A balm for all wounds

By TERRANCE MINTNER
May 18, 2017 18:57

Etty Hillesum was an aspiring writer who searched for meaning amid the horrors of the Holocaust. Her insights remain relevant as ever.




Etty Hillesum

Etty Hillesum. (photo credit:Wikimedia Commons)

The year was 1941 when Etty Hillesum began her diary. In a small room on Amsterdam’s Gabriël Metsustraat, just a short walk from the attic where a younger diarist (who would become more famous) would try to elude the Nazis a year later, this 27-year-old aspiring writer agonized over how to commit her inner struggles to the page.

How can one “yield up so much that has been suppressed to a blank sheet of lined paper?” she writes while sitting at a desk strewn with miscellanea – pinecones, exotic flowers, books, a bible, paper and carbon pencils. “The thoughts in my head are sometimes so clear and so sharp and my feelings so deep, but writing about them comes hard.”

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Etty is wrestling with a concern shared by writers since time immemorial: how to find one’s voice. In hope of uncovering it, she had devoured plenty of books but neglected turning the ideas they contained into her own. “I allow others to formulate what I ought to be formulating myself. I keep seeking outside confirmation of what is hidden deep inside me, when I know that I can only reach clarity by using my own words.”  

A few years later, Etty’s life will be tragically cut short. She shared the unfortunate fate of Anne Frank and the high number of Dutch Jews who perished in the Holocaust. But, unlike Frank, Etty’s story is largely unknown, an oddity considering that her diaries and letters have survived, have been translated into English and other languages, and are easy and pleasurable to read. The neglect is more bewildering given that her writings are also chock-full of insights into living a creative and spiritual life.  

In an email exchange with The Jerusalem Report, Dr. Meins G. S. Coetsier, an expert on Hillesum who has taught in Belgium, writes that she is “one of the underestimated and lesser-known but most compelling literary figures of the Holocaust… Her intimate experience of and her meetings with God and man, as articulated creatively in the diaries and letters, give her something of a representative status: one of the unique spiritual voices from the Shoah.” Her writings, he adds, are waiting to be rediscovered.

A few people have already done so.

Coetsier has written extensively on Hillesum and believes her life, works and precious philosophical insights are still relevant when the wounds from past tragedies are still with us and when we urgently need “a balm” for the traumas of our own time.

Susan Stein, a playwright and actress from New York, is another who is striving to diffuse the diarist’s ideas. For more than nine years she has been performing a play adapted from Etty’s writings in theaters, educational institutions, houses of worship and prisons throughout the United States and Europe. She has also performed in Israel.   

I came across Etty while reading about Rainer Maria Rilke, a German poet (d. 1926) whose work overflows with ideas for living a creative and writerly life. Hillesum was deeply influenced by him.

But Hillesum was tested in ways Rilke was not. She continued writing during history’s darkest hour. If she persisted in deeply troubling times, she has much to offer us in our own relatively peaceful days.

Esther “Etty” Hillesum was born in 1914 to an assimilated Jewish family in Middelburg, a provincial town in southwest Holland. In 1932, she left home to pursue a law degree in Amsterdam and later took courses in Russian and psychology. By the time World War II broke out, she had been living in the residence on Gabriël Metsustraat, where she occupied a tiny room and worked as a housekeeper. The job paid the rent and entailed light duties, affording Etty ample time to pursue her interests.

It was in these circumstances that her writing life began – and it happened purely by chance.

While dealing with bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide, Etty fell in with a man twice her age, a therapist of sorts named Julius Spier. Spier, also a Jew and a student of the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung, had established a reputation as an expert palm reader – however hucksterish that may sound to us. In any case, Etty believed Spier could bring “order to her inner chaos” and find a remedy for what she called “spiritual constipation.”  

In therapy sessions Spier introduces her to readings from the Koran, New Testament, Torah, Russian literature and Buddhism. More importantly, he invites her to read Rilke and suggests she emulate the poet’s iron-clad writing routine to come to grips with her inner demons. Little did she know that writing would also help her cope with the external ones about to overtake them.  

