Etty Hillesum Safeguards God: The Story of Her Spiritual Transformation during the Holocaust


Etty Hillesum Safeguards God: The Story of Her Spiritual Transformation during the Holocaust


Murdered at Auschwitz on November 30, 1943, Etty Hillesum is one of the shining personalities of the 20th Century. Seventy years after her death, Pope Benedict XVI pronounced her a woman “transfigured by faith” who was so filled with “love and inner peace” that, despite knowing she would die in the Holocaust, she was “able to declare: ‘I live in constant intimacy with God.’”[1] Her life is indeed a testament to “gratefulness against all odds”, as David Steindl-Rast, the Catholic Benedictine monk, has put it, but the story of her spiritual transformation from early 1941 until she left the Netherlands for Auschwitz in early September 1943 is much more complicated than that.[2] As Benedict XVI noted, she had been a “frail and dissatisfied young woman” who had led a “restless life”.[3] Many might consider her a saint, but aspects of her story are equally fascinating for how they defy that stereotype.[4]

After Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum is probably the Netherlands’ most famous diarist of the Holocaust. Her diary, An Interrupted Life, covers the period from March 9, 1941, to October 13, 1942; it also includes several letters she wrote from the autumn 1942 through the late summer 1943. Unlike Anne’s diary, which was first published in 1947 and became a bestseller with its English translation, The Diary of a Young Girl, in 1952, Etty’s abridged diary and letters weren’t published until 1981.[5] Both volumes are intimate and haunting moral documents for the ages. Both speak to the aspirations of their authors to become writers. But both books are also very different. Where Anne was in hiding while she wrote most of The Diary of a Young Girl, Etty was free—or as free as most Jews could be under the avalanche of anti-Semitic regulations imposed by the Germans—until mid-1943 when she was confined at Westerbork, a concentration and transit camp in Drenthe Province in the northeast of the Netherlands that was the last stop before the three-day train ride to the death camps in the east. More importantly, Etty was 27 to 29 years of age when she wrote her diary and letters, whereas Anne, at 13 to 15, was truly a young girl when, from mid July 1942 to early August 1944, she compiled her record of life in the famous annex at 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam.

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Etty Hillesum (1914-1943), circa 1937

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Anne Frank, 1929-1944








Etty begins her diary this way: “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…. The main difficulty, I think, is a sense of shame. So many inhibitions, so much fear of letting go, of allowing things to pour out of me, and yet that is what I must do…. It is like the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love. I am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers, and love does indeed suit me to perfection, and yet it remains a mere trifle, set apart from what is truly essential.” And her final entry includes this: “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.”[6] To Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Etty’s writings are “a Confessions of St Augustine for our own day.”[7]

There is much about Etty that was provocative and challenged convention. Not only did she dare to be different, she embraced her distinctiveness earnestly and with radiant good cheer, and people loved her for it. Eva Hoffman, in her Forward to the 1996 edition of An Interrupted Life, maintains that “Etty never lost her mercurial responsiveness, even as she began to describe states we are accustomed to identify as religious: gratitude for all that was given to her, a profound self-acceptance and acceptance of others, and a conviction, not of any specific set of meanings, but of meaningfulness itself—of the inward beauty and rightness of life.”[8]

“Her religiosity is totally unconventional”, writes her publisher Jan G. Gaarlandt. “In Holland today, Christians and Jews are claiming Etty as typically Christian or typically Jewish—an unprofitable discussion, because Etty chooses her own way. She has her own religious rhythm, not inspired by church or synagogue, or by dogmas, theology, liturgy, or tradition; all these were completely alien to her. She addresses God as she does herself. ‘When I pray,’ she writes, ‘I hold a silly, naïve, or deadly serious dialogue with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God.’ [Gaarlandt’s italics.] And later: ‘I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call “God.”’”[9]


For a long time the best sources on Etty’s life, other than her diary and letters, were Gaarlandt and Dr. Klaas A.D. Smelik, a professor at the University of Ghent specializing in the Hebrew language, the Bible, Judaism, and Ancient History, who is also director of the university’s Etty Hillesum Research Center.[10] Smelik’s father, Klaas Smelik, Sr., was a Trotskyite and author who met Etty in 1934 and was her lover for a time.[11] On Etty’s instruction, Smelik, Sr., was entrusted after the war with the exercise books that comprise her diary and with “a bundle” of her letters. His efforts “to have the diaries published in the 1950s proved fruitless.” In late 1979 when Smelik, Jr., tried again and approached Gaarlandt, he succeeded where his father had not.[12]

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The exercise books that comprise Etty’s diary

“We know little about Etty’s life before the war”, Gaarlandt says.[13] Smelik, Jr., adds, “Not much is known about Etty’s university years”, which began in 1932 when she was 18.[14] Despite these limitations, it is still possible, thanks to what Etty, Gaarlandt and Smelik, Jr., have written, to outline her pre-war years and to discern a number of important influences. Patrick Woodhouse in his 2009 biography-cum-hagiography, Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed, does this with considerable insight.

Etty (Esther) was born into what Woodhouse terms “a dysfunctional” and “deeply disturbed family” on January 15, 1914, in the town of Middelburg. Her father Levie (Louis) was a classical languages teacher who eventually became a headmaster. Her mother Riva (Rebecca Bernstein) was born in Surash, a town in Tjernigol, Russia, which she fled following a pogrom to take up residence in Amsterdam where she was a Russian language teacher. Levie and Riva were a case of opposites attracting. Where Levie was “a small, quiet and unobtrusive man, a stoic, scholarly recluse with a great deal of humour and erudition,” according to Smelik, Jr., Riva was “lively, chaotic, extroverted and dominant.”[15] Gaarlandt adds the word “passionate” to the description of Riva and says she was “in almost everything quite the opposite of her husband.” The result was a “tempestuous marriage”.[16] Although Etty’s writings suggest she was closer to her father, Woodhouse says her temperament was closer to that of “her hot-blooded Russian mother.” The two women had “a difficult” relationship, but during the last months of their lives it “apparently improved while they were at Westerbork.”[17]

In August 1941, during a visit to the family home in Deventer, Etty wrote in her diary, “Our house is a remarkable mixture of barbarism and culture. Spiritual ideas lie within grasp, but they are left unused and unguarded, are carelessly scattered about. It is depressing, it is tragicomic, I don’t know what kind of madhouse this really is, but I know that no human being can flourish here.”[18] She refers to her mother as “shrew” and a “nag” and “someone who would try the patience of a saint…. She wears you out with all her unsolved problems and her quickly changing moods; she is in a chaotic and pitiful state, which is reflected all about her in the utterly disorganized household. And yet she is convinced that she is an excellent housewife, driving everyone crazy with her perpetual fussing over the housekeeping…. Life in this house is bogged down in petty details. They smother you…. There is nothing one can do either to help or change things. The two of them are so capricious.”[19]

A few days later, still at her parents’ place, she comments, “So many of our most promising, vigorous young men are dying day and night. I don’t know how to take it. With all the suffering there is, you begin to feel ashamed of taking yourself and your moods so seriously…. downstairs they are screaming blue murder, with Father yelling, ‘Go, then!’ and slamming the door…. no one can breathe properly in this house…. It is sheer hell in this house.”[20]

Etty’s diary entry for November 21, 1941, includes this:

I have developed an “eating problem.” … I ruin my digestion simply by eating too much. Through lack of self-control, in other words…. I shall have to get to the bottom of it all. And it will probably turn out to have some connection with my dear mama. Mother always talks about food as if nothing else mattered…. I still remember watching my mother eating at some housewives’ function years ago…. She sat down to eat. She was completely engrossed. She ate with utter abandon. As I watched her from the balcony I suddenly felt quite revolted.
Her gluttony gave her the air of being terrified of missing out on anything. There was something terribly pathetic about her as well as something bestially repulsive…. That fear of missing out on things makes you miss out on everything. Keeps you from reality…. I have an unresolved antipathy for my mother.[21]

Later that month, Etty’s father—“my little Papa”—came for a visit: “this lovable man has managed to get away for a few days from his excitable spouse…”[22] She writes of her “effusiveness and … a desire to please so violent that each day of one of his visits once cost me a whole tube of aspirins. But that was a long time ago. The last time things were much better. But still, there is always that hunted feeling as well as the related wish that he wouldn’t always bring his troubles to me.” Yet her father was also the man “With so much love, so much tried and tested love.”[23]

Reflecting on his visit, “something dawned” on her:

At a fairly advanced age, my father had traded all his uncertainties, doubts, and probably also his physical inferiority complex, his insurmountable marriage problems, for philosophical ideas that though held in perfect sincerity and full of the milk of human kindness are totally vague. Those ideas help him to gloss over everything, to look just at the surface instead of plumbing the depths he knows full well are there, perhaps precisely because he knows it…. And no doubt my father’s expressions of resignation, humor, and doubt appeal to something in me that I share with him, but which I must nevertheless outgrow.[24]


Philip Mechanicus

The Dutch journalist Philip Mechanicus, who met Etty and her parents at Westerbork, provides another perspective on Levie and Riva. Mechanicus and Levie met when Levie was moved into the hospital where Mechanicus, another Jewish prisoner, was already located. Mechanicus, who Etty refers to as “a stylish, strong-minded character”, kept a diary about life at Westerbork. Originally published in the Netherlands in 1964 as In Dépôt, it covers the period March 28, 1943, to February 28, 1944. It was published in the U.K. in 1968 under the title Waiting for Death. (Mechanicus was shot and killed at Auschwitz in October 1944.) On Sunday, July 11, 1943, Mechanicus describes Levie as “A learned man, perfectly healthy, but completely unfitted for society, an eccentric. He lives quite off at a tangent from his environment and does nothing but read, holding his book close to his bad eyes. All his life he has been well cared for and spoiled and he is completely unfitted for this type of community life.” Mechanicus goes on to say that Levie and Riva “are in great danger of being made to go on the long journey [to Poland] on Tuesday. The wife says sadly: ‘It would be best for me to go on the journey alone. With him it’s impossible. I wouldn’t know what to do with him.’ [Levie] says with childlike optimism: ‘It won’t be as bad as we think—one must just take things as they come.’” On Wednesday, August 25th, Riva told Mechanicus, “I’ve never thought of suicide in my whole life, but I’ve been thinking of it recently. [My husband is] a burden to me.”[25]

Prior to her father’s late November 1941 visit, Etty chastised herself as a “Wretched, good-for-nothing, indolent worm…. Oh yes, the cap fits. Always think of yourself first, of your precious time—time you only use to pump more book-learning into your addled brain.” She resolved that “the main item for this weekend’s program [would be] to love my father deeply and sincerely and to forgive him for disturbing my pleasure-seeking life. When all is said and done I think a great deal of him, but in a rather complicated way: my love for him is forced, spasmodic, and so mixed with compassion that my heart almost breaks.”[26]

Etty reminded herself of the admonition, “What shall it profit a man if he has no love?” She concluded that “what is needed here is not a small act of love. It is something fundamental and important and difficult. To love your parents deep inside. To forgive them for all the trouble they have given you by their very existence: by tying you down, by adding the burden of their complicated lives to your own.”[27] By April 1942, when she was more than a year into her spiritual transformation, she was noting, “Much has changed in my relationship with my parents, many tight bonds have snapped, and as a result I have gained the strength to love them more genuinely.”[28]


Etty had two younger brothers. They too exerted an important influence on her. Jaap (Jacob) was born on January 27, 1916, and Mischa (Michael) arrived on September 22, 1920.[29] All three children were “intelligent and gifted”, according to Gaarlandt.[30] But Smelik, Jr., says Etty’s grammar school “marks were not particularly worthy of note” and “Her academic results [at university] were not striking.”[31] By comparison, Jaap “was an extremely gifted pupil” who, according to Gaarlandt, “discovered several new vitamins when he was seventeen” and went on to become a medical doctor.[32] And Mischa was a child prodigy who “played Beethoven in public at the age of six.” Regarded as “one of the most promising pianists in Europe”, his music “dominated the daily course of the [Hillesum] household” until 1931 when, two months prior to his eleventh birthday, he moved to Amsterdam to further his studies, particularly as a pianist.[33]

Both brothers, however, had significant bouts of mental instability. On a number of occasions, Jaap was confined to psychiatric hospitals. Mischa was institutionalized and treated for schizophrenia about 1939. “Even after his release,” Smelik, Jr., writes, “he continued to be extremely unstable.[34] Speaking of Mischa, Etty asked in the early spring of 1942, “What is the good of… all your brilliant playing before your enthusiastic and often sensation-hungry public, when you have that line of suffering round your twisted little mouth? Poor boy! It is just as Leonie said, ‘It’s impossible to enjoy the music because you can’t stop wondering about what is going on inside the pianist.’” A week or so later, Etty commented that Mischa’s life was “much too difficult”.[35]

De familie Hillesum, 1931. Van links naar rechts Etty, Rebecca Hillesum-Bernstein, Mischa, Jaap, dr. Louis Hillesum.

