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands, she watched people being herded into box cars for the train trip to probable death and comments, “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 with a spring in my step along the barbed wire.”

The lost girl from Amsterdam marked a radical turning point in her life through her affair with Spier—separated from his wife and with a girlfriend in London. She affirms that out of love for him she must draw strength and love for all who need it.

Father Criveller describes Hillesum as sexually liberated and even reckless, but says she fought against her appetites to be emotionally free, writing that she thinks she succeeded as she stood beside his corpse just one year later.

In gratitude, she says, “Yes, even as I stand here beside my dead companion, one who died much too soon, and just when I may be deported to some unknown destination. And yet, God, I am grateful for everything.”

She emerges as her own person and thanks her former lover and mentor saying, “You taught me to speak the name of God without embarrassment. You were the mediator between me and God, and now you, the mediator, have gone, and my path leads straight to God. And I shall be the mediator for any other soul I can reach.”

Father Criveller says that she felt a need to be a little voice and chose to do that by writing, which became a transformative activity and developed into the desire to be a chronicler.

“I have stopped crying. But my head still throbs,” she chronicles. “It is sheer hell here… I am sometimes so distracted by all the appalling happenings round me that it is far from easy to find the way back to myself. And yet that is what I must do. I must not let myself be ground down by the misery outside.”

Yet she finds the clarity of writing does not dispel the fear and misery. “The only fulfillment for me now is to lose myself in a piece of prose or in a poem, with each word of which I have to wrestle.”

But watching the trains being loaded for Auschwitz nearly becomes too much. “After this night it would be a sin to laugh again… I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life; ‘and God made man after his likeness’.”

She is conscious that she is the ears and eyes of a unique piece of Jewish history and feels an obligation to at least be a small voice.

“God almighty, what are you doing to us?” she screams, questioning whether it is possible to convey to the outside world what is happening inside the camp.

She knows she is destined to share the same fate as those herded into the box cars, but still she finds a little piece of God within her which grows into poetry.

Throughout her ordeal, gratitude is her overriding emotion.

“Oh God, I thank you for having created me as I am,” she pens. “I thank you for the sense of fulfillment I sometimes have; that fulfillment that is after all nothing but being filled with you. I promise you to strive all my whole life long for beauty and harmony and also humility and true love, whispers which I hear inside me during my best moments.”

Writing is her dedication to others. It is poetry in prose. The poetry is life and the poet is God. But Hillesum aches to be a poet.

She asks God why he did not make her a poet, but vows to wait until the words grow inside of her. “… the words that proclaim how good and beautiful it is to live in Your world.”

However, she concludes, “There is no hidden poet in me, just a little piece of God…” She says that the concentration camp needs a poet, “… as a bard is able to sing about it.”

She aches to chronicle the camp, but an old man tells her, “But to do that you’d have to be a great poet.” She admits that little journalistic pieces will not do.

In this conversation she finds her basic insight—God cannot help us. “We must help ourselves,” she pens, in order to preserve a little piece of God in our hearts.

“You cannot help us, but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside to the last,” she tells her creator.

She knows that it is not her agenda to help others, but believes that in helping God, she may become useful to them.

Father Criveller writes, “Etty sees herself as a missionary who passes the national boundaries, a prophet that speaks with a soft, but eloquent voice, made credible by her compassion.”

She looks upon herself as the girl who could not kneel in prayer, but learned to do so on the coconut matting of a bathroom floor, describing “such things as more intimate even then sex.”

This intimacy she cannot describe and again yearns to be a poet and to have the courage to speak God’s name.

Here she learns about life-giving love and life-poisoning hate, deriding the universal hatred for the German people in the camp as taking the easy way out.

“If there was only one decent German, then he should be cherished despite the whole barbaric gang.”

And for Hillesum, this insight was enough to allow her to believe that love can dissolve hatred and make the world whole again.

“Why do we always have to choose the cheapest way?” she asks.

Her compassion for her people is so deep she cannot but share their fate. And this she did on 30 November 1943.

In this conversation she finds her basic insight—God cannot help us. ‘We must help ourselves,’ she pens, in order to preserve a little piece of God in our hearts.


‘You cannot help us, but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside to the last,’ she tells her creator