Holocaust remembrance: Etty Hillesum’s story in her own words

Holocaust remembrance: Etty Hillesum’s story in her own words

By Patrick Wolfe

January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians on that day in 1945. They arrived fourteen months too late for Etty Hillesum, who was murdered there on November 30, 1943. She was six weeks shy of her thirtieth birthday.

Nineteen months earlier, on April 30, 1942, when the Nazis announced that Jews in the Netherlands were required to wear a yellow Star of David on their outer clothing, Etty wrote in her diary, “Never give up, never escape, take everything in, and perhaps suffer, that’s not too awful either, but never, never give up.” On July 16, 1942, she observed, “there is only one way of preparing the new age, by living it even now in our hearts.” Her diary’s last sentence is this, “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”[1]

Like Anne Frank’s diary, Etty’s is an intimate and haunting moral document for the ages. While Anne’s diary became a bestseller when it was published in English in 1952, Etty’s diary, along with some letters, wasn’t published in Dutch until 1981. Since then, there have been translations and new editions and her readers and reputation have grown enormously. In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI pronounced her a woman “transfigured by faith,” so filled with “love and inner peace” that despite knowing she’d die in the Holocaust, she was “able to declare, ‘I live in constant intimacy with God.’”[2]

In his 1983 introduction to the diary, Etty’s publisher, Jan G. Gaarlandt, notes, “In Holland today, Christians and Jews are claiming Etty as typically Christian or typically Jewish—an unprofitable discussion because…. Her religiosity is totally unconventional.”[3]

Etty’s father, a school headmaster, was one of the 2,100 Jews employed in the Dutch public sector who lost their jobs in late 1940.[4] Like the entire, five-member Hillesum family, many of these people were among the 102,000 Jews from the Netherlands to perish in the Holocaust.[5]

In July 1942, Etty went to work for the Amsterdam Jewish Council, which, because it provided its staff with exemptions from deportation to the camps, was intended to protect her. But two weeks later she volunteered to go to Westerbork, a concentration camp in Drenthe province and the last stop before the death camps in the east, to provide support for Jews in transit. Friends repeatedly offered to help her escape and go into hiding. She always refused.[6]

She maintained, “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…. 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.”[7]

Among the books she took to Westerbork were the Koran, the Talmud, and likely the writings of Meister Eckhart, the medieval German mystic, and her beloved Rainer Maria Rilke.[8] Etty believed that God is “our greatest and most continuous adventure.”[9] She titled her July 12, 1942, entry “Sunday morning prayer.” It includes this: “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.”[10]

Jews making the three-day trip from Westerbork to the death camps were generally packed seventy to a boxcar, according to Etty who helped load the cars.  “I’ve been up since four this morning dealing with the babies and carrying luggage,” she wrote about the June 8, 1943, 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.”[11]

In a long letter on August 24, she observed, “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…”[12]

Between these two entries, she wrote on July 3, “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.”[13]

Patrick Wolfe is the author of A Snake on the Heart – History, Mystery, and Truth: The Entangled Journeys of a Biographer and His Nazi Subject, which is expected to be published spring 2022 by Iguana Books of Toronto. His biography of Etty Hillesum is available on his web site: https://patrickswolfe.com/

  1. Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, with a Foreword by Eva Hoffman and an Introduction and Notes by J. G. Gaarlandt (New York: Holt Paperbacks), 1996, 128-129, 185, 231.
  2. Pope Benedict XVI’s Feb. 13, 2013, remarks(http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2013/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20130213.html).

    Pope Benedict XVI quoted in “Etty Hillesum,” Wikipedia.

  3. Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943, Introduced by J. G. Gaarlandt, Translated from the Dutch by Arno Pomerans (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1983), viii-ix. The first half of this introduction is largely the same as Gaarlandt’s 1996 introduction, where the referenced information can be found on page xv.
  4. Gerhard Hirschfeld, Nazi Rule and Dutch Collaboration: The Netherlands under German Occupation 1940-1945 (Oxford, New York, Hamburg: Berg Publishers Ltd., 1988), 145, 145n.
  5. Bob Moore, Victims and Survivors: The Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands 1940-1945 (London: Arnold, 1997), 2.
  6. Hillesum, 1996 edition, Gaarlandt’s Notes, 369 (note #47). Patrick Woodhouse, Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 89.
  7. Hillesum, 1996, 176-177.
  8. Woodhouse, 143, 141.
  9. Woodhouse, 135.
  10. Hillesum, 1996, 178.
  11. Hillesum, 1996, 273.
  12. Hillesum, 1996, 342.
  13. Hillesum, 1996, 294, 295.

 

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