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Etty wrote about her “tainted family… riddled with hereditary disease.” Mischa’s hospitalization had an especially big impact on her. “When Mischa got so confused and had to be carried off to an institution by force and I was witness to the whole horror of it, I swore to myself then that no such unhappy human being would ever spring from my womb.” She wrote this in December 1941 and used it as a large part of her rationale for aborting “an unborn child”.[36]

“It feels to me,” she added, “as if I am occupied in saving a human life. How preposterous: to save a human life by doing my utmost to keep it from living! But all I want is to keep someone out of this miserable world.”[37]

Etty was almost seven years older than Mischa, but only two years older than Jaap, with whom she may have competed in some respects. “And why,” she asked herself in late March or early April 1942, “did I have to tell Jaap that I shall be attending the night rehearsals at the Jewish theatre? It can only upset him. Is it pure swank on my part, perhaps, or just showing off what an ‘interesting’ life I lead, despite the fact that I’ve rid myself of my last bit of snobbery—or have I? When I still feel the need to blurt out things like that? … But you should always ask yourself what another is able to cope with, certainly when that other is slightly unstable and a bit of a problem.” The previous October she’d observed that she and Jaap “occasionally throw each other crumbs of information about ourselves, but I don’t think we understand each other.”[38]

Like her brothers, Etty had emotional problems. Smelik, Jr., says she had a “depressive and egocentric bent”. The three children shared what Etty called their “parents’ chaos”. It is not surprising that she, in turn, would write about “my inner chaos”. “I think,” she added on another occasion, “my parents always felt out of their depth, and… so overwhelmed…. They… offered us [children] nothing to cling to. That was because they never established a foothold for themselves. And the reason why they did so little to guide our steps was that they themselves had lost the way.”[39]

Woodhouse maintains that Levie and Riva “were emotionally inadequate people” who didn’t know how to develop or nurture a positive home life. “At the heart of this family created by these two people,” he writes, “there appears to be a void, a kind of muddled chaotic emptiness…. All are left alienated and alone and somehow survive in their own isolation, confusion and anger.” In due course, the “tempestuous needs and insecurity” arising from Etty’s childhood “drove her into turbulent sexual relationships.”[40]

In her first diary entry on March 9, 1941, she comments: “All my life I had had the feeling that, for all my apparent self-reliance, if someone came along, took me by the hand, and bothered about me [my italics], I would be only too willing and eager to deliver myself up to his care. And there he was now, this complete stranger, this S. with his complicated face.” S. was her spiritual mentor, Julius Spier, who she’d met the previous month. He would help her come to terms with her past and to find both “emotional security” and what she referred to as “my own truth”. After working with him for almost a year, she notes, “I am beginning to understand something about my youth, about those recurring headaches and lethargic spells lasting for weeks on end, succumbing to the chaos within.”[41]


When Etty started university, she boarded with the Horowitz family at Ruysdaelstraat 321 in Amsterdam. This is where Mischa had been living since July 1931. Six months after her arrival, she moved to Apollolaan 29. Jaap joined her at this address in September 1933. She and Jaap lived together at three other Amsterdam addresses over the next few years.[42] Etty’s most important change of residence occurred in March 1937 when she relocated to a large house at 6 Gabriël Metsustraat, next to the Museumplein, the main square in Amsterdam. The view from her window included the Rijksmuseum. This residence would be her home until June 6, 1943, when she departed for Westerbork for the last time.[43]

Etty studied Dutch Law, writing her bachelor’s exams in June 1935 and her master’s exams in June and July 1939. She went on to study “Slavic languages at Amsterdam and Leiden.”[44] She taught a related course at the Volksuniversiteit and, following in her mother’s footsteps, gave private lessons in Russian. At least one of her professors sent her pupils.[45]

Smelik, Jr., says Etty “travelled in left-wing antifascist student circles, and was politically and socially aware without belonging to a political party.” Gaarlandt adds that she “made connections with the leftist student resistance” after the German occupation of the country began.[46] Long letters she wrote dated December 18, 1942, and August 24, 1943, about conditions at Westerbork, were published illegally by the resistance in 1943.[47] While she maintained a number of her university friendships during the war, Smelik, Jr., says other of her pre-war “acquaintances… were amazed to learn of her [subsequent] spiritual development”.[48]

Etty’s university studies and friends were one of two core focuses in her life during the latter 1930s. The other was what she called the “household of so many conflicting elements” at 6 Gabriël Metsustraat.[49] In addition to Etty, who Gaarlandt says was “a sort of housekeeper”,[50] there were five other residents: Käthe, the German cook, who Etty describes as “a Christian of peasant stock, who has been a second mother to me;”[51] Maria Tuinzing, “a Jewish girl” and nurse who became one of Etty’s closest friends;[52] Bernard Meylink, a chemistry student and a “Philistine, with his pure heart and his fair intellect”;[53] Hendrik (Han) J. Wegerif, an accountant and widower who owned the house and who Etty refers to as “an old, levelheaded social democrat;”[54] and, Wegerif’s son, Hans, who turned 20 in 1939—“an upright young economics student, a good Christian, full of gentleness and sympathetic understanding but also with the kind of Christian militancy and rectitude we have become accustomed to in recent times.”[55]

Ours was and is a bustling little world so threatened by politics from without as to be disturbed within [Etty wrote on March 15, 1941]. But it seems a worthy task to keep this small community together as a refutation of all those desperate and false theories of race, nation, and so on. As proof that life cannot be forced into pre-set molds. But doing this causes a great deal of inner struggle and disappointment, and now and then means inflicting pain on others, and anger and remorse. Sometimes when I read the papers or hear reports of what is happening all round, I am suddenly beside myself with anger, cursing and swearing at the Germans. And I know that I do it deliberately in order to hurt Käthe, to work off my anger as best I can…. The whole [German] nation must be destroyed root and branch. And now and then I say nastily, “They’re all scum,” and at the same time I feel terribly ashamed and deeply unhappy but can’t stop even though I know that it’s all wrong. At other times, we all feel very close to Käthe and tell her encouragingly, “Yes, of course, there are still some good Germans, and anyway the soldiers can do nothing about it, and there are some quite nice ones even among them.”[56]

At the start of this entry, Etty comments that “hatred of Germans poisons everyone’s mind… It is the problem of our age…. indiscriminate hatred is still the worst thing there is. It is a sickness of the soul. Hatred does not lie in my nature.” But two sentences later she mentions “my inner conflicts” and in the next paragraph is expressing “my hatred” of Germans.[57] However, thanks to what Woodhouse describes as “a remarkable discipline developed over a very short space of time”—a “rigorously disciplined inner life” in which she, in her diary, insisted on “Not a single minute of indiscriminate living”—she triumphed over her inner conflicts and over hatred, developing in their stead the deep faith, gratitude and compassion that became the hallmarks of her journey and radiant personality.[58]

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Han Wegerif

Of note as well is Etty’s relationship with Han Wegerif, who she sometimes refers to in her diary and letters as “Father Han” or “Papa Han”. She felt “at home” with him. They had a long-standing affair, despite the fact he was more than thirty years her senior. Woodhouse describes Wegerif as “a gentle, tolerant and undemanding figure in the background of the diary”.[59] The primacy of Etty and Wegerif’s relationship would be challenged by the arrival on the scene in early 1941 of Julius Spier, who lived close by. Spier and his devotees quickly became another core focus in Etty’s life.[60]


Hitler’s five-year occupation of the Netherlands began at the conclusion of the Five Day War of May 10-14, 1940, which was part of the stunning German blitzkrieg invasion of the Low Countries and northern France. Unlike Belgium and France, where military governments under the leadership of the German army were installed, the Netherlands received a civilian government headed by Reichskommissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart. At the outset, the Reichskommissar had two objectives: to operate a regime requiring “as few German resources as possible”[61] and to implement the policy of the “gentle hand”. This policy took its name from a January 7, 1941, communication Seyss-Inquart received from Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS, who, after Hitler, became a second boss to the Reichskommissar as the war went on.[62] This communication emphasized Seyss-Inquart’s “historically vital task of reclaiming [the Dutch]… and leading them back to the Germanic community with a firm but very gentle hand.”[63] Hitler had also made this point to Seyss-Inquart prior to the Reichskommissar taking up his new post in The Hague.[64] What is more, in a meeting on September 23, 1940, with Dutch fascist leader Anton Mussert and two of his deputies, Hitler referred to the Dutch as a racial “pearl among the Germanic peoples.”[65]

But the introduction of anti-Jewish measures in the autumn of 1940 and early 1941 undermined the policy of the gentle hand and led to the famous anti-pogrom strike in Amsterdam of February 26-27. According to historians, the February strike was the “point of no return” (Walter B. Maass)[66] and “a caesura in the history of the occupation [that] had an important catalyzing effect on both sides” (Gerhard Hirschfeld).[67] True as these conclusions are, they don’t tell the whole story. “The responses to German actions against the Jews which led to the February strike… were not repeated,” writes British historian Bob Moore. “The civilian population did not have a particularly good record…. Only a minority [later] organized themselves into formal resistance groups to help those in hiding [300,000 non-Jewish Dutchmen trying to avoid forced labor and 25,000 Jews simply trying to survive] and in a few cases to take direct action against their German oppressors.” [68]

As the tide of the Holocaust rose in the Netherlands and swept up the country’s Jews, Etty and her family are representative at successive stages of what happened to many of their Jewish compatriots. For example, in late 1940 when a German edict required the removal of Jewish public sector employees from their jobs, Etty’s father was one of the 2,100 affected Jews.[69] And when another measure ordered the registration of the country’s Jews, there was almost total compliance, which undoubtedly included all members of the Hillesum family. The registration identified 140,000 full Jews, 15,000 half Jews, and 5,000 quarter Jews and was the first step to the eventual annihilation of most of them. Of the 140,000 full Jews, over 14,000 were German Jews and 7,500 were other nationalities.[70]

After the February strike was suppressed, Reichskommissar Seyss-Inquart complained about “the peculiar make-up of the Dutch”[71] and, on March 12th, called “for a radical policy of ‘for us or against us.’”[72] Moore maintains that where the German military regimes in Belgium and France served to restrict the latitude of the SS in extirpating the Jews in those countries, Seyss-Inquart’s civilian regime gave the SS greater freedom to maneuver, which had devastating results for the Netherland’s Jews. In Belgium and France, 40 percent and 25 percent, respectively, of their Jews were exterminated. In the Netherlands the figure was 73 percent (“at least 102,000” of the 140,000 Jews). In 1947, when Heinz Wielek published the first book on the capture, deportation and murder of Holland’s Jews, he called it The War that Hitler Won.[73]


