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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2005
Number 62
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Thinking Heart of A Concentration Camp: The Spiritual Journey of A Young Woman in Holland Under Nazi Occupation

Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943, edited by Klaas Smelik and translated by Arnold Pomerans.
William B. Eerdmans Publishing

A Review Essay by Cliff Edwards

Some will know Etty Hillesum, the young Jewish woman from the Netherlands murdered at Auschwitz in 1944, through the 1984 work An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943 or the 1986 Letters from Westerbork. Now this 2002 publication of 800 pages brings these sources and more together in one volume along with almost 700 carefully prepared explanatory notes.

Etty, or Esther, Hillesum was the daughter of a Russian mother and a Dutch father who taught the classics in a series of Dutch schools before his dismissal with other Jewish teachers during the Nazi occupation. Etty, born in 1914, attended grammar school in Deventer, studied law in Amsterdam, and took master’s exams in Dutch Law in 1939. Later she studied Slavic languages, gave lessons in Russian language and literature, and acted as disciple and secretary to Julius Spier, a “psycho-chirologist” who had undergone instructive analysis with C.G. Jung in Zurich. At Jung’s recommendation, Spier had opened a practice in Berlin before leaving Nazi Germany for Amsterdam in 1939.

But these few background details do not prepare one for the free-spirited young woman who kept a diary from age 27 to 29 in an Amsterdam feeling the tightening grip of Nazi oppression. Her frank musings on her sexuality, devotion to her Jungian mentor, longing to become a great writer, and will to suffer with her people, fill hundreds of pages of introspective self-examination and keen observations regarding her times. Scattered references document the Nazi regulations requiring the wearing of the yellow star, exclusion of Jews from public transportation, confiscation of bicycles, closing of parks and shops to Jews, multiplying stories of arrests and murder.

In the midst of the Nazi threat, Etty’s growing spirituality, meditative reading, and deepening sense of a mission to champion the power of love over hatred, become increasingly evident in her journal entries and letters. She read the Psalms and the Gospel of Matthew, van Gogh’s letters, and St. Augustine, Dostoevsky and Jung. But above all, she constantly read and copied out passages from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Book of Hours. She confessed, “Rilke … fills my days and is part of my being” (447).

The reader’s knowledge that Etty will die at Auschwitz at age 29, in November of 1943, makes her struggle to find a lifework all the more poignant. She felt that she “must write,” become a novelist or poet, perhaps “join a psychological practice,” complete her Russian studies and become a “mediator” between Russia and the West. But as the journal progresses, she sees her mission more and more as being “the chronicler of the things that are happening” in Nazi occupied Holland. Even that mission gradually transforms into her need to simply be with her people in their suffering. She therefore refuses the offers of friends who wish to hide her, and she returns, even from a sick-bed leave in Amsterdam, to work at Camp Westerbork, a “Police Transit Camp” in the barren Drenthe region, a camp that gradually became a pause on the way to Auschwitz for thousands of Jews.

Through the Bible, Jung, Rilke, and her people’s suffering, Etty discovers that “… there is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God” (91). Her journal entries often become prayers or inward conversations, a “silly, naïve, or deadly serious dialogue with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God” (494). On God’s relationship to the plight of the Jews she affirmed:

And God is not accountable to us for the senseless harm we cause one another. We are accountable to Him! I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps. … And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful (456).

The reader will find in Etty’s journal rich material on spiritual formation, mystical moments of enlightenment during which she speaks with the moon, trees, flowers, friends, and the depths within. Equally haunting are her descriptions of her love for Camp Westerbork and her poetic descriptions of that barren landscape:

At night the barracks sometimes lay in the moonlight, made out of silver and eternity, like a plaything that had slipped from God’s preoccupied hand (529).

As Etty struggles to discover her proper life-work, it may well dawn on the reader that she was fashioning her only literary masterpiece through her journal entries, and that the “piece of God” deep inside her was creating one of the most poignant “songs” of the Holocaust. In October of 1942 she wrote:

There is no hidden poet in me, just a piece of God that might grow into poetry. And a camp needs a poet, one who experiences life there, even there, as a bard is able to sing about it (542).

One might well find Etty’s descriptions of her transforming self to be among the most revealing of her journal entries. She names herself “the girl who learned to pray” (547), and records the hope that she might become “the thinking heart of a whole concentration camp” (543).

Among the letters preserved in this volume are two by witnesses who describe Etty’s sudden departure on a “transport” train from Westerbork to an uncertain fate in Poland, to what we know turned out to be Auschwitz. One letter notes that she “for herself asked only for a Bible and a Russian grammar” (669). It adds that “on a postcard picked up on the railway line” Etty had written, “we left the camp singing.” A letter by a second witness describes Etty walking to the train “talking gaily, smiling, a kind word for everyone she met on the way” (667). It goes on to state, “I think she was actually quite looking forward to this experience, to sharing anything and everything in store for us all” (668).

Cliff Edwards is Professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, contributing editor and editorial consultant. His most recent book is The Shoes of Van Gogh: A Spiritual and Artistic Journey to the Ordinary.

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