Their sessions soon tipped over into the amorous and the affair (for Spier was engaged) brought the two into a working relationship. Etty became his secretary and spiritual confidant.  

During their romance, the Nazi occupation of Holland was slowly and methodically tightening the noose around the country’s Jews. It was 1941 and the regular deportations were still a year off. In the meantime, Etty and Spier were free to move about, but they felt the hatred machine beginning to grind its wheels.

The first restrictions were petty but only grew from there. Jews were not allowed to shop at greengrocers. Then, they could no longer use bicycles and the city’s tram. In her diary, Etty writes about the long walks with Spier; they had arisen out of necessity but became enjoyable, minus the annoying blisters on her feet.

She writes her way through it with a focus on her own struggles, relationship with Spier and finding meaning through daily writing. In one entry, she seems to mature before our eyes. “Something in me is growing,” she writes, “and every time I look inside, something fresh has appeared and all I have to do is to accept it, to take it upon myself, to bear it forward, and to let it flourish.”

But the world around her is crumbling. Beginning in 1942 Jews were prohibited from visiting non-Jewish homes. They are forced to wear the infamous yellow star and move into a ghetto. A small group of Jews had already been sent off to a concentration camp, while a transit camp was set up at Westerbork to facilitate more deportations. It was at this point that Anne Frank went into hiding.

Etty’s situation was different. Her non-Jewish landlord and friends offered her hiding places. Ignoring their pleas she does the opposite: She volunteers with the Jewish Council and asks to be transferred to Westerbork, where she hopes she can be of service to her fellow Jews. Unlike most Jews in the camp, she is given a travel pass and returns frequently to Amsterdam, where she stays in touch with distraught family members who have not yet fallen into Nazi clutches.

The gnawing uncertainty pushes Etty into a more intense dialogue with God. It is clear from diary entries that her religiosity is unconventional. “When I pray,” she writes, “I hold a silly, naive, or deadly serious dialogue with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God.”

No matter how serious these dialogues were, Etty never blames God for the calamity facing Jews. “You cannot help us,” she writes, “but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”

Her eclectic spirituality and upbringing in a thoroughly assimilated family raise interesting questions about her Jewishness. How did she relate to her heritage?

Coetsier tells The Report that Etty “declined to call herself by her original Jewish name Esther, and she writes and describes herself as an assimilated Dutch woman. She hardly regarded herself as Jewish, nor did she make any real attempt to speak out about her Jewish faith or background.” But as some scholars have argued, Coetsier explains, the Nazis “forced an awareness of her Jewish identity upon Hillesum.” Though she was not a practicing Jew, “her Jewish origin became essential to her sense of identity.”

What’s also telling is that Etty “preferred to face her persecutors; she ‘decided’ to undergo the fate of the Jews, rather than go into hiding,” Coetsier writes.

In the diary she reflects on this predicament. “We must learn to shoulder our common fate,” she writes. “Everyone who seeks to save himself must surely realize that if he does not go another must take his place. As if it really mattered which of us goes.” In the next entry, she adds, “But I don’t think I would feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer.”

Was Etty aware of what would likely happen in the rumored “work camps” of the East? Was she simply naïve about putting herself in a position from which she might never return?

Unlike Anne Frank, Etty was clear-eyed about the strong possibility of death: “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.”

This fearlessness serves her well amid the horrors of Westerbork. She witnesses recent arrivals who had been rounded up in the night. Weary-eyed, they stagger into the camp in slippers and underclothes. She also sees the weekly “quota” or the names and number of Jews – without regard for children, the sick, disabled, elderly and pregnant women – who must leave on the next “transport” to the East. The train, she writes, “comes to fetch its load with mathematical regularity.”