Etty’s life entered a transformative time during the weeks prior to and following the February strike. She began her diary on March 9th, three days before Seyss-Inquart’s “for us or against us” pronouncement. The catalyst for this period of great change was Julius Spier, who Etty met on Monday, February 3, 1941.[74]

Spier has been called “a Jungian psychoanalyst cum palm reader and general guru.”[75] A German Jew, he was “the founder of ‘psychochirology,’ the study and classification of palm prints.”[76] He received two years of analysis training from Carl Jung and, on Jung’s recommendation, established, in 1929, an “extremely successful” psychochirology practice in Berlin. His book, The Hands of the Children, includes an introduction by Jung.[77] According to Gaarlandt, Spier “seems to have had a most unusual gift for reading people’s lives from their palms, and for interpreting the results with rare psychological insight.”[78] After divorcing his wife, Hedl Rocco, in 1935 and leaving his daughter and son with her, he moved to Amsterdam in 1939. During these years “He had a number of affairs… and became engaged to his pupil, Hertha Levi, who emigrated to London in 1937 or 1938.”[79]

Spier was 54 years of age and Etty was 27 when they met. Bernard Meylink invited Etty to have her hands analyzed at one of Spier’s evening classes.[80] “I was awed by his skill, his ability to read my deepest conflicts from my second face: my hands”, she comments in the first pages of her diary.[81] She quickly “decided to go into therapy with him.”[82] After a few sessions she became his assistant (“his ‘Russian secretary,’” she said) and eventually, for a time, his lover.[83] While Eva Hoffman describes their relationship as “curious [and] ambiguous”, Smelik, Jr., maintains: “Because Spier wished to remain faithful to Hertha Levi, and because Etty already had a relationship with Wegerif, a certain distance was always present in the relationship between Etty and Spier, despite its importance to both.”[84]

Etty starts her diary—“probably at Spier’s advice”, according to Smelik, Jr.—saying “deep inside me something is still locked away.” She describes herself as “a miserable, frightened creature… at times.” She refers to her “spiritual constipation” and hopes “to give her life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose.”[85] And “in just one week” with Spier—thanks to his “Gymnastics, breathing exercises, and illuminating, liberating words”—she was “living differently, more freely, more flowingly; the costive feeling vanished…”[86] He was “intelligent, incredibly wise…. A charming man” with a “magical personality”.[87]

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Julius Spier 1887-1942

But he was also “clearly a dangerous man” because of the devotion he inspired, especially in women. Etty quotes one woman who said of him: “He’s a real lady’s man, you can sense it as soon as he takes your hand. He has that kind of aura.” Writing in April 1942, Etty maintained, “he has so strong a feminine streak that he can understand how women feel…. [I]n men like him the ‘soul’ of a woman is given welcome and shelter.” The previous December, she’d observed that he “has only to stretch out his eager hands for the breasts of the many women around him, which are like so many fruits in a lush orchard.”[88]

“Body and soul are one”, Spier taught Etty in the early days of their relationship. To demonstrate this, he would wrestle with her.[89] He was a “bull-like, burly figure [with] feather-light, easy movements”, she recounted. “A fifty-four year old in whom the struggle between the spirit and flesh is still in full cry.”[90] In their first tussle she “floored the man, big though he was”, but she added that she “lay buried under his personality”.[91] Their next match, however, “felt so horrible when we were rolling about on the floor, as I clung tightly to him, sensuously and yet revolted by it all.”[92] But other matches were better and “ended with our resting in each other’s arms.”[93]

Spier would stroke Etty’s face, run his fingertips over her eyelashes, and touch her breasts. She “was overwhelmed by erotic fantasies brought on by the guileful movements of his hands”, she confessed. Other times she would “begin to rebel” but then “realized it was all part of the treatment.”[94] Commenting on Spier’s “highly incorrect” behavior, Hoffman maintains that Etty, “in putting her trust in this strange mentor… was acting in tune with her time. The interwar decades were a period of eclectic psychoanalytic experiments, of eccentric adventures in self-exploration…. Perhaps [Hoffman adds] Etty’s relationship with Spier belonged less in the category of psychotherapy than in the much older tradition of active philosophical teaching.”[95] He did, after all, as “a person of faith,” as Woodhouse says, introduce “her to key religious texts, notably the Psalms, the New Testament and St Augustine, as well as several others”. In addition to the Bible and works by her beloved Rainer Maria Rilke, Etty took the Koran and the Talmud with her to Westerbork “and during the last year of her life she read a lot of Meister Eckhart.”[96]

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Etty’s bookshelf included at least three volumes on or by Rainer Marie Rilke[97]

By early August 1941, Etty was writing, “Perhaps my purpose in life is to come to grips with myself.”[98] On September 10th, Spier told her, “I believe I am your stepping stone to a truly great love.”[99] In late November she was commenting she “had become a little more self-reliant and independent.” A few paragraphs later, she added: “Last night on the cold bicycle ride, in a sudden flash of insight, I understood the depth of the intensity, the commitment I have made to this man and his work and his life. He has become an inseparable part of me. And with this new part of me I must go on, but alone.”[100] The idea of going on alone was much less a reality than prescient foreshadowing. On New Year’s Eve she described the year that was ending as “my richest and most fruitful and yes, the happiest of all.”[101]

The latter half of November also saw Etty referring to herself as “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.”[102] She had discovered that her “body had been meant and made for the act of kneeling…. It has become a gesture embedded in my body”.[103] Prayer would sustain her over the next months as the situation for the country’s Jews grew rapidly worse. “The threat grows even greater, and terror increases from day to day,” she wrote on May 18th. “I draw prayer round me like a dark protective wall, withdraw inside it as one might into a convent cell and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and more collected again.”[104]


April 29, 1942, was the “night on which the ‘yellow star’ was issued.” Etty began her diary entry the next day: “Never give up, never escape, take everything in, and perhaps suffer, that’s not too awful either, but never, never give up.”[105] Later, in the same entry, she added, “I have matured enough to assume my destiny…”[106] But she couldn’t conceive of life without Spier, who, she said, was “a life-giving source” capable of giving “off an all-encompassing goodness”. The previous autumn “when there was talk of all the Jews being sent to a concentration camp in Poland,” Spier had told her, “Then we shall get married, so that we can stay together…”[107] Now, with the requirement that they wear the yellow star and with the threat of the concentration camp looming larger, it was Etty who wanted to know: “if I marry a German refugee—that is, a stateless person [namely Spier]. Will I be able to share his lot if, say, he is sent to Poland? … Then I knew that I would bind my life to his, in a pretend marriage, just to be with him. One day I would surrender him unharmed to his girlfriend [and fiancée in London]…”[108] Yet, less than a month later, she was more philosophical, observing: “Parallel with the process of growing toward each other there runs a process of more and more freeing oneself of the other.”[109]

Etty’s next entry on May 30th includes this:

I went to bed early last night, and from my bed I stared out through the large open window. And it was once more as if life with all its mysteries was close to me, as if I could touch it. I had the feeling I was resting against the naked breast of life, and could feel her gentle and regular heartbeat. I felt safe and protected. And I thought, How strange. It is wartime. There are concentration camps. I can say of so many of the houses I pass: here the son has been thrown into prison, there the father has been taken hostage, and an 18-year old boy in that house over there has been sentenced to death. And these streets and houses are all so close to my own. I know how very nervous people are, I know about the mounting human suffering. I know the persecution and oppression and despotism and the impotent fury and the terrible sadism. I know it all.

And yet—at unguarded moments, when left to myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life and her arms round me are so gentle and so protective and my own heartbeat is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant, as if it would never stop.[110]

Toward the end of June, at a “musical afternoon that included Etty, Spier, Mischa and others, Etty was suddenly “overwhelmed by the presentiment of imminent parting and said, ‘Perhaps we really have no future…’ And [Mischa] replied, ‘Perhaps, but only if you take a materialist view…’”[111] Then on July 3rd, Etty noted:

Something has crystallized…. I must admit a new insight into my life and find a place for it: what is at stake is our impending destruction and annihilation, we can have no more illusions about that. They are out to destroy us completely, we must accept that and go on from there. Today I was filled with terrible despair, and I shall have to come to terms with that as well. Even if we are consigned to hell, let us go there as gracefully as we can…. it doesn’t really matter if it is I who perish or another. What matters is that we are all marked men.[112]

As the dark night of the Holocaust descended around her, Etty’s spiritual journey took flight. “As life becomes harder and more threatening, it also becomes richer, because the fewer expectations we have, the more the good things of life become unexpected gifts that we can accept with gratitude.” That, she said, was how she and Spier felt. Two pages later she added: “Every pretty blouse I put on is a kind of celebration. And so is every occasion I have to wash with scented soap in a bathroom all to myself for half an hour. It’s as if I were reveling in these civilized luxuries for the last time.” On July 12th she titled her entry “Sunday morning prayer” and wrote: “I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well.”[113]

During this pivotal period when the enormity of what was to occur came into sharp and undeniable focus, Etty was not only deciding her future, she was also reflecting on and taking her leave from what had been her life and she was counseling Spier, who was now ill with lung cancer, to do the same. Klaas Smelik, Sr., and his daughter Jopie (Johanna) were a party to this process for they repeatedly offered Etty places to hide, but she always refused them.[114] “Fleeing or hiding is pointless,” she wrote on July 9th, “there is no escape, so let’s just do what we can for others, it sounds too much like defeatism, like something I don’t mean at all. I cannot find the right words either for that radiant feeling inside me, which encompasses but is untouched by all the suffering and all the violence.”[115] She returned to the subject on July 11th:

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, it’s 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 I don’t feel in their clutches anyway, whether I stay or am sent away. I find all that talk so cliché-ridden and naïve and can’t go along with it anymore. I don’t feel in anybody’s clutches; I feel safe in God’s arms…

I shall always be able to stand on my own two feet even when they are planted on the hardest soil of the harshest reality. And my acceptance is not indifference or helplessness. I feel deep moral indignation at a regime that treats human beings in such a way. But events have become too overwhelming and too demonic to be stemmed with personal resentment and bitterness…

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 happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer…. It is sheer arrogance to think oneself too good to share the fate of the masses.[116]

As for her reflections, she said of herself and Spier on the 5th: “The two of us have done a lot of living… he with women, I with men….We have had wild and unfettered lives in many strange beds, and we are nevertheless shy all over again, each time. I find this very beautiful and delight in it.” Some days earlier, she’d been thinking of Spier’s fiancée: “Poor Hertha, how unfair I have been to you. I often wonder what sort of life you live in London”. But then, given Spier’s declining health and the gravity of the situation for the Netherlands’ Jews, she was advising her beloved mentor, “’You must start even now and try to reconcile [Hertha] to the fact that she will never see you again, you must give her something to hold on to for the future. Tell her how the two of you, though physically apart for all these years, have nevertheless been as one, and that she has a duty to carry on if only to keep something of your spirit alive.’ Yes, that’s how people talk to each other these days, and it doesn’t even sound unreal anymore.”[117]


At this time, in order to avoid being sent to Westerbork, Etty—“on Jaap’s urgent advice”—applied for and obtained a typist position with the Jewish Council, an organization of 17,500 employees, which had been established in February 1941 and served “as a conduit for Nazi demands”—particularly the roundup of the Jews.[118] The Council’s leadership, a “self-appointed elite,” chose to believe the fiction that the Jews were being relocated for “labour service in Germany” or further east.[119] A few days before starting work on July 15th, Etty observed that “resentment against this strange agency is growing by the hour.” She added on the 28th: “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.” Her work environment during the intervening thirteen days could, she said, be “best described as midway between hell and a madhouse”.[120]

