I want to share the fate of my people – The inner transformation of Etty Hillesum
Last January 15, 2014 marked 100 years since Etty Hillesum was born in the Netherlands. The young Jewish woman was killed in Auschwitz on 30 November 1943. The unconventional diaries and letters by Etty Hillesum remained unpublished for nearly four decades, as publishers did not see commercial value in them. The first Dutch bridged edition of her writings saw the light in 1981. The first English translation in 1986. Since then Etty’s writings are being read by an increasing number of people. Some open pages at random to find insight or comfort, in much the same way that she did during her lifetime with the Bible. I myself consider her diary and letters one of the most gripping and extraordinary works I ever read.
Etty talked about 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 especially Rainer Maria Rilke. But she also reads extensively from the Bible, including the New Testament, as well as St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi.
Nazi brutal expansion is reaching and distressing her private world, yet her inner world knows a different path. From her window she stares at a tree and asks if it is the tree that has changed or is it herself. The three knows her better that people around, to the point that it, the three itself, could write her life story. The beauty of the nature surrounding her reflects a inner world, unharmed by the growing external brutality. She gazes at splendor of the night sky and at the prettiness of flowers. Drawing from this reality is her conscientious objection to barbarism:
It still all comes down to the same thing: life is beautiful. 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, then it will all have been for nothing.
The lost girl from Amsterdam marked a radical turning point in her life through her affair with Spier. Etty was a sexually liberated and even reckless young woman. It was a very irregular love story, as he was separated from his wife, but had a official girlfriend in London. Yet, from this love, she drew strength to overcome tragedy, to remain true to herself, and most of all, even encountering God, right when everyone was leaving Him. She affirms that out of love for him she must draw strength and love for all who need it. She learned that she had to fight against her sensuality and eroticism, to be emotionally free and self-reliant. She succeeded as she wrote sitting beside Spier’s corpse just one year later. She emerges as her own person and thanks him saying:
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.
She felt the duty of telling the suffering of her people, and chose to do that by writing. 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. Writing is her dedication to others, and she would like to fulfill her vocation by being a poet, although she think of herself as inadequate. Yet, she feels the words growing inside of her:
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.
But watching the trains being loaded for Auschwitz nearly becomes too much. “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: “After this night it would be a sin to laugh again”. And she came to formulate one of her most startling insight: God cannot help.
You cannot help us, God, but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside to the last.
She knows that there is very little she can do to help others, but believes that in helping God, she may help them as well.
Etty sees herself as a missionary who passes the boundaries, a prophet that speaks with a soft, but persuasive voice. She looks upon herself as the girl who could not kneel in prayer, but eventually learned to do so on the coconut matting of a bathroom floor, describing “such things as more intimate even then sex.” It is in such intimate instances that she acquired the courage to speak God’s name. Here she learns about life-giving love and life-poisoning hate, putting down the universal hatred for the German people as taking the easy way out.
Suddenly, a few weeks ago, I had a liberating thought: 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. 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?
She knows she is destined to share the same fate as those herded into trains carriages headed to the East.
Anyone who seeks to save himself must surely realize 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.
The young Jewish woman from Amsterdam went to her death with a clear vision of what she was doing. 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 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.
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. They were hungry and had gone without for so long.
An account of Etty Hillesum remarkable life and writings, entitled “Give me a small line of verse from time to time”, is published on the website of the Hong Kong journal Sunday Examiner http://sundayex.catholic.org.hk/print/1819
An Italian version of my essay on Etty Hillesum was published in Chi scrive ha fede?, edited by Alessandro Ramberti, Rimini: Fara Editore (2013). For a online shorter edition see http://narrabilando.blogspot.com/2013/10/ampi-stralci-del-saggio-di-gianni.html