The inner transformation of Etty Hillesum
by Gianni Criveller
Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman from Amsterdam, who was killed on 30 November 1943 in Auschwitz, has left behind her a diary and letters that are capturing an increasing number of readers worldwide.
Many emphasise words or phrases that are particularly significant for them, or they open a page at random, to find words that give light or comfort. She herself, in crucial moments, used to do the same with the bible.
Life is really beautiful
In the first pages of the diary, Etty natters her inner confusion. She searches for emotional security in men and clutches at Julius Spier, founder of psychochirology (psychological counseling based on hand analysis) and her therapist; she falls in love with him and becomes his lover.
She reads a lot—Jung, Dostoevsky (especially The Idiot) and Rainer Maria Rilke, the most beloved German poet. She also reads the bible and she especially mentions the psalms, the gospels and St. Paul. She knows other Christian authors, including St. Augustine and St. Francis.
From the window of her room she looks at the night sky, at the horizon and the flowers. She lives in an alternative world to the Nazi madness. Experiencing other realities is the conscientious objection by Etty against the barbarism that surrounds her:
In all this chaos and misery I follow my own rhythm, so much so that at any given moment between typing letters I can immerse myself in the things that matter to me. 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 (191).
There is a tree that looks at her, a silent witness of a stupefying transformation we are going to describe in this paper:
The tree is still there, the tree that could write my life story. But it is no longer the same tree, or is it I who am no longer the same? (198).
Her inner world is nourished by the beauty of nature (the tree, the red-pink cyclamen, the roses), by her favorite authors, her poetry and her writing. Etty professes a faith that is particularly disconcerting in the beauty of life:
If I should survive and keep saying, ‘Life is beautiful and meaningful,’ then they will have to believe me! If all this suffering does not help us to broaden our horizon, to attain a greater humanity by shedding all trifling and irrelevant issues, then it will all have been for nothing (191).
This morning I said to Jopie, ‘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’ (226).
The same impressive statement is reiterated in the deportation camp of Westerbork (Holland), where Jews were herded before being deported to Auschwitz:
The misery that is 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. And then time and again, it soars straight from my heart—I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force—the feeling that life is glorious and wonderful (294).
On 2 September 1943, three months before her death, Etty wrote her last letter:
How terribly young we were only a year ago on this heath, Maria! Now we’ve grown a little older. We hardly realised it ourselves: we have been marked by suffering for a whole lifetime. And yet life in its unfathomable depths is so wonderfully good, Maria—I have to come to that time and again (358-359).
You taught me to speak the name of God
The diary begins (9 March 1941) when Etty meets the love of her life, Julius Spier. It was exactly the irregular affair with Spier, who was separated from his wife, but with a girlfriend in London, which marked a radical turning point in the life of the lost girl from Amsterdam.
Etty loved very much “the man she shall always long for” (174-175); and affirmed that “out of my love for him I must draw strength and love to everyone who needs it” (167).
Etty was a woman sexually liberated and even reckless. She had to co-opt her inner forces “to fight against my appetite for adventure and my far-reaching erotic curiosity” (17) and emotionally free herself from her master and lover.
“God knows how ‘terribly’ I have become ‘used’ to him,” she wrote on 7 July 1942 (167).
Only two months later, sitting at the side of Spier’s corpse (who died on the very same day he was to be deported to Westerbork), she realised that such a titanic process of emotional emancipation was fully accomplished.
On 16 September 1942, Etty, she writes:
I am not really sad, am I? I would like to fold my hands and say: Friends, I am happy and grateful, and I find life very beautiful and meaningful. Yes, even as I stand here by 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 (203).
It was the love affair with Julius Spier that gave Etty the emotional toll and language that allowed her to meet and talk to God (we shall return to this surprising outcome of the inner experience of Etty):
You taught me to speak the name of God without embarrassment. You were the mediator between God and me, and now that 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 (200).
I feel the need to be a little voice
Spier asked Etty to write a diary for therapeutic purposes. The transformation that writing caused in Etty was radical indeed, disclosing to her a moral and historical mission. On 6 August 1941, a few months after beginning her diary, Etty expressed the awareness of the need to write and the enormous effort that this exercise required:
I want to become the chronicler of the things that are happening now (...) Oh yes, a chronicler (…) I have stopped crying. But my head still throbs. It is sheer hell here. I would have to be quite a writer to describe it properly (…) I am sometimes so distracted by all the appalling happenings round me that it’s far from easy to find the way back to myself. And yet that’s what I must do. I mustn’t let myself be ground down by the misery outside (41).