Just two weeks after starting work at the Jewish Council, Etty voluntarily changed jobs, moving to the Council’s department of “Social Welfare for People in Transit”, at Westerbork. The camp was a barbed-wire enclosed collection of large, draughty and often miserably overcrowded barracks in what she estimated was “an area of half a kilometer square.” It was a “barren stretch of heath” situated in an unpleasant landscape of perpetual wind and very damp peat bogs. Despite this, she often found beauty in the natural world surrounding the camp.[121]

According to Smelik, Jr. and Woodhouse, Etty was at Westerbork from July 30th to August 14th, from about August 21st to mid-September, from about November 21st to December 5th, and from June 6, 1943 until she left for Auschwitz on September 7th. During her first hiatus in mid-August, she was in Amsterdam for a few days and spent a few more visiting her parents in Deventer. During the other periods away from Westerbork she was invariably laid up in her room at Wegerif’s home due to recurring and extended periods of ill health. Gallstones were eventually diagnosed. It was during October that she made her last entries in her diary. (She also kept a diary at Westerbork, but it was lost.)[122] While sick, she continued to resist the entreaties of her Amsterdam friends that she go into hiding. Even after she returned to Westerbork for the final time on June 6th and could no longer leave after her Jewish Council exemption was cancelled in early July, she still “rejected all offers to help her escape.”[123]

As Etty was beginning to suffer her own illness, Spier died on September 15th. Although he never reunited with Hertha, whose name he spoke as he expired, he did escape the Gestapo which “came for him… the day after he died”.[124] The man Etty felt she’d “known for a thousand years,” with whom she’d “experienced the greatest and deepest happiness of [her] life”, “who had attended at the birth of [her] soul,” who had led her to God, and who she would “always long for”, was gone.[125] They’d known each other for less than twenty months. “You taught me to speak the name of God without embarrassment,” she wrote to him. “You were the mediator between God and me, and now you, the mediator, have gone, and my path leads straight to God…. And now I have to do everything by myself.”[126]

In her entry for September 27th, Etty wrote: “At least you don’t have to suffer with me, S., spoiled darling that you were, I am able to face it alone: that little bit of cold and that little bit of barbed wire, and yet you continue to live in my heart. And I carry on what is immortal in you.”[127]

The following summer she watched the weekly trains depart Westerbork with their human cargo.[128] “The freight cars had been completely sealed, but a plank had been left out here and there, and people put their hands through the gaps and waved as if they were drowning.”[129]

“What a mercy it is that [Spier] is no longer with us,” she wrote in late June 1943.[130]

“I still give thanks every day” that he died, she added in July.[131]

A week after Spier’s death, Etty revisited in her diary an argument she’d had with Klaas Smelik, Sr.: “We shan’t get anywhere with hatred, Klaas…. we have so much work to do on ourselves that we shouldn’t even be thinking of hating our so-called enemies…. each of us must turn inwards and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others. And remember that every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable…”

“But that—that is nothing but Christianity!” Klaas protested…

“Yes, Christianity, and why ever not?” she answered.[132]


During the late autumn of 1942, while at Westerbork, Etty received a “commission from Dr. K.” to write “the two sisters in the Hague [sic]…. something in my style, about life in Westerbork.”[133] According to Gaarlandt, Dr. K. was “probably Dr. Herbert Kruskal,” brother of the two sisters.[134] The lengthy letter of December 18, 1942, that Etty wrote the sisters when she was back in Amsterdam was one of the two published illegally in “a run of one hundred copies” during the autumn of 1943. These letters were published in a disguised manner under the title “Three Letters from the Painter Johannes Baptiste van der Pluym (1843-1912)”. Smelik, Jr., points out, “The two letters were preceded by a forward with a biography of the artist, and followed by a third letter, both written by David Koning to camouflage the true contents.”[135]

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Westerbork concentration and transit camp

“In a few months the population has swelled from a thousand to roughly ten thousand”, Etty wrote in her letter of the 18th, comparing the Westerbork she’d known during the first half of September to that of the latter part of November and early December. She went on to describe an event she had not directly experienced. “The greatest influx dates from the awful days of October [2nd and 3rd], when after a massive Jew hunt throughout the Netherlands, Westerbork was swept by a human flood [of more than twelve thousand people] that threatened to engulf it.”[136] Her letter continues:

…it is a camp for people in transit, great waves of human beings constantly washed in from the cities and provinces, from rest homes, prisons, and other prison camps, from all the nooks and crannies of the Netherlands—only to be deported a few days later to meet their unknown destiny…. You sometimes think it would be simpler to put yourself on transport than have to witness the fear and despair of the thousands upon thousands of men, women, children, infants, invalids, the feeble-minded, the sick, and the aged who pass through our helping hands in an almost uninterrupted flow…. For those who have been granted the nerve-shattering privilege of being allowed to stay in Westerbork ‘until further notice,’ there is the great moral danger of becoming blunted and hardened…. What matters is not whether we preserve our lives at any cost, but how we preserve them…. history has indeed laid a heavy destiny on our shoulders, and… we must try and attain the grandeur we need to bear it.

…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.[137]


On April 23, 1943, the Germans declared the provincial Netherlands free of Jews.[138] As part of this process, Etty’s parents had been forced in January to move from their home in Deventer to Amsterdam, where many Jews were being concentrated for easy collection. By May, the removal of Amsterdam’s Jews was starting to draw to a close. Most exemptions held by Jewish Council staff were cancelled. The last of these people were rounded-up in the final mass raid on June 20-21. Etty’s parents and brother Mischa were also swept up in this raid and sent to Westerbork. Early in July, exemptions held by Jewish Council staff at Westerbork were revoked. Etty could have returned to Amsterdam, but she chose instead to remain so she could be with her parents and Mischa.[139] Many other Jews who had not been summoned made similar decisions to be with elderly parents or to keep their families intact.[140]

Etty’s parents and Mischa arrived at Westerbork on June 21st. Etty had been watching for them as “The jam-packed freight train drew into the camp” that morning. She described it as “the hardest day of my life…. Suddenly it’s all coming to an end.” But she also said, “My parents and Mischa are being tremendous; I am amazed.” She spoke of “the Barneveld option [for] Mischa and the family”, but “not me!” she added parenthetically.[141] Barneveld “was a camp in a castle [in the province of Gelderland]… for a supposed elite of ‘cultural Jews’”; Mischa’s reputation as a renowned pianist made him an excellent candidate; most of those sent there survived the war.[142] In a June 21st letter to her friend Milli Ortmann, a Jew who remained free and who survived by using false papers, Etty wrote: “The Jewish Council thinks it imperative that you pursue the Barneveld option strenuously…. Perhaps you will still be able to get [Willem] Mengelberg [the Dutch conductor] to intervene personally with [Hanns] Rauter”, the head of the SS in the Netherlands.[143]

After waiting “for hours and hours in the rain,” room for Etty’s parents and Mischa was found “in a big barracks… a jam-packed human warehouse: people sleeping three to a bed on narrow iron bunks, no mattresses for the men, nowhere at all to store anything, children terrified and screaming, and the greatest possible wretchedness.” Several days later, Etty commented, “I always have a strong inner resistance to overcome, a kind of fear, before I can go inside their barracks, where the sour, fetid reek hits you in the face.”[144] But the same day or soon after, she managed to have her father transferred to the hospital, a comparative oasis that “at its peak [had] 1,725 beds, 120 doctors and a staff of over 1,000.” She wrote on June 26th, “I am very grateful that he has a bed to himself now; in the big barracks he would have gone to pieces within a week.”[145] This letter continues:

Mother is admirable. It’s almost unbelievable—she goes about just as spryly and neatly turned out as always. Today, for instance, she did a big wash in a bucket and hung the clothes out on a piece of string. Mischa’s attachment to them both is touching. He lives in constant fear that they will have to go to Poland, and says there’s no question but that he’ll go with them…. Our greatest worries are for Mischa; we are afraid that things will soon get too much for him. It is really beyond comprehension why people don’t all go mad here.[146]

She added in a letter on the 29th, “My parents are really bearing up splendidly. Inwardly they are preparing for Poland. They make few demands and do not complain; I am terribly proud of them. Mischa is the same as ever. He is a bit grubby and now and then gets very worked up, and he never turns up on time for the roll calls. But his wonderful sense of humor hasn’t deserted him even here.”[147]

This letter also mentions Jaap. Etty says they “were expecting him on the train that arrived from Amsterdam the night before. “To our utter delight he didn’t turn up.” She had known for at least a few days that he was being held at the Hollandsche Schouwburg, the assembly point for Jews being deported from Amsterdam.[148]


Life at Westerbork revolved around the trains, those arriving from Amsterdam and other locations and especially those departing on the three-day trip to the east. While the roundup of the Netherlands’ Jews, which began mid July 1942, was essentially complete following the last raid on September 29, 1943, when the Germans “finally deemed [Amsterdam] clear of Jews”, the deportation phase would continue for another year.[149] From July 15, 1942, to September 13, 1944, ninety-three trains left Westerbork on almost a weekly basis for the east.[150] In a letter of June 7, 1943, written upon arriving back at Westerbork, Etty commented that “the camp with its large-scale misery of transports coming and going has swallowed me whole again.”[151] Over the next three months, the eastbound transports would become a particular focus for her, on both the micro level of her family and the macro level of a process that was both a “fatal mechanism” and an incomprehensible mystery.[152]

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On Sunday, July 4th, she learned that her parents were on the list for the transport leaving on the 6th. She managed to get their names removed. “I feel as if I’ve just gone through labor on my parents’ behalf”, she wrote.[153]

“I wouldn’t beg favors for myself, but I would turn the world upside down to get my parents something to lighten their lives a little,” she’d said the previous week.[154]

“We were able to get [Father] off [the transport list] once again”, she wrote in a letter dated July 8th. This statement, which presumably also pertains to the July 6th train, emphasizes how much these lists and transports weighed on Etty and many others. “[L]iving in fear for your loved ones… is something few can bear”, she said. Her July 8th letter continues:

I must explain that the call-ups for the transport come in the middle of the night, a few hours before the train leaves. If people are still needed at the last minute to fill the quotas, then Jews are seized here and there at random from the barracks. And that’s why the days before the transport are so nerve-racking. The day afterward I fainted twice, but I’m fine again now—until the next transport.[155]

Etty also intervened for Philip Mechanicus. In a letter from early July, one of many she wrote—as Gaarlandt puts it—“To Father Han and others”, Etty commented:[156]

Never before have I taken a hand in “fixing” it to keep someone off the transport…. but yesterday I did my bit for Mechanicus. What exactly it was that I did, I’m not sure. I went to all sorts of officials. Suddenly I found myself walking around with a mysterious gentleman I’ve never seen before who looked like a white slave trafficker in a French film…. next I was appearing before a senile little man who presumably holds a mysterious position of power and can get people off the transport even when all seems lost. There is a sort of “underworld” here in Westerbork; yesterday I sensed something of it, I don’t know how it all fits together, I don’t think it’s a savory story—[157]

Historian Jacob Presser has pointed out that Westerbork “was organized in a virtually unique manner [and] managed almost entirely by the German-Jewish camp inmates themselves, who had taken the initiative in this at an early stage so as to avoid the intervention of the dreaded SS.” The “Long-Term Residents,” those who had been at Westerbork since before July 14, 1942, amounted to “an aristocracy.”[158] They