As if this wasn’t enough to bear, Etty is hit with more misery a few months after volunteering with the Jewish Council. In a mysterious twist, Spier, who had suffered a sudden illness, dies the very day the Gestapo came to take him to Westerbork. And almost a year later, in June 1943, her parents and younger brother (Mischa) are brought to the camp (the elder one, Jaap, was sent to another camp). It is only a matter of time before their names are added to the next quota – and Etty’s privileged status won’t help her or her family.

That day finally arrives. They all board the train, but Etty cannot stand to see her family suffer and chooses another freight car. When the train is clear of the camp, she scribbles a quick message on a postcard addressed to a friend and throws it out a crack in the planks. Among the few lines it included were: “Opening the Bible at random I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower’” and “We left the camp singing.” The card was picked up by farmers who sent it on by mail.

The train reached Auschwitz on September 10, 1943. That same day her mother and father were gassed. Etty is reported to have died on November 30 at the age of 29. Her two brothers perished in the following years. Fortunately, Etty’s writings were salvaged with the help of a non-Jewish friend before she was deported, but nothing survives from her time in Auschwitz.


Etty’s story is heart-wrenching beyond belief, yet she also left us with glimmers of hope, as well as potent insights about writing as a source of consolation.  

These elements have been central to Stein’s work. Her play titled “Etty,” which Stein performs alone in the US and Europe, challenges viewers to rethink their assumptions about the Holocaust, raising issues pertaining to resistance, human rights, social justice and individual responsibility.

In a Skype interview with The Report, Stein related how she came across Hillesum ‒ she chanced upon her diary at a yard sale in the US. “Initially, Etty came across as self-absorbed; I wasn’t drawn in, but then something changed,” Stein says. “She soon felt like a friend whispering words to me.”

Her play is now more than nine years running and so far 2017 has been a busy year.

Stein explains that what’s remarkable about Etty is that her ill-fated circumstances did not cut short her writing while she was still alive; if anything, they accelerated her literary and moral growth.

Even in Westerbork Hillesum continued to write with the aim of becoming, as she put it, “the thinking heart of these barracks.” She sought to employ her hard-won sensibilities to help others regain themselves, and avoid the hatred of their tormentors. “Every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable,” she writes.

“So instead of even blaming the Nazis,” Stein says, Etty “is going to work on herself and become what she believes justice is and what she believes love is… and she will be grateful for life even though it is clearly getting more and more horrible.”   

Stein is also particularly taken with Etty’s search for beauty even within the confines of a camp. Hillesum notices the passing birds and bright flowers growing in a field at the center of Westerbork, Stein explains. The diarist is finely attuned to people’s gestures and behaviors. At one point, the persecuted are being loaded onto the transport, many in tears, Etty can’t help but observe an unfolding scene. Stein cites it in her play: “A guard with an enraptured expression is picking purple lupins, his gun dangling on his back… perhaps he’s off to court some farmer’s daughter.”

“Etty just keeps opening in her writings,” Stein says. “She is committed to seeing beauty because she knows it exists.” And even in these moments of frightful panic we see her looking for it, Stein explains. It was her way of resisting; she reclaimed mastery over her interior life.

Hillesum’s search for beauty, meaning and the right words to describe her experiences is also what caught Coetsier’s attention. He sees that Etty and Rilke – her  “great teacher” as Hillesum called him – were both passionately committed to this search.

Yet, Etty could not ignore the differences between teacher and mentor. She finds it strange to think that Rilke, a frail and solitary man, “would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live.” She then asks: “Is that not further testimony that life is finely balanced? Evidence that, in peaceful times and under favorable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions?”

With Etty, it’s the reverse. She gathered her purest and most fitting expressions as life hung on a string in one of history’s most traumatic ages. She did so via an inner sculpting of the self, a process that involved a heavy dose of writing. But on the days when she couldn’t take up the pen, she writes, “I do believe that it is possible to create, even without ever writing a word or painting a picture, by simply molding one’s inner life. And that too is a deed.”

Whether in writing or by creative deed, Etty sought to provide others, no matter their circumstances, with insights into life’s dilemmas. Referring to the work of artists and writers past and present, she concludes her diary with the following: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”

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