Her diary, on 9 March 1941, begins with words of great uncertainty, hesitation and frustration.
The exercise of writing was an adversary that needed to be put under control:
Here goes, then. This is a painful and well-nigh insuperable step for me: yielding up so much that has been suppressed to a blank sheet of lined paper (...) Deep down something like a tightly wound ball of twine binds me relentlessly, and at times I am nothing more or less than a miserable, frightened creature, despite the clarity with which I can express myself (3).
Etty puts into practice the directive of her therapist in an excellent way: by writing she becomes aware of herself and of her talents:
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 (70).
Last night when I was walking home to mull over the latest news, I thought to myself: I could write a book… I hope I shall remember everything that happens to us so that one day I’ll be able to retell it all. It is so different from everything you read in books, altogether different. (...) I approach things like an artist and expect that later, when I feel the need to tell everything, I shall have what talent it takes to do so (168-169).
Time will come when writing would be really an agonising and excruciating exercise. Every Monday, from the camp of Westerbork, thousands of Jews were loaded into trains and deported to Auschwitz. The following scene is to take place at the deportation camp of Westerbork on the night of 23 August 1943. Etty is still in shock, and claims that narrating what has happened is impossible, as she still cannot believe what she has just seen:
There was a moment when I felt in all seriousness that after this night it would be a sin ever to laugh again. (…) I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life: and God made man after His likeness. That passage spent a difficult morning with me. I have told you often enough that no words and images are adequate to describe nights like these. But still I must try to convey something of it for you. One always has that feeling here of being the ears and the eyes of a piece of Jewish history, but there is also the need sometimes to be a still, small voice (...).
But the babies, those tiny piercing screams of the babies, dragged from their cots in the middle of the night to be transported away. I have to put it all down quickly, in a muddle, because if I leave it until later I probably won’t be able to go on believing that it really happened. (...) “God Almighty, what are You doing to us?” The words just escape me (...).
A Russian woman asks me with her strange accent in the voice of a child that begs for forgiveness: “Surely God will be able to understand my doubts in a world like this, won’t He?” (…). I ask my companion: “Could one ever hope to convey to the outside world what has happened here today?” (…).
My God, are the doors really being shut now? Yes, they are. Shut on the herded, densely packed mass of people inside. Through small openings at the top we can see heads and hands, hands that will wave to us later when the train leaves (...).
We know nothing of their fate. It is only a short while, perhaps before we find out, each one of us in his own time. For we are all marked down to share that fate, of that I have not a moment’s doubt (340-354).
Etty feels called to be the “thinking heart of the barracks” (199, 225) and “a balm for all wounds” (231). Writing is not only for expressing herself, but for being transformed, and finally for becoming herself in her fullness:
Oh God, the last one and a half years! And the last two months, which were a whole life in themselves. But have I not had hours of which I could said: “This one hour is like a whole life, and if I should suddenly die, it would still have been worth it?” And there have been many such hours (199).
There is in me a little piece of God that grows into poetry
To accomplish the task of writing what seems impossible, she needs to continuously access her extraordinary inner resources:
Oh God, I thank you for having created me as I am. 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 my whole life long for beauty and harmony and also humility and true love, whispers of which I hear inside me during my best moments (73-74).
Through me course wide rivers and in me rise tall mountains. And beyond the thickets of my agitation and confusion there stretch the wide plains of my peace and surrender. All landscapes are within me. And there is room for everything. The earth is in me, and the sky. And I well know that something like hell can also be in one, though I no longer experience it in myself, but I can still feel it in others with great intensity (The Letters and Diaries, 546).
Etty encounters God by the way of writing; and the experience of God is again transformed in new writing, or rather in poetry:
Why did You not make me a poet, oh God? But perhaps You did, and so I shall wait patiently until the words have grown inside me, the words that proclaim how good and how beautiful it is to live in Your world, oh God, despite everything we human beings do to one another (199).
The writing is transformed: it becomes a practice of caring for self; a spiritual practice and a dedication to others. And, inevitably, it becomes poetry.
If I have one duty in these times, it is to bear witness. I think I have learned to take it all in, to read life in one long stretch. And in my youthful arrogance I am often sure that I can remember every least thing I see and that I shall be able to relate it all one day. Still, I must try to put it down now (219).
There is no hidden poet in me, just a little piece of God that might grow into poetry. And a camp needs a poet, one who experiences life there, even there, as a bard is able to sing about it (225).