…now formed the oligarchy and enjoyed all sorts of small, but very important, benefits and the privilege that surpassed all others—a better guarantee of safety. In the pseudo-autonomous organization of Westerbork the upper stratum of these Long-Term Residents supplied the men at the top, the so-called ‘prominent’ men, the VIP’s, in this camp sometimes called MSW (‘macht sich wichtig’—i.e., ‘throws his weight about’). Right at the top stood Schlesinger… the powerless and yet so powerful grand vizier of the all-powerful Camp Commandant [Obersturmführer Albert Konrad Gemmeker, who held the position from 1942 to 1945].[159]

Schlesinger “and his round table were largely responsible for making up the transports for the weekly train from the ‘transport material’ available (this term was actually used).” Presser repeats that “these paladins [were] nearly all… German Jews…”[160]

Earlier in her letter to Father Han and the others, having noted “we managed once again to keep [my parents] off the train”, Etty added: “I find it difficult to say honestly how I feel.”[161] No doubt her views were in conflict. On the one hand, there was her argument that “it doesn’t really matter whether I go or somebody else does…” But on the other, she was driven by the wish that she could spare her parents and brothers “Above all else in the world…” By the latter half of August, however, she would conclude: “More and more I tend toward the idea that love for everyone who may cross your path, love for everyone made in God’s image, must rise above love for blood relatives.”[162]

The Barneveld option was another regular focus for Etty during the first part of July. She told Klaas and Jopie Smelik and others on the 3rd that her parents were “preparing themselves” for the journey east “unless something comes of Barneveld after all.”[163] In a letter to Milli Ortmann on the 6th, she said:

What we really want is to get Mischa, who is determined to stick with his parents and face certain doom, away from here. Is it really true that he could have gone to Barneveld by himself? And wouldn’t it still be possible, even if our parents don’t go to B., for him to get an order telling him that he must go? Even though, to be honest, I know quite well that nothing will make him go without his parents. “If they are sent on transport, that’ll be the end of me, too,” he keeps saying.[164]

On the 8th, Etty wrote: “Father and Mother give me a great deal of pleasure, for they are coping in their own ways; I admire them tremendously. Father now has two pupils in his hospital barracks…. if only they could stay here in case nothing comes of Barneveld.”[165] They received the decision the next day. Etty reported in a July 9th letter: “Barneveld is off, and off for Mischa, too. Father and Mother are on transport; Mischa has permission to stay but doesn’t want to. It’s getting very difficult to keep him quiet. He says: ‘I’m going to go and tell the commandant he is a murderer.’ We have to watch out that he doesn’t do anything dangerous. Rauter’s secretary is here in the camp at the moment, and Mother was specially summoned to be given the news. She was told expressly that they are now due for transport on Tuesday” the 13th.[166]

Attitudes within the family regarding their situation varied. “Mischa insists on going along with them,” Etty wrote, “and it seems to me that he probably should; if he has to watch our parents leave this place, it will totally unhinge him. I shan’t go, I just can’t.” She believed it was “easier to pray for people from a distance than to see them suffer right next to you.”[167] She also believed that

…at a given point you can no longer do, but can only be and accept. And although that is something I learned a long time ago, I also know that one can only accept for oneself and not for others. And that’s what is so desperately difficult for me here. Mother and Mischa still want to “do,” to turn the whole world upside down, but I know we can’t do anything about it. I have never been able to “do” anything; I can only let things take their course and if need be, suffer. This is where my strength lies, and it is great strength indeed. But for myself, not for others.[168]

By contrast, Etty wrote on July 1st that her father “is marvelous, and wonderfully resigned…. He studies the Bible with great concentration, comparing the French, Greek, and Dutch versions.”[169]

“You know,” he told Etty about this time, “I would like to get to Poland as quickly as possible. Then it will all be over and done with and I won’t have to continue with this undignified existence. After all, why should I be spared from what has happened to thousands of others?” A few days later, on the 6th, he told her, “If I get my call-up tonight, truly I won’t be upset, I’ll leave quite peacefully.”[170]

On the 10th, with the July 13th transport looming just ahead, Etty said her father was “really at his wits’ end, though he tries not to show it…. I keep repeating the same prayer: ‘Lord, make it as short as possible.’”[171] But there was another reprieve; once again her parents’ names were dropped from the transport list. It may have been in conjunction with this development that the Hillesum family was declared “gesperrt”, meaning they were exempted from transport and could live at Westerbork “in relative safety.”[172]


According to Mechanicus, Etty “was given the rights of a Long-Term Resident [because she’d] gone voluntarily to Westerbork in the service of the Jewish Council”. Moreover, Etty’s mother told Mechanicus in late August, “We’re exempted because we’re on the Parents List, but I’m afraid it will smash, just as so many other lists have done.”[173]

There were many different lists and they were a source of great hope as they provided exemptions from being deported to the east. The Frederiks and van Dam lists were the first. They laid the basis for the Barneveld option. As Secretaries-General, Frederiks and van Dam were members of the top rung of the Dutch civil service, which collaborated with the German occupation authorities. They struck an agreement with “Generalkommissar Fritz Schmidt to exempt a certain number of prominent Jews from labour service [on the basis of] being useful (verdienstelijke) Dutch Jewish citizens.” What constituted “usefulness” was never defined. It has been suggested that the Germans agreed to the plan “to maintain relations with the leading Dutch civil servants…”[174]

There were many other lists. Dr. Albert Bühler, the German delegate to the Netherlands Bank, maintained a list “of Jews who played an important role in economic life and had considerable international contacts”. The Bondy list was sponsored by “a Sipo [German security police] chief in The Hague.” The Puttkammer and Weismann lists “were created on a semi-official basis”, which allowed the Germans to collect foreign currency while avoiding the appearance “that Jews might buy their way to freedom [which] ran against the ideological objectives of the regime and smacked of corruption.” E.A.P. Puttkammer was “an assistant bank manager who had supported applications for emigration permits to the Foreign Currency Control Bureau as early as 1941.” He “tried to negotiate the purchase of exemption or exit visas against valuables held abroad.” After the war “many survivors attested to the help” he’d provided in return for “a modest donation to the German Red Cross.” J.J. Weismann, on the other hand, was a Dutch Nazi and convicted bank robber who operated a similar service with a view to enriching himself. Both lists collapsed in February 1943.[175]

The most controversial of the lists were those of Friedrich Weinreb, a Jewish economist and Old Testament scholar, who was convicted of collaboration and jailed after the war.[176] His lists were based on the availability of exemptions “for anyone attempting to emigrate.” The man and his two lists became the subject of a “prolonged debate” in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s—was he “an out-and-out collaborator” or “a hero of the resistance”?[177] The public controversy prompted the Dutch government to order the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation to reinvestigate Weinreb in the mid-1970s.[178] The institute’s report, according to Bob Moore, “concluded that the first list had been little more than a ‘swindle on a grand scale’ [intended “from the outset” to benefit Weinreb]. The report also had strong indications that Weinreb’s contacts with the SD [the SS’s Security and Intelligence Service] in early 1943 might have been instrumental in the arrest of a number of Jews in hiding and their helpers in Amsterdam…. Most damning of all were the charges relating to his period in Scheveningen gaol [January-May and July-September 1943]. Here the authors were also convinced that Weinreb had co-operated with the SD in betraying other inmates in exchange for better food and conditions.” Weinreb and his family went into hiding in February 1944 and survived the war.[179]

After being “badly beaten” by the Germans at Scheveningen prison, Weinreb was transferred in May to Westerbork where he spent several weeks in the hospital. While at the camp, he met both Mechanicus and Etty. In a letter from late June, she wrote: “Each day Mechanicus, with whom I go for walks along the narrow, barren strip of earth between the ditch and the barbed wire, reads me what he has just written. You develop friendships here that are enough for several lives at once. I still find time every day for a short philosophical conversation with Weinreb…”[180]

Of particular note are the assessments of Weinreb that Etty and Mechanicus provide in their writing. Mechanicus’s diary for November 30, 1943, includes this:

Applications for his list come streaming in. The majority want to go to Portugal, or at a pinch to Morocco or Brazil. […] Prudent folk ask themselves: ‘What part is Weinreb playing in all this? What is his list worth?’ […] What a running and trotting about, with everyone asking everyone else and no one knowing. Not even Weinreb. He says: ‘It is a good type of exemption as long as the list lasts. But you must be careful not to lose any other good exemption you have, so that you can use it if and when my own list fails to come off.’ So he himself is apparently not convinced that the scheme may not be based on phantasy after all. […] He is a terribly unassuming fellow, the gauche scholarly type, naïve. […][181]

Etty’s assessment of Weinreb is quite different. She saw him as “a man who is a private world to himself with an atmosphere all his own that he manages to preserve no matter what happens.” This word sketch is a telling example of what Mechanicus called Etty’s “clear, perceptive mind.”[182]

Just as telling perhaps is Weinreb’s description of Etty, which he included in his memoirs:

What I found most striking was her religious sense of things, a quality that she had recently discovered in herself. There was something about her that spoke of an ancient, primeval struggle, the weight of thousands of years—and at the same time something light and joyful.[183]


“The misery” of Westerbork, Etty said, “is really indescribable.” She commented on it again and again. “The misery here is so beyond all bounds of reality that it has become unreal…. One should be able to write fairy stories here. It sounds strange, but if you wanted to convey something of Westerbork life you could do it best in that form…. People live in those big barracks like so many rats in a sewer. There are many dying children. But there are many healthy ones, too.”[184] The misery extended to the imminent finality of the inevitable trains to the east.

And all Monday [Etty wrote on Thursday, July 8th] that long row of unpainted freight cars stood there, about seventy people—men, women, invalids, babies—squashed into each one, the doors slammed shut, a little air coming through the air holes and the broken planks, paper mattresses on the floor for the sick; for the rest only a hard floor, a bucket in the middle, and a three-day journey ahead. Can you imagine what that means? I have got used to the idea that I’ll have to go myself one day.[185]

No surprise, then, that she should report on another occasion: “several suicides last night before the transport, with razors and so on.”[186]

The trains were of varying length. The Tuesday, June 8th train consisted of thirty-five freight cars, by Etty’s count, along “with some second-class cars at the front for the escorts.” With “roughly seventy people to a sealed car”, a number she repeatedly cited, the train would have carried about 2,450 Jews.[187] The Tuesday, July 6th train left with 2,500 Jews, according to Etty.[188] But a train she mentions in her August 24th letter left Holland with only “1,020 Jews.” With its departure “One more piece of our camp has been amputated. Next week yet another piece will follow…. A hundred thousand Dutch members of our race are toiling away under an unknown sky or lie rotting in some unknown soil.”[189]

Etty was intimately involved with the preparations that preceded the departure of these trains. “I’ve been up since four this morning dealing with the babies and carrying luggage”, she wrote regarding the June 8th transport. “In a few hours you can accumulate enough gloom here to last a lifetime…. There are babies with pneumonia lying in the freight cars. Sometimes what goes on here seems totally unreal.”[190] And her long letter of August 24th contains this:

Whenever misfortune strikes, people have a natural instinct to lend a helping hand and to save what can be saved. Tonight I shall be ‘helping’ to dress babies and to calm mothers and that is all I can hope to do. I could almost curse myself for that. For we all know that we are yielding up our sick and defenceless brothers and sisters to hunger, heat, cold, exposure and destruction, and yet we dress them and escort them to the bare cattle cars—and if they can’t walk we carry them on stretchers. What is going on, what mysteries are these, in what sort of fatal mechanism have we become enmeshed? The answer cannot simply be that we are all cowards. We’re not that bad. We stand before a much deeper question…[191]

