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The defiant Dutch writer who faced her fate with dignity

Etty Hillesum: Picture: Wikipedia - Credit: Archant

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the life and tragic fate of Etty Hillesum, who turned down opportunities to go into hiding before her murder at Auschwitz.

On a hot day in early September 1943 a train moved slowly across the flat Dutch countryside, clanking slowly along rails that shimmered in the heat. For the thousand Jews crammed inside the windowless carriages the hot air was like breathing soup.

Somewhere outside Westerbork, from whose internment camp the train had left destined for Auschwitz, a piece of white card emerged from between the slats of one of the cars, swooped through the still air and landed at the edge of a field to be found later by a farmer.

“I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car,” it read. “Father, mother and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end the departure came without warning on sudden special orders from the Hague. We left the camp singing.”

The card was one of the last things ever written by Etty Hillesum who over the preceding two years had kept a journal of both the Holocaust and her development into a writer and thinker of remarkable depth and perspicacity.

It was in the spring of 1941, a few months after the German invasion of the Netherlands that Hillesum began recording her thoughts and experiences, most likely at the suggestion of her psychoanalyst Julius Spier. A charismatic protégé of Jung, Spier’s eccentric methods included wrestling physically with his clients and a form of palmistry. If it was his idea that Hillesum start recording her thoughts it led to one of the most vivid personal documents of the 20th century.

“This is a painful and almost insuperable step for me: committing so much that has been suppressed to a blank sheet of lined paper,” Hillesum began her first entry on March 7, 1941. “The thoughts in my head are so clear and sharp and my feelings so deep, but writing about them is hard. The main difficulty, I think, is a sense of shame. So many inhibitions, so much fear of letting go and allowing things to pour out of me, yet that is what I must do if I am ever to give my life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose. It is like the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love.”

Such frankness about sex in her very first paragraph set the tone for much of her writing and might explain why she remained unpublished until 1981. Early pages also included the candid assertion that she is “accomplished in bed”, while a few months later she reveals she is “erotically receptive in all directions,” which includes that of a female student to whom she was giving Russian lessons.

This frank exploration of her own desires wasn’t just about the physical, however. With Spier’s encouragement Hillesum began to meditate and read widely, finding her self-knowledge enhanced by the Old and New Testaments, Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas á Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ in particular. She found herself becoming almost compelled to kneel in prayer, recording how, “sometimes, in a moment of deep gratitude, kneeling down becomes an overwhelming urge, head deeply bowed, hands before my face”.

Her writing and meditations in the face of the abject horrors occurring around her permitted Hillesum a rare insight into her own humanity.

“I see no other solution than to turn inward and root out all the rottenness there,” she wrote in February 1942. “I no longer believe we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves.”

A few months later, as the Nazis stepped up their murderous anti-Semitism, she wrote, “I draw prayer round me like a protective wall, withdraw inside it as one might into a convent cell and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and more collected again.”

This wasn’t avoidance or wilful ignorance of current events. Far from it. In the summer of 1942 she began working in the administration department of the controversial Judenrat, the Jewish Council, which acted as administrators for the oppressed Jews of Nazi-occupied countries and leaves a morally complicated legacy. In early 1943 Hillesum began working for the Department of Social Welfare for People in Transit at Westerbork – where in 1944 Anne Frank would spend a month before being transferred to Auschwitz – and helped with the weekly deportations of Jews to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. Aware of the fate of her people, Hillesum felt she was doing the best she could for them in the shadow of the inevitable. She even felt a form of epiphany for the world among the horror.

“The misery here is quite terrible 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,” she wrote. “Time and time 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 magnificent and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.”

That elementary force lay deep within herself; the burning core of her faith.

“I repose in myself,” she wrote, “and that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call God.”

Hillesum had always lived outside the norm, especially for her time. Before taking up her post in the Westerbork camp she was living in a shared house of bohemians opposite the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where she was in a relationship with a housemate more than twice her age. After she began visiting Spier to treat her regular bouts of depression she became first his secretary and then his lover. From an intellectual family, she achieved a law degree and moved on to postgraduate studies in psychology and Slavic languages (her mother was Russian and had arrived in the Netherlands in the early 1900s to escape the pogroms) while working as a freelance Russian teacher and translator. Her brothers were high-flyers too: Mischa was a brilliant pianist who gave recitals of Beethoven from the age of six while Jaap was a doctor who discovered a new vitamin while still an undergraduate.

Their promise was destined to remain unfulfilled, however. On August 5, 1943, Etty, Mischa and her parents were interned at Westerbork and transferred to Auschwitz a month later. Her parents were sent to the gas chambers almost immediately while Mischa was transferred to the Warsaw ghetto, where he would die in the spring of 1944. Jaap arrived at Westerbork shortly after the rest of the family had been sent to Auschwitz; he would die in Bergen-Belsen the following year.

Etty Hillesum was murdered at Auschwitz on November 30, 1943, six weeks before her 30th birthday. Perhaps she went to the gas chambers, as she’d left the camp: singing. Deep within herself she believed better times were coming for the world even if she and those like her had to die.

“I am not afraid of them,” she’d written of the Nazis. “I am so calm it is sometimes as if I were standing on the parapets of the palace of history, looking down over far-distant lands.”

Hillesum had turned down opportunities to go into hiding before her internment and had been wracked by guilt when she had once removed her father’s name from an earlier transport in the course of her work. She realised later that someone else would have gone instead, what right did she have to do that? Dignity, she decided, was the greatest resistance of them all. Any other approach would be “crowding onto a small piece of wood adrift on an endless ocean after a shipwreck, then saving oneself by pushing others into the water and watching them drown”.

A friend had watched Hillesum boarding the train at Westerbrok that summer’s day in 1943. The 29-year-old was, the friend wrote in a letter, “talking happily, smiling and with a kind word for everyone she met on the way. She was full of sparkling humour, perhaps a touch of sadness but every inch the Etty you all know so well”.

Before her departure Hillesum had entrusted the eight notebooks containing her diaries to a friend, taking a ninth with her to Auschwitz. That volume was lost along with its author, but what remains provides one of the deepest analyses of the human condition ever written.

“I shall wield this slender fountain pen as if it were a hammer,” she wrote in 1941, “and my words will have to be so many hammer blows with which to beat the story of our fate.”

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