From Westerbork, Etty writes letters poignant and dramatic to the extreme:
With sudden inspiration I said: “One ought to write a chronicle of Westerbork.” An older man to my left—also eating red cabbage—answered: “Yes, but to do that you’d have to be a great poet.” He is right, it would take great poet. Little journalistic pieces won’t do. The whole of Europe is gradually being turned into one big prison camp (243).
Dear God, I shall help You, as You cannot help us
Writing is the place where Etty meets, talks, defends and stays with God:
Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me. I shall promise you one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow.
Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us, that we must help you to help ourselves. And this is all we can manage these days, and also all that really matters: that we safeguard a little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in other as well.
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 (...). I am beginning to feel a little more peaceful, God, thanks to this conversation with you.
I shall have many more conversations with you. You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labor for You and remain faithful to You and I shall never drive You from my presence. (178)
The singular purpose of helping God has become the mission of Etty in the world. This concept has become a peculiar characteristic of her life vision, and it is spelled out quite clearly and frequently in her diary:
I don’t fool myself about the real state of affairs, and I’ve even dropped the pretension that I’m out to help others. I shall merely try to help God as best I can, and if I succeed in doing that, then I shall be of use to others as well. But I mustn’t have heroic illusions about that either (174).
Etty sees herself as a missionary who passes the national boundaries, a prophet that speaks with a soft yet eloquent voice, made credible by her capacity for compassion:
One day, I would love to travel through all the world, oh God; I feel drawn right across all frontiers and feel a bound with all your warring creatures. And I would like to proclaim that bond in a small, still voice but also compellingly and without pause. But first I must be present on every battlefront and at the center of all human suffering, and then I will have the right to speak, won’t I?
Every time is like a little heat wave, even after the most difficult moments: Life is really beautiful. (…) Give me a small line of verse from time to time, oh God, and if I cannot write it down for lack of paper or light, then let me address it softly in the evening to Your great Heaven. But please give me a small line of verse now and then. (A Life Interrupted, 214-215)
The girl who could not kneel
Etty experiences not being able not to pray. She finds herself suddenly kneeling, almost unwittingly, almost against her will. The kneeling girl’ is a progressively recurring expression in her diary.
Still a lot of false shame to get rid of. And there is God. The girl who could not kneel but learned to do so on the rough coconut matting in an untidy bathroom. Such things are often more intimate even than sex. The story of the girl who gradually learned to kneel is something I would love to write in the fullest possible way (60-61).
Last night, shortly before going to bed, I suddenly went down on my knees… Almost automatically. Forced to the ground by something stronger than myself. Some time ago I said to myself, “I am a kneeler in training.” I was still embarrassed by this act, as intimate as gestures of love that cannot be put into words… you need courage to put that into words, except by a poet. (…)
“I sometimes have the feeling that God is right inside me”. (...) This phrase has been ringing in my hear for several weeks: you need courage to put that into words. The courage to speak God’s name (74).
As I walked down those overcrowded corridors today, I suddenly felt the urge to kneel down right there, on the stone floor, among all those people. The only adequate gesture left to us in these times: kneeling down before You. Each day I learn something new about people and realise more and more that the only strength comes, not from others, ‘but from within’ (188).
Sometimes, when I least expect it, someone suddenly kneels down in some corner in my being. When I’m out walking or just talking to people. And that someone, the one who kneels down, is myself (203).
What a strange story really is, my story: the girl who could not kneel. Or its variation: the girl who learned to pray (228).
By kneeling, Etty feels in the arms of God, and therefore she does not feel the need to escape the tragedy that has befallen on her people:
Many accuse me of indifference and passivity when I refuse to go into hiding; they say that I have given up. They say everyone who can must try to stay out of their clutches, its our bounden duty to try. But that argument is specious. For while everyone tries to save himself, vast numbers are nevertheless disappearing. And the funny thing is that I don’t feel I’m in their clutches anyway, whether I stay here, or I am sent away. (...)
I don’t feel in anybody’s clutches; I feel safe in God’s arms, to put it rhetorically, and no matter I am sitting at this beloved old desk now, or in a bare room in the Jewish district, or perhaps in a labor camp under the SS guards, in a month’s time, I shall always feel safe in God’s arm (176).