The Tuesday, August 24th train is notable for a couple of reasons. It was the first transport since Tuesday, July 20th. Prior to this five-week interruption the trains had gone to Sobibor, afterwards their destination was Auschwitz.[192] Despite the depressing resumption of the transports, Etty drew sustenance from her sense of the miraculous. On August 18th, she observed: “Inexplicably, Jul [Spier] has been floating above this heath of late. He teaches me something new every day. There are many miracles in a human life. My own is one long sequence of miracles…”[193] She was also sustained by the belief that “we shall build a new world,” an idea she’d been discussing since March 1942, if not before.[194] She became, in Woodhouse’s words, “a universal person, seeking to be in communion with all peoples across all boundaries.”[195] In one of several passages in which readers can experience her transcendence, she wrote on July 3, 1943:

The misery 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 magnificent, and that one day we shall be building a whole new world. Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves…. The main path of my life stretches like a long journey before me and already reaches into another world. It is just as if everything that happens here and that is still to happen were somehow discounted in me, as if I had been through it already, and was now helping to build a new and different society. Life here hardly touches my deepest resources—physically, perhaps, you do decline a little and sometimes you are infinitely sad—but fundamentally you keep growing stronger.[196]


Although Mischa declined the Barneveld option because his parents were not permitted to accompany him, he did “receive a number of special privileges during his stay at Westerbork.”[197] This may have reinforced his mother and father’s position on the Parents List, exempting them from being sent east. “But,” according to the wartime memoirs of the Dutch-Jewish lawyer Benno Stokvis, “this was all ruined when the mother had the unfortunate idea of writing a letter to Rauter [likely at the beginning of September], with the modest request for a little more freedom of movement.”[198] This audacious letter underscored Etty’s contention that her mother and Mischa wanted “to ‘do,’ [rather than] be and accept.” Another Jewish Council employee at Westerbork, Joseph Vleeschhouwer, who Etty referred to as a “comrade-in-arms”, wrote that, when the mother’s letter backfired in the worst possible way, “Mischa could not understand why the deferment that had seemed so certain had suddenly been canceled and continually asked me to intercede with all sorts of more or less important ‘connections.’ He simply did not realize that German orders cannot be changed by anyone here and that all such efforts are bound to be futile.”[199]

To Stokvis, it was “inconceivable” that Etty and Mischa’s mother would have written to Rauter, who “came from the radical wing of the Nazi party” and was well known for his strident and effective leadership in persecuting the Netherlands’ Jews, as well as in fighting the resistance—efforts which earned him the appellations the “High Lord Executioner” and “the ‘evil genius’ of the Nazis in Holland.”[200] Although “officially subordinate” to Seyss-Inquart, Rauter’s “far-reaching autonomy” that was answerable only to Himmler meant he frequently “overshadowed” the Reichskommissar.[201] Seyss-Inquart described Rauter as “a big child with the cruelty of a child.”[202] According to Smelik, Jr., Rauter “was enraged” by the letter.[203]

“Send them immediately to the East” was the order sent by telegram to the commander at Westerbork. It arrived “quite late” on September 6th with the result that Etty, Mischa and their parents were on the transport that left early the next morning.[204]

During the night of September 6-7, 1943, Vleeschhouwer helped Etty, Mischa and their parents prepare for departure. The fact that they were leaving so suddenly caught Etty by “complete surprise”, Vleeschhouwer wrote to “Mr. Wegerif” and other of Etty’s friends on “September 6-7”, presumably starting the letter soon after the family was on the train. “[I]t was a slap in the face, which did in fact literally strike her down. Within the hour, however, she had recovered and adapted herself to the new situation with admirable speed…. I only wish I could describe for you exactly how it happened and with what grace she and her family left! … [Etty was] Talking gaily, smiling, a kind word for everyone she met on the way, full of sparkling humor, perhaps just a touch of sadness, but every inch the Etty you all know so well.”[205] People who survived Westerbork said “Etty was a ‘luminous’ personality to the last.”[206]

Vleeschhouwer’s letter also states that Etty “had decided that she was not going to travel with her parents and would have much preferred to go through these experiences without the pressure of family ties.” Her parents and Mischa were in freight car 1, she was in car 12.[207]

Etty’s last communication was a postcard she composed soon after the train departed. The card was addressed to Christine van Nooten, to whom Etty had written frequently with many requests on behalf of her parents, particularly her father. A close family friend, van Nooten had been Etty’s Latin and Greek teacher at Stedelijk Gymnasium in Deventer.[208] The card reads:

Opening the Bible at random I find this: “The Lord is my high tower.” I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. 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, Father and Mother firmly and calmly, Mischa, too. We shall be traveling for three days. Thank you for all your kindness and care. Friends left behind will still be writing to Amsterdam; perhaps you will hear something from them. Or from my last letter from camp.

Good-bye for now from the four of us.


etty-hillesum-picture-2 - family.jpg

Hillesum Family – L to R: Mischa, Riva, Levie, Etty, Jaap

She managed to throw or drop the card from the moving train on the 7th. It was subsequently found by farmers who mailed it. It was postmarked September 15, 1943. Etty’s parents, Levie and Riva, aged 63 and 62 respectively, were already dead by this date. They “either died during transport to Auschwitz or were gassed immediately upon arrival”, according to Smelik, Jr. Etty was 29 when she died on November 30th. Mischa was 23 when he died the following March 31st. Jaap, who entered Westerbork in late September and was deported to Bergen-Belsen in February 1944, survived the war, but not the return trip to the Netherlands. Like Etty, he died at 29.[209]

Although Etty would become known to the world for her truncated, interrupted life, she would write in a letter of August 18, 1943: “My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue.”[210] Ten days earlier she’d told her friend Maria, “Many feel that their love of mankind languishes at Westerbork because it receives no nourishment—meaning that people here don’t give you much occasion to love them. ‘The mass is a hideous monster; individuals are pitiful,’ someone said. But I keep discovering that there is no causal connection between people’s behavior and the love you feel for them. Love for one’s fellow man is like an elemental glow that sustains you. The fellow man himself has hardly anything to do with it. Oh Maria, it’s a little bit bare of love here, and I myself feel so inexpressibly rich; I cannot explain it.”[211] The same “elemental glow” inspired the sentence Etty chose on October 13, 1942, to conclude her diary: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”[212]


In her diary Etty repeatedly stated that she wanted to “bear witness” and to be “the chronicler”. She wanted to “bear witness where witness needs to be borne…. If I have one duty in these times, it is to bear witness.”[213] She wanted to be one of “the chroniclers of this age…. the chronicler of our adventures.”[214] On October 8, 1942, in one of her diary’s last entries, she, while “still sick”, refined her intention: “I don’t want to become a chronicler of horrors. Or of sensations. 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.’”[215] A few days earlier she had prayed: “Let me be the thinking heart of the barracks.” It was an idea that had first come to her immediately after Spier’s death.[216] She wanted to “bear witness to the fact that God lived, even in these times”.[217]

All this was part and parcel of what she conceived to be her destiny, namely to share the fate of so many of her fellow Jews. Her acceptance of this destiny was grounded in the belief that God is “our greatest and most continuous inner adventure.”[218]

As a universal person, Etty seems on occasion to speak to her readers from outside time. On July 10, 1942, she contemplated surviving the war:

Friday morning.  One moment it is Hitler, the next it is Ivan the Terrible; one moment it is resignation and the next war, pestilence, earthquake, or famine. Ultimately what matters most is to bear the pain, to cope with it, and to keep a small corner of one’s soul unsullied, come what may.

Later.  I keep fretting and brooding and trying to do the most urgent daily chores as quickly as possible, and there is a knot inside that makes it hard to breathe and I rack my brains and have to give up my studies for part of the morning, pace up and down the room, have a stomachache, and so on, and suddenly my confidence floods back: later, when I have survived it all, I shall write stories about these times that will be like faint brush strokes against the great wordless background of God, Life, Death, Suffering, and Eternity.[219]

Hillesum - Etty portrait.jpg

Etty Hillesum

But a week earlier, in the entry in which she wrote of admitting “a new insight into my life… what is at stake is our impending destruction and annihilation,” she foresaw her destiny more accurately:

Living and dying, sorrow and joy, the blisters on my feet and the jasmine behind the house, the persecution, the unspeakable horrors—it is all as one in me, and I accept it all as one mighty whole and begin to grasp it better if only for myself, without being able to explain to anyone else how it all hangs together. I wish I could live for a long time so that one day I may know how to explain it, and if I am not granted that wish, well, then somebody else will perhaps do it, carry on from where my life has been cut short. And that is why I must try to live a good and faithful life to my last breath: so that those who come after me do not have to start all over again, need not to face the same difficulties. Isn’t that doing something for future generations?[220]

