Etty Hillesum: “the girl who gradually learnt to kneel”

Etty Hillesum, 1914-43I’ve just finished reading An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43, a book I started reading in 2011 after hearing a lecture by Rowan Williams in which he describes her life and spirituality (similar to this lecture here), and which I resumed recently.

Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam when the Germans invaded Holland in 1940. Her diaries cover a nineteen-month period from March 1941 to October 1942, and take up around 280 of the book’s 430 pages. During that period, Etty falls in love with Julius Spier, a “psychochirologist” and unconventional Jungian therapist. Having started as his patient, she becomes his assistant and eventually his lover, until Spier dies of natural causes in September 1942.

It’s hard to shake off the sense that Spier is a manipulative charlatan, to be blunt. At any rate, his behaviour would certainly get him struck off whatever register of therapists a “psychochirologist” might end up on. That said, Etty is an intelligent young woman who goes into the relationship with her eyes open, and clearly has a genuine respect for Spier. What’s more, her relationship with Spier is the catalyst for the extensive spiritual reflections that come to form the heart of her diaries.

An early entry (from November 1941, on p.74) establishes a theme that recurs throughout the book, that of Etty’s conception of herself as “the girl who could not kneel”:

Sometimes several different dialogues run through me at the same time, images and figures, moods, a sudden flash of something that must be my very own truth. Love for human beings that must be hard fought for. Not through politics or a party, but in myself. Still a lot of false shame to get rid of. And there is God. The girl who could not kneel but learnt 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 learnt to kneel is something I would love to write in the fullest possible way.

That quotation also hints at another feature of the book, one which sets it apart from most spiritual memoirs: Etty’s frankness about her sexual relationships. As mentioned above, she becomes Spier’s lover, in addition to already being in a relationship with the owner of the house in which she had been living since shortly before the war.

While she remained a Jew to the end of her life, Christianity has a strong influence on Etty’s developing spiritual life, as she reads the New Testament, St Augustine and Meister Eckhart, among others. All this against the backdrop of growing persecution for Dutch Jews. As she writes on 11 July 1942 (p.212):

We must speak about the ultimate and most serious things in life when the words well up inside us as simply and as naturally as water from a spring. And if God does not help me to go on, then I shall have to help God. The surface of the earth is gradually turning into one great prison camp, and soon there will be nobody left outside. The Jews here are telling each other lovely stories: they say that the Germans are burying us alive or exterminating us with gas. But what is the point of repeating such things, even if they should be true?

By the end of 1942, Etty is living in the Westerbork transit camp, working with the Jewish Council as the freight trains roll in and out of the camp, bearing off thousands at a time to a fate in Poland that all can guess at, without knowing the details. (She refers at one point to witnessing people’s slow realisation that they never heard anything back from those who had been transported “to the East”, and the quotation above shows that rumours of extermination were already circulating by mid-1942.)

Etty’s diaries from Westerbork went with her on the train to Auschwitz. The final section of the book consists instead of letters that she wrote to and from Westerbork during late 1942 and 1943. She vividly describes the horrors of the camp – though perhaps the most horrific and haunting aspect is the way in which even her spirits can be seen to sag as time drags on and conditions become ever more dehumanising. Despite this, though, she insists on rejecting hatred and despair:

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. (18 December 1942, p.312)

An Interrupted Life is not always an easy book to read. At times, especially earlier in the book, Etty can come across as rather self-absorbed. As noted earlier, Julius Spier, whose relationship with Etty dominates the first half of the book, is a deeply ambivalent figure. If you try reading it and find yourself struggling, it may be worth jumping ahead to sections such as the remarkable diary entries beginning on 1 July 1942, the date on which Holland’s Jews had to start wearing the yellow star:

Very well then, this new certainty, that what they are after is our total destruction, I accept it. I know it now, and I shall not burden others with my fears. I shall not be bitter if others fail to grasp what is happening to us Jews. I work and continue to live with the same conviction, and I find life meaningful – yes, meaningful – although I hardly dare say so in company these days. (p.188)

Also, the final surviving diary entries, beginning from 15 September 1942, the date on which Spier died.

Of the letters, the best are the two that were illegally published by the Dutch Resistance in 1943, from 18 December 1942 and 24 August 1943. The first of these includes Etty’s description of the moment when (unbeknownst to her) she saw Edith Stein arrive at Westerbork as one of a group of Jewish Catholic nuns and priests. It would have been fascinating to see what Stein (later canonised as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) and Etty made of one another. Etty was no nun, but perhaps Stein would have seen (and helped develop?) Etty’s remarkable capacity for spiritual insight. Sadly, however, that was not to be: Edith Stein was transferred straight to Auschwitz upon her arrival at Westerbork, and was dead within days of this near-encounter.

In the end, time runs out for Etty and her family, too. Etty, her parents and her brother, Mischa, are loaded onto the trains to Auschwitz on 7 September 1943. Etty’s final postcard, written on the train and posted to its recipient by farmers who found it when she threw it out of her freight car, says:

In the end, the departure came without warning. On sudden special orders from The Hague. We left the camp singing, Father and Mother calmly, Mischa too.

The Hillesums arrived in Auschwitz on 10 September 1943. Her parents were gassed immediately upon arrival. Etty died on 30 November.



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