Being with God is the source of an exceptional psychological and emotional strength, so necessary to overcoming the horror she witnesses everyday:
Had all of this happened to me only a year ago, I should certainly have collapsed within three days, committed suicide, or pretended to a false kind of cheerfulness. But now I am filled with such equanimity, endurance, and calmness that I can see things very clearly and have an inkling of how they fit together. I don’t know what it is, but despite everything I am very well, dear God (The Letters and Diaries, 501).
If there were only one decent German
Julius Spier has introduced Etty not only to the experience of God, but also into the (then) unpopular notion that hatred should be won over by love. She narrates, in one of the earlier pages of her diary, a conversation with the master.
And when we came to the words, “If there were only one human being worthy of the name of 'man,' then we should be justified in believing in men and in humanity,” I threw my arms round him on a sudden impulse. It is the problem of our age: hatred of Germans poisons everyone's mind. "Let the bastards drown, the lot of them"—such sentiments have become part and parcel of our daily speech and sometimes make one feel that life these days has grown impossible.
Until suddenly, a few weeks ago, I had a liberating thought that surfaced in me like a hesitant, tender young blade of grass thrusting its way through a wilderness of weeds: if there were only one decent German, then he should be cherished despite that whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people.
That doesn't mean you have to be halfhearted; on the contrary, you must make a stand, wax indignant at times, try to get to the bottom of things. But indiscriminate hatred is the worst thing there is. It is a sickness of the soul. Hatred does not lie in my nature. If things were to come to such a pass that I began to hate people, then I would know that my soul was sick and I should have to look for a cure as quickly as possible (11)
The world falls apart, the persecution increases destroying her life, yet Etty remains convinced that the root of evil is inside of each one of us:
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 the only lesson to be learned from this war. That we must look into ourselves and nowhere else (84).
On 8 December 1942 Etty still proclaimed her belief in love over hatred, even after being at the concentration camp of Westerbork, a living hell made of mud and cold; sickness and overcrowding; noise and fear; misery and depression; violence and desperation.
Yes, it is true, our ultimate human values are being put to the test. (…) But rebellion born only when distress begins to affect one personally is no real rebellion and can never bear fruit. And the absence of hatred in no way implies the absence of moral indignation. I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way?
It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place. And I also believe, childishly perhaps but stubbornly, that the earth will become more habitable again only through the love that the Jew Paul described to the citizens of Corinth in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter (255-256).
Klaas Smelik, the close friend to whom Etty gave her diary notebooks, disagrees. They have different opinions on many things, including on how to react to Nazi persecution. Here follow the description of their umpteenth clash:
Klaas, all I really wanted to say is this: we have so much work to do on ourselves that we shouldn't even be thinking of hating our so-called enemies. (…) And I repeat with the same old passion, although I am gradually beginning to think that I am being tiresome, "It is the only thing we can do, Klaas, I see no alternative, each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others." And you, Klaas, dogged old class fighter that you have always been, dismayed and astonished at the same time, say, "But that-that is nothing but Christianity!" And I, amused by your confusion, retort quite coolly, "Yes, Christianity, and why ever not?” (212).
In fact, Etty was quite familiar; one might dare say even at ease with Christianity. She quotes St. Francis of Assisi’s best-known prayer in her diary at least twice:
Oh, Master, let me not yearn so much To be consoled… but long to console; To be understood… but long to understand; To be loved… but long to love (The Letters and Diaries, 102).
Lord, make me less eager to be understood by others but make me understand them (227).
I want to share the fate of my people
By writing, knowing herself and conversing with God, Etty comes to experience an infinite compassion for the suffering of her people, to the point that she cannot subtract herself from sharing their fate.
Klaas Smelik recounts his last, dramatic and vain attempt to persuade Etty to go into hiding with him and save herself. An emotionally and physical quarrel took place between the two good friends and former lovers, narrated by Klaas as follows:
She wormed herself free and stood at a distance of about five feet from me. She looked at me very strangely and said: “You don’t understand me”. I replied: “No, I don’t understand what on earth you are up to. Why don’t you stay here, you fool!” Then she said: “I want to share the destiny of my people.” When she said that, I knew there was no hope. She would never come to us (Coetsier, 41).
Etty had made that dramatic determination already for some time, as reported in her diary on 10 July 1942:
Anyone who seeks to save himself must surely realise that if he does not go another must take his place. As if it really mattered which of us goes. Our is now a common destiny (172).