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

  1. “Pope Benedict thanks faithful, asks them to pray for next pope,” Catholic News Service, Feb-13-2013 ( Pope Benedict XVI’s Feb. 13, 2013 remarks ( Pope Benedict XVI quoted in “Etty Hillesum,” Wikipedia.
  2. Brother David Steindl-Rast quoted in Robert Ellsberg, “Etty Hillesum: Mystic of the Holocaust (1914-1943),”
  3. Pope Benedict XVI’s Feb. 13, 2013 remarks ( Pope Benedict XVI quoted in “Etty Hillesum,” Wikipedia.
  4. In Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), Patrick Woodhouse refers (5) to Etty as “a saintly figure.”
  5. Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition (Penguin Books, 2001), vi (first published in 1947). “The Diary of a Young Girl,” Wikipedia (re: first published in Dutch in 1947 under the title The Annex: Diary Notes 14 June 1942 – 1 August 1944 and becoming a bestseller when published in English in 1952 under the revised title). Woodhouse points out (xiv): “It was not until 1986 that the full texts of all [Etty’s] diaries and all the then known letters came out when the complete and unabridged letters and diaries were published in Dutch. The English version of this book: Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943, Complete and Unabridged [edited by Klaas A.D. Smelik, Jr., and Meins G.S. Coetsier], was published in 2002.”
  6. Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork (A Holt Paperback, Henry Holt & Co., 1996), 3, 230. All references to “Hillesum” are to this edition, unless otherwise indicated. This applies as well to Eva Hoffman’s Forward and Jan G. Gaarlandt’s Introduction and Notes (see below).
  7. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, “Forward” to Patrick Woodhouse, Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), ix (first published by Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2009).
  8. Eva Hoffman, Forward to Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork (A Holt Paperback, Henry Holt & Co., 1996), x.
  9. J.G. Gaarlandt, Introduction, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork (A Holt Paperback, Henry Holt & Co., 1996), xv. Hillesum, 183, 204. Woodhouse, xiii.
  10. From biographical information on “Prof. Dr. Klaas A.D. Smelik” available at:
  11. Gaarlandt, Introduction, xxiii, and Notes, 369 (note #47). Woodhouse, xiii, 63.
  12. Klaas A.D. Smelik, Jr., “Biography of Etty Hillesum”, Etty Hillesum Onderzoekscentrum (Research Center), University of Ghent ( ), 4. Gaarlandt, Introduction, xiii, xxiii. Woodhouse, viii-ix. Gaarlandt says (xxiii) Smelik, Jr., approached him in 1980 about publishing the exercise books. He also says (xiii) there are “Eight exercise books”, but Woodhouse (98) refers to “The last section of the diary—exercise book 11”.
  13. Gaarlandt, Introduction, xv.
  14. Smelik, Jr., 2. Gaarlandt, Introduction, xvi. Hoffman writes (vii), “Aside from a few fundamental facts about her family—she [Etty] came from an assimilated Jewish background—we know little about her early history, her childhood temperament, or the formative episodes of her youth.”
  15. Woodhouse, 134, 6, 7, 55. Smelik, Jr., 1.
  16. Gaarlandt, Introduction, xvi.
  17. Woodhouse, 10. Smelik, Jr., 1.
  18. Hillesum, 40.
  19. Ibid., 38, 39.
  20. Ibid., 40-41.
  21. Ibid., 58, 59.
  22. Ibid., 68, 66.
  23. Ibid., 67, 68.
  24. Ibid., 68
  25. Philip Mechanicus, Waiting for Death: A Diary (Calder and Boyars Ltd., London, 1968), 105 (Mechanicus discharged from hospital July 29, 1943), 12 (shot and Killed), 87, 139. Hillesum, 291. Mechanicus mentions Etty and members of her family on numerous occasions (pp. 47, 78-80, 87, 115-117, 139, 149), but it is not until p. 149 when he refers to Mischa Hillesum that he identifies any of them by name. See historian Jacob Presser’s Introduction (11-12) to Waiting for Death for biographical information on Mechanicus.
  26. Hillesum, 66, 67.
  27. Ibid., 66.
  28. Ibid., 114.
  29. Smelik, Jr., 1, 2. Woodhouse, 1.
  30. Gaarlandt, xvi.
  31. Smelik, Jr., 2.
  32. Ibid. Gaarlandt, xvi.
  33. Gaarlandt, xvi. Smelik, Jr., 2.
  34. Smelik, Jr., 2.
  35. Hillesum, 100, 109. Etty says (quoted in Woodhouse, 8) that Mischa “simply refuses to play if they (his parents) are not there… In the past they used to visit mental hospitals and doctors, now they attend his concerts.”
  36. Hillesum, 72, 70.
  37. Ibid., 71.
  38. Ibid., 101-102, 57. Woodhouse writes (12) that “at several points in the diary Etty reports [Jaap] being aggressive towards her.” Moore, 285 (note #13), states: “The term ‘Jewish Theatre’ had been coined in the autumn of 1941 when all theatres were segregated and the ‘Hollandse Theatre’ was used exclusively by the Jews.” He adds (94) that in July 1942 the Germans “decided to move the collection point [for called-up Jews] away from the Central [Railway] Station to the former Hollandse Schouwburg theatre building, subsequently referred to as the Joodse Schouwburg.” See also footnote 147 herein.
  39. Smelik, Jr., 3. Hillesum, 69, 6, 77.
  40. Woodhouse, 12, 7, 12, 13.
  41. Hillesum, 6. Hillesum quoted in Woodhouse, 18, 10. Woodhouse, 17.
  42. Smelik, Jr., 2.
  43. Gaarlandt, Introduction, xvi-xvii. Woodhouse, 69.
  44. Smelik, Jr., 2. Gaarlandt (xvi) says she also studied psychology.
  45. Smelik, Jr., 2. Gaarlandt, xvii. In her diary (170) Etty refers to “my occupation: teacher of Russian.”
  46. Smelik, Jr., 2. Gaarlandt, xvii. According to Woodhouse (61), Etty was a member of the “Students’ League against War and Fascism”.
  47. Smelik, Jr., 4. Gaarlandt, Notes, p. 370 (note #9), 376 (note #66). Hillesum, 241-256, 340-354. Woodhouse, 74, 104-113, 123-126.
  48. Smelik, Jr., 2.
  49. Hillesum, 12.
  50. Gaarlandt, xvii.
  51. Ibid. Hillesum, 12.
  52. Hillesumn, 12. Gaarlandt, xvii.
  53. Smelik, Jr., 2. Hillesum, 12.
  54. Smelik, Jr., 2. Gaarlandt, xvii. Hillesum, 12.
  55. Gaarlandt, Notes, 366 (Note #5). Hillesum, 12.
  56. Hillesum, 12, 13.
  57. Ibid., 11, 12.
  58. Woodhouse, 52, 53. Hillesum quoted in Woodhouse, 48.
  59. Smelik, 2. Gaarlandt, xvii, and 366 (note #5). Woodhouse, 14.
  60. Woodhouse notes (14-15): “Among those [in Spier’s circle] who were especially important to [Etty] were Henny Tideman whose simple faith played a part in her spiritual search, Dicky de Jonge the youngest of the Spier circle, Adri Holm, and the Zionist couple Werner and Liesl Levie. All these belonged to the group which gathered round Spier for intellectual discussion and musical evenings.”
  61. Bob Moore, Victims and Survivors: The Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands 1940-1945 (Arnold, London, 1997), 42.
  62. Seyss-Inquart became increasingly answerable to Himmler as the war went on. Moore writes (191): “Realising that he was becoming answerable to Himmler as well as directly to Hitler for the running of affairs inside the Netherlands, Seyss-Inquart adopted an increasingly conciliatory stance and relied on his rank as SS-Gruppenführer and good relationship with the Reichsführer-SS to maintain his own position.”
  63. Himmler quoted in Gerhard Hirschfeld, Nazi Rule and Dutch Collaboration: The Netherlands under German Occupation 1940-1945 (Berg Publishers Ltd., 1988), 46. See also, Moore, 73, and Hirschfeld, 35, 94, 270.
  64. In a meeting on May 25, 1940, Hitler told Seyss-Inquart, as paraphrased by Henri van der Zee in The Hunger Winter: Occupied Holland 1944-5 (Jill Norman & Hobhouse, 1982), 99, that the Dutch were “closely related to the Germans” and “had never lost their good qualities and that with a little persuasion they would soon discover that their future was in a strong Europe”.
  65. Hitler quoted in Hirschfeld, 279.
  66. Walter B. Maass, The Netherlands at War: 1940-1945 (Abelard-Schuman Ltd., 1970), 67.
  67. Hirschfeld, 80.
  68. Moore, 257, 146, 147, 150. Louis de Jong, The Netherlands and Nazi Germany (Harvard University Press, 1990), 41.
  69. Smelik, Jr., 1. Moore, 50-58. Hirschfeld, 145, 145n.
  70. Moore, 64-65, 92 (“The complete registration of the Jews in the early months of 1941…”), 58 (definition of a Jew). Jacob Presser, Introduction to Philip Machanicus, Waiting for Death (Calder and Boyars Ltd., London, 1968—first published as In Dépôt, Polak en Van Gennep, Amsterdam, 1964), 5.
  71. Louis de Jong and Joseph W.F. Stoppelman, The Lion Rampant: The Story of Holland’s Resistance to the Nazis (Querido, New York, 1943), 243.
  72. Hirschfeld, 80, 80n.
  73. Moore, 2 (“approximately 107,000 were deported to the East and at least 102,000 were murdered or worked to death in Nazi camps.”), 7, 9, 53, 140, 191, 193, 3. Moore adds (11) that “the role and co-operative behaviour of the Jewish Council in Amsterdam was in contrast to that of its counterparts in France and Belgium where Jewish organisations took a less compliant stance.” Moore also states (102), “Until March [1943], every transport from Westerbork (and the ones direct from Amsterdam and Apeldoorn) had been sent to Auschwitz. Suddenly on 2 March, the destination was changed and 19 of the following 20 transports were sent to Sobibor extermination camp in Lublin district. These 19 transports carried off a total of 34,313 people, of whom only 19 survived. Explaining the halting of transports to Auschwitz is relatively straightforward, as the camp was almost entirely taken up with the extermination of the Jews of Salonika (March-May) and then beset by a typhus epidemic. More difficult to explain is why transports from the Netherlands were switched to Sobibor when those from other Western European countries were suspended. It has been pointed out that the Dutch victims of Sobibor more or less account for the percentage difference in mortality rates between the Netherlands and its nearest neighbours. Both before and after this period, the level of deportations from all three countries are broadly comparable. [Historian J.C.H.] Blom has suggested that German satisfaction with the conduct of affairs in the Netherlands compared with the problems being encountered in France and Belgium may have played some part in the decision.”
  74. Smelik, Jr., 3, 2, 3.
  75. Hoffman, ix.
  76. Gaarlandt, xiv.
  77. Smelik, Jr., 2. Woodhouse, 15.
  78. Gaarlandt, xiv.
  79. Smelik, Jr., 2-3. Woodhouse, 15-16. Woodhouse notes (16) that Spier paid “a large amount of money to the Nazis [for] permission to emigrate to the Netherlands”.
  80. Gaarlandt reports (xiv) that Spier was born April 25, 1887. Smelik, Jr., 2, 3 (re: Bernard Meylink bringing Etty and Spier together).
  81. Hillesum, 4. On January 7, 1942, Etty added (80) that Spier “seems to draw on deeper, stronger, and more truly human sources than most others. And in his work he looks for human, not sensational results, although he invariably causes a sensation just because he is able to look so deeply into people.”
  82. Smelik, Jr., 3.
  83. Gaarlandt, xvii. Hillesum, 75.
  84. Smelik, Jr., 3.
  85. Smelik, Jr., 3. Hillesum, 3, 6.
  86. Hillesum, 6.
  87. Ibid., 4, 5, 6. Etty added (16) that “people know what they’re talking about when they speak of his ‘magical personality.’”
  88. Hillesum, 6, 117, 75.
  89. Ibid., 6, 20.
  90. Ibid., 4.
  91. Ibid., 7, 4.
  92. Ibid., 8-9.
  93. Ibid, 17 (see also 15: “…we wrestled again, and I was deeply affected by his great, attractive body.”).
  94. Ibid., 20, 21, 22, 20.
  95. Hoffman, ix.
  96. Smelik, Jr., 3. Woodhouse, 140, 143. In an August 18, 1943, letter from Westerbork to her good friend Henny (“Tide”) Tideman, who played an important role in her spiritual development, Etty writes (Hillesum, 333): “Your photograph is in Rilke’s Stundenbuch, next to Jul’s photograph. They lie under my pillow together with my small Bible.” (Smelik, Jr., in his “Introduction” to Etty Hillesum says Tideman helped open “the way to God for Etty Hillesum.” See: On July 7, 1942, after meeting “a small group of people [who were] being deported next week to work in Germany” (Hillesum, 170), Etty “dreamed that I had to pack my case. I tossed and turned, fretting about what shoes to take—all of them hurt my feet…. And I had to find room somewhere for the Bible. And if possible for Rilke’s Book of Hours and Letters to a Young Poet. And I very much wanted to take along my two small Russian dictionaries and The Idiot so as to keep up the language.” See also Hillesum, 210.
