Thursday, January 17, 2013

Etty Hillesum

Etty Hillesum died in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943. She was a Dutch Jew who was taken from her home in Amsterdam by the Nazis. For nearly two years, as she waited to be taken away, she kept a diary that was found after her death. It’s been published in a dozen languages.
by Charlie Leck

I finished reading An Interrupted Life (The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943). I was very moved by the diary entries. Unlike Anne Frank, Etty, also a Jew, did not live in hiding. She lived openly just a few blocks from where Anne Frank was hidden away. She worked in a business and went home in the evenings. She saw a psychologist regularly – a Jewish man nearly 30 years older than she – and they began having a sexual relationship as they stared reality in the face. The time before they would be picked up and deported grew shorter and shorter. They were not in love, but they comforted each other and took something more from their relationship than the mere pleasure of sex.

I jotted down these sections from here and there in the book, to act as a reminder to me of the power Etty had both in her writing and in her dealing with the frightening inevitable. I’d like to share these excerpts with you.

SATURDAY MORNING. As tired and discouraged and worn out as an old man. And as dreary as the chill drizzle outside. And as ineffectual. But no one made me sit in the bathroom reading until 1 o’clock in the morning when I could barely keep my eyes open with fatigue. That’s not the real reason of course. A growing sense of unease and exhaustion. Perhaps it’s purely physical after all? Or is it the many splinters of my ego which bar the way?
The more tired and ineffectual I feel, the more astonished I am by his energy and by the love he has for everyone at all times. Then I resent the fact that he has so much strength even in times like these. We could be ordered at any moment to those barracks in Drenthe Province and the greengrocers have signs in the shops saying, ‘No Jews.’ The average person has more than enough on his plate these days. But he still sees six patients a day and gives all he has to each one. He breaks them open and draws out the poison and delves down to the sources where God hides Himself away. And he works with such intensity that, in the end, the water of life begins to flow again in dried-up souls; each day the life-stories pile up on his little table, almost every one ending with, ‘Please help me.’ And there he is ready and willing to help each one.
THURSDAY AFTERNOON. A letter from my father with his inimitable sense of humour: ‘Today we have entered the cycleless age. I have delivered up Mischa’s bicycle personally. In Amsterdam, I see from the paper, the Jews may still cycle about. What a privilege! At least we need fear no longer than our bicycles will be stolen. That is some balm for the nerves. In the wilderness we also had to do without bicycles for forty long years.’
7 JULY, TUESDAY MORNING, 9:30. Mien just rang to say that Mischa had been selected for Drenthe yesterday. Outcome unknown. Mother is up and about, she said, and Father reads a lot, he really has great inner resources.
The streets through which we cycle are not what they used to be, the sky hangs so low and so threatening over them and there seems to be storm signals even when the sun is shining. We now live side by side with destiny, or whatever you want to call it, we rub shoulders with it daily, and nothing is how we learnt it from our books.
This much I know: you have to forget your own worries for the sake of others, for the sake of those whom you love. All the strength and love and faith in God which ones possesses, and which have grown so miraculously in me of late, must be there for everyone who chances to cross one’s path and who needs it.
Nothing can ever atone for the fact, of course, that one section of the Jewish population is helping to transport the majority out of the country. History will pass judgment in due course.
29 JULY, WEDNESDAY MORNING, 8 O’CLOCK. On Sunday morning I was curled up on his floor in my big striped dressing gown, darning socks. Water can be so clear that you can see right through it and distinguish everything on the bottom. What a basic way of putting things I have.
What I really wanted to say is: it suddenly felt as if life in its thousand details, twists and turns had become perfectly clear and transparent. Just like a crystal-clear sea.
AT NIGHT, 10:30. ‘God give me calm and let me face everything squarely.’ There is so much to face. First I must start living a disciplined life. At this moment, the lights are being turned off in the men’s barracks. But was there ever a real light in them? Where were you this evening, Jopie, little comrade? I have moments when I am suddenly filled with sadness: sadness that I cannot walk out of my barracks and on to the great moor outside. I take a short walk around the camp and before long my comrade, with his tanned face and that straight furrow between his eyes, by my side. And as it grows dark I can hear in the distance the first chords of Beethoven’s Fifth.
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 [a Dutch transit camp from which inmates were taken to the death camps]. Yet when I fell asleep on my narrow plank bed there, what I dreamt of was the desk behind which I now sit and write. ‘I am so grateful to You, God, for having made my life so rich, but no matter where You place me, I always long for that desk of mine.’

And the last words of her diary, near the end of August 1943, were these…

As for my future, I am firmly resolved to return to you after my wanderings. In the meantime, my love once again, you dear people.

Etty Hillesum died on 30 November 1943 in Auschwitz.

I often marvel at the strength of the human soul and heart. I would never have been so brave and hopeful and so in control of my spirit and mind.

I feel foolish that I did not know about Etty’s diaries until only a few weeks ago. After I read an article about the book, I went on-line to ABE and bought a used copy for a dollar.

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943
[Washington Square Press, New York, 1983]

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