Only 16 months after starting her diary, Etty is ready to share to the ultimate the fate of her people. The insecure girl has turned into a 28-year-old woman who, voluntarily and in full awareness, chooses martyrdom:
People often get worked up when I say it doesn’t really matter whether I go or somebody else does, the main thing is that so many thousands have to go. It is not as if I want to fall into the arms of destruction with a resigned smile—far from it. I am only bowing to the inevitable, and even as I do so I am sustained by the certain knowledge that ultimately they cannot rob us of anything that matters. But I don’t think I would feel be happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer.
They keep telling me that someone like me has a duty to go into hiding, because I have so many things to do in life, so much to give. But I know that whatever I may have to give to others, I can give it no matter where I am, here in the circle of my friends or over there, in a concentration camp.
And it is sheer arrogance to think oneself too good to share the fate of the masses. And if God Himself should feel that I still have a great deal to do, well then, I shall do it after I have suffered what all the others have to suffer” (177).
A determination reiterated in a letter to her friend Osias Kormann (4 November 1942):
I believe we can extract something positive from life under any circumstances, but we have the right to say that only if we do nothing to escape, even from the worst conditions. I often think we should shoulder our rucksacks, join others and go on deportation with them (Anna Brown, 68).
Etty accepts her fate, before history and before Europe, with lucid awareness and a sense of mission, a moral and historical mission that she has taken on herself. She is ready to offer herself in holocaust:
If we were to save only our bodies and nothing more from the camps all over the world, that would not 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 (250).
Her self-giving, in solidarity with her people, is expressed in the last lines of her diary, with words exceptionally evocative:
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 (230).
The dark eyes with a gentle look
I conclude reporting a moving self-portrait by Etty. A passage that I find at the same time strikingly feminine and romantic; humorous and poignant:
How shall I really feel and act, I keep wondering, if I receive an order to leave in a week’s time? I wouldn’t tell a soul at first but retire in the quietest spot in the house, withdraw into myself and gather what strength to every corner of the body and soul. I would have my hair cut short and throw my lipstick away. I would try to finish reading the Rilke letter before the week was out. And I'd have a pair of trousers and a jacket made out of that heavy winter coat material I’ve got left over.
I would try to see my parents, of course, and do my best to reassure them, and every spare minute I would want to write to him, the man I shall always long for, I now know that for certain. Yes, when I think about having to leave him and never being able to know what is happening to him, I feel like as if I were dying already.
In a few days’ time I shall go to the dentist and have lots and lots of holes in my teeth filled. For that really would be bizarre: suffering from toothache out there! I shall try to get hold of a rucksack and pack only what is absolutely essential, though everything must be of good quality. I shall take a Bible along and that slim volume Letters to a Young Poet, and surely I’ll be able to find some corner for the Book of Hours.
I won’t take along any photograph of those I love; I’ll just take all the faces and familiar gestures I have collected and hang them along the walls of my inner space so that they will always be with me.
And these two hands will go along with me, their expressive fingers like strong young twigs. And these hands will keep protecting me in prayer, and will not leave me till the end. And these dark eyes will go with me, with their benign, gentle, questioning look (The Letters and Diaries, 486).
Numbers in parenthesis are referred to pages from the volume: ETTY HILLESUM, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork. Edited by Jan G. Gaarlandt, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.) This is the edition at the base of most readership and studies on Etty Hillesum, although, unfortunately, the volume does not report her diary and letters in an integrated fashion.
When reporting passages not included in the earlier volume, I quote from the unabridged edition: ETTY HILLESUM, Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943. Edited by HYPERLINK "http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_2?ie=UTF8&field-author=Klaas+A.+D.+Smelik&search-alias=books&text=Klaas+A.+D.+Smelik&sort=relevancerank "Klaas A. D. Smelik and translated by HYPERLINK "http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_3?ie=UTF8&field-author=Arnold+J.+Pomerans&search-alias=books&text=Arnold+J.+Pomerans&sort=relevancerank "Arnold J. Pomerans. (Ottawa, Ontario: Novalis Saint Paul University—Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002).
Occasionally Etty’s material from other secondary sources is quoted: MEINS G. S. COETSIER, Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis. (Kansas City: University of Missouri, 2008); ANNA J. BROWN, “The Language of the Incandescent Heart: Daniel Berrigan's and Etty Hillesum's Responses to a Culture of Death”. In (edited by) JAMES L. MARSH and ANNA BROWN, Faith, Resistance, and the Future. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).
Disturbed Life, a monument in memory of Etty Hillesum, who died with a pen in her hand at Auschwitz, by Dutch artist, Arno Kramer.