  97. See the video, “Love is the Only Solution,” 10:31 to 10:40 –
  98. Hillesum, 36.
  99. Ibid., 50.
  100. Ibid., 63, 64. Also during the latter half of November 1941, Etty wrote (61): “’Above all be true to yourself.’ S. [sic] is quite right. I am so fond of him and at the same time have such antipathy for him. And this antipathy is related to deeper things, things that are beyond me.”
  101. Ibid., 78.
  102. Ibid., 60-61.
  103. Ibid., 105.
  104. Ibid., 133.
  105. Ibid., 129, 128.
  106. Ibid., 132.
  107. Ibid., 111, 116, 64.
  108. Ibid., 130-131.
  109. Ibid., 135.
  110. Ibid., 135-136.
  111. Ibid., 149.
  112. Ibid., 155, 153, 155.
  113. Ibid., 158, 160, 178.
  114. Woodhouse, 27 and 97 (re: Spier’s cancer). Gaarlandt, Notes, 369 (note #47). Woodhouse, 89.
  115. Hillesum, 171-172.
  116. Ibid., 176-177.
  117. Ibid., 162, 146-147, 164.
  118. Hillesum, 180. Smelik, Jr., 3. Gaarlandt, xii. Moore, 16, 69, 70. Woodhouse, 95. Gaarlandt incorrectly states (xii) that the Jewish Council had “a staff of several hundred people.”
  119. Moore, 70, 265, 153, 75, 95, 98, 101. “The Council,” according to Gaarlandt (xviii), “was under the illusion that by negotiation it could save the Jews from the worst.”
  120. Smelik, Jr., 3. Hillesum, 177, 196, 186. Etty said working at the Jewish Council was like hell on two other occasions (184, 188) and like a madhouse one other time (191).
  121. Smelik, Jr., 3. Gaarlandt, xix. Woodhouse, 2, 97, 103, 108. Hillesum, 245, 255. Presser, 5. Moore writes (95): “The Jewish Council, unable to stop the pace or extent of the round-ups, extended their bureaucratic activities to providing for those being deported. Staff were transferred to Westerbork to deal with the day-to-day problems of those in transit or being held in the camp…” Etty’s decision to change jobs and move to Westerbork may have been influenced by a new regulation promulgated on June 30, 1942, that, as Woodhouse writes (92), “Jews could not live in the same houses as non-Jews. So her position in Han Wegerif’s house became precarious. In fact an exception was allowed when residence was necessary upon the grounds of existing rental or labour contracts. So she could remain as housekeeper, but she could not know how long this would last. ‘Perhaps I shall be able to stay on here for another month,’ she writes, ‘but by that time any loophole in the regulations will surely have been closed.’”
  122. Smelik, Jr., 3. Woodhouse, 2-3, 98, 99, 118 (lost diary). According to Gaarlandt (xix), “Thanks to a special permit from the Jewish Council [Etty] was able to travel [from Westerbork] to Amsterdam a dozen times.” This does not align with what Smelik, Jr. and Woodhouse say, unless she was able to make a number of day-trips from Westerbork. In a letter of May 5, 1943, to her friend Osias Kormann at Westerbork, Etty writes (263): “I see that I have already been away from your Heath Metropolis for five months…” Smelik, Jr. (2) and Gaarlandt (xviii) agree that Etty wrote most, if not all, of her diary in her room at Wegerif’s house.
  123. Smelik, Jr., 3. Gaarlandt, xix, xxi-xxii. Woodhouse, 89-91. For information re: Etty’s Jewish Council exemption being cancelled, see Footnote 138.
  124. Woodhouse, 98, 99, 16, 99.
  125. Hillesum, 151, 198, 214, 222, 175.
  126. Ibid., 200, 198.
  127. Ibid., 217.
  128. Gaarlandt, xx.
  129. Hillesum, 274.
  130. Ibid., 281.
  131. Ibid., 316.
  132. Hillesum, 210-212.
  133. Ibid., 241, 242.
  134. Gaarlandt, Notes, 370 (note #9).
  135. Smelik, Jr., 4. See also Gaarlandt, Notes, 370 (note #14), and Woodhouse, 74, 104-113, 123-126.
  136. Hillesum, 252. Gaarlandt, Notes, 370 (note #9). Moore states (98), “All the victims of [the 2-3 October] raids were sent directly to Westerbork, where at least 3,000 had to sleep on the ground as the camp buildings were too small to hold all the new arrivals.”
  137. Hillesum, 246, 247, 250, 251, 255-256.
  138. Moore, 266.
  139. Smelik, Jr., 3 (“Etty’s parents had moved on 7 January 1943 to the Retiefstraat 11 hs [sic] in Amsterdam, after having first attempted to use doctor’s orders to circumvent their forced removal from Deventer.”). Moore, 76 (“Jews were ultimately concentrated in Amsterdam during 1942 and 1943”), 103-104, 140, 103 (“the last mass raid of 20 June”). According to Smelik, Jr. (3), “on 5 July 1943 an end was put to the special status granted to personnel at the Westerbork section of the Jewish Council.” In late June, Etty refers to the number of Jewish Council employees at Westerbork being pared down (280, 284). “Have I told you,” she writes in a July 1st letter (289), “that of the hundred twenty people working for the Jewish Council, sixty must go home? Luckily I am not one of the sixty, so I can keep on protecting my parents as best I can.” She added in another letter on July 8th (311): “All stamps have been declared invalid, everyone is due for transport except those whose affairs are still being considered by The Hague.”
  140. Moore, 151. Etty said (280) that most Jewish Council workers wanted to remain at Westerbork “since almost everyone [of us] has family here whom he can still protect a little by his presence.” On July 8, 1943, Philip Mechanicus wrote in his diary (83): “Today the skilled workers, furriers and rag-sorters have been given the choice of going to Vught alone or being sent on to Poland with their wives. By far the greater proportion of them chose the latter.”
  141. Hillesum, 275 (Etty’s letter of June 21, 1943, to Milli Ortmann).
  142. Gaarlandt, Notes, 373 (note #28). Woodhouse, 121. Etty noted in her diary (quoted in Woodhouse, 108) that “the expanding hospital barracks complex already has a thousand beds.”
  143. Hillesum, 275 (Etty’s letter of June 21, 1943, to Milli Ortmann). Gaarlandt, Notes, 373 (notes #27 and #28).
  144. Hillesum, 276, 279.
  145. Ibid., 314, 283. Presser, 7 (description of the hospital).
  146. Hillesum, 283.
  147. Ibid., 286.
  148. Ibid., 285, 279. Gaarlandt, Notes, 373 (notes #33 and #34). In the latter note, Gaarlandt incorrectly states that Jaap was “Etty’s younger brother”. He makes a related mistake in note #28 (p. 373) when he says Mischa was “the older of Etty’s two brothers”. Moore, 94 (re: Hollandse Schouwburg which was “subsequently referred to as the Joodse Schouwburg.” See also footnote 38 herein.).
  149. Moore, 104.
  150. Gaarlandt, Introduction, xx (“From 15 July 1942 until 3 September 1944, week in and week out, the trains left, ninety-three in all.”).  Gaarlandt’s statement is not entirely correct.  Wikipedia’s article “Westerbork transit camp” maintains that “the first of the three final trains [left]… on 3 September 1944 [and was] probably a reaction to the Allies’ offensive” that was soon to cross into the south of the Netherlands.  In an email of February 6, 2022, Frank van Riet advised the author: “The last transport to Auschwitz left on Sunday, September 3, 1944.  A day later, a transport also departed from Westerbork, but had Theresienstadt as its destination.”  In his book The Jewish Guards (pages 166-168), van Riet discusses the transports of September 3 and 4, 1944.  An appendix to his email of February 6, 2022, states that the final transport from Westerbork was on Wednesday, September 13, 1944, with the destination of Bergen-Belsen.
  151. Hillesum, 267. Presser says (7, 6) “deportation [was] the dynamic factor in the life at Westerbork”. Most Jews only stayed there “a few days”.
  152. Hillesum, 342.
  153. Ibid., 297, 298.
  154. Ibid., 292.
  155. Ibid., 308. In a letter of July 6, 1943, Etty wrote (300) “that is precisely what saps you, the uncertainty until the last minutes.”
  156. Hillesum, 297.
  157. Ibid., 298.
  158. Presser, 6, 8.
  159. Ibid., 8, 6.
  160. Ibid., 8-9.
  161. Hillesum, 298.
  162. Ibid., 177, 309, 334.
  163. Ibid., 293.
  164. Ibid., 301.
  165. Ibid., 309.
  166. Ibid., 312.
  167. Ibid., 314, 312.
  168. Ibid., 314.
  169. Ibid., 291. On July 3, 1943, Etty referred (294) to her father as “so sweet, and wonderfully resigned.”
  170. Hillesum, 294, 299.
  171. Ibid., 315.
  172. Etty’s parents being dropped from the transport list for July 13, 1943, is my inference based on the fact that Etty mentions them still being at Westerbork in letters she wrote after the 13th. The Hillesum family living “gesperrt” and “in relative safety” are from Benno J. Stokvis, Advocaat in Bezettingstijd (Lawyer during the Occupation), Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam, 1986, pp. 95f.
  173. Mechanicus, 149, 139.
  174. Moore, 132, 134, 132.
  175. Ibid., 135. See Gaarlandt, Notes, 375 (note #56) – re: Puttkammer.
  176. Moore, 135, 136. Woodhouse, 109. Gaarlandt, Notes, 374 (note #36).
  177. Moore, 136, 14.
  178. Ibid., 135-136, 290.
  179. Ibid., 138, 137.
  180. Ibid., 137. Hillesum, 279.
  181. Mechanicus, 200-201. A “Publisher’s Note” at the back of Mechanicus’s diary states (p. 267): “A few passages have been omitted for reasons of discretion, and the English version has been slightly shortened with repetitions omitted and passages of a less interesting nature cut. Wherever these cuts occur, square brackets have been inserted.”
  182. Hillesum, 279. Mechanicus, 139. Mechanicus also twice refers to Etty’s intelligence (47, 115-116).
  183. Weinreb quoted in Woodhouse, 109.
  184. Hillesum, 293, 305, 293. Etty’s phrase “like so many rats in a sewer” (293) may have been inadvertently borrowed from Mechanicus who often read her what he’d written in his diary (Hillesum, 279). Etty used the phrase in a letter of July 3, 1943. Mechanicus’s diary entry for June 26, 1943, includes this (63): “Many of the huts are too full and the people are living like rats in a sewer, all close together.”
  185. Hillesum, 309.
  186. Ibid., 287.
  187. Ibid., 274, 293. Etty said (273) the June 8th train carried three thousand Jews.
  188. Hillesum, 301.
  189. Ibid., 353, 354.
  190. Ibid., 273.
  191. Ibid., 342.
  192. Gaarlandt, Notes, 375 (note #58). See also footnote #73 above.
  193. Hillesum, 332-333.
  194. Ibid., 96.
  195. Woodhouse, 39.
  196. Hillesum, 294, 295.
  197. Smelik, Jr., 3.
  198. Stokvis, 95f. Email of February 22, 2015, from Klaas Smelik, Jr., to the author re: the letter being “written at the beginning of September 1943.”
  199. Hillesum, 314. Smelik, Jr., 3, and Gaarlandt, Notes, 369 (note #3) – re: Jopie Vleeschhouwer’s proper given name being Joseph. Woodhouse, 119, 130. Gaarlandt, Introduction, xxi. Vleeschhouwer’s letter of September 6-7. 1943, is included in Hillesum, 361-364.
  200. Stokvis, 95f. Maass, 49, 221. Van der Zee, 182.
  201. Hirschfeld, 24. Maass, 57 (re: “overshadowed”).
  202. Van der Zee, 182.
  203. Smelik, Jr., 3.
  204. Stokvis, 95f. Smelik, Jr., 3. Vleeschhouwer’s letter (Hillesum, 361) says “The news from The Hague came quite late on Monday”.
  205. Vleeschhouwer in Hillesum, 361, 363.
  206. Gaarlandt, Introduction to the Lester & Orpen Dennys 1983 edition of Hillesum, xii. Woodhouse, 21, 117, 118, 150.
  207. Vleeschhouwer in Hillesum, 361, 363.
  208. Hillesum, 360. Gaarlandt, Notes, 373 (note #29).
  209. Hillesum, 360 (Gaarlandt’s notes on the page). Gaarlandt, Introduction, xxii. Smelik, Jr., 1, 3-4.
  210. Hillesum, 332.
  211. Hillesum, 323. “Most people here are much worse off than they need to be,” Etty wrote in a letter of August 11, 1943 (327), “because they write-off their longing for friends and family as so many losses in their lives, when they should count the fact that their heart is able to long so hard and to love so much among their greatest blessings.”
  212. Hillesum, 231. Gaarlandt says (xiv) this sentence reflects Etty’s “attitude to life” and her “radical altruism.”
  213. Hillesum, 41, 195, 219.
  214. Ibid., 173, 195.
  215. Ibid., 226.
  216. Ibid., 225, 199.
  217. Etty Hillesum quoted in Woodhouse, 101.
  218. Etty Hillesum quoted in Woodhouse, 135.
  219. Hillesum, 172.
  220. Ibid., 154.




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