Seventy-five years ago on November 30th, a young Dutch Jewish intellect died at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her legacy of love and reconciliation, as described in her ten diary notebooks and the many letters that she wrote, continues to inspire people around the world. Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) was only 29 years old when she died, but during her short lifespan she managed to live a life of contemplative spirituality and practice in a world that seemed to be falling to pieces around her.
Hillesum grew up in a non-religious home of intellectuals. Her parents were both teachers – her father taught the classics and her mother Russian literature. Hillesum had two younger brothers, both very talented but mentally unstable. She describes having grown up in a “chaotic and sad situation … a madhouse where no human being can flourish.”
Hillesum received university degrees in Dutch Law and Slavic languages. She loved reading literature and was a remarkably talented writer. In 1937, she took a room in a house in Amsterdam, and in 1941, met the psycho-chirologist Julius Spier, who soon became her therapist. Spier had been in analysis with Carl Gustav Jung for two years, and it was Jung who recommended that Spier open a practice.
“I keep being drawn toward Jung”
Hillesum’s inner and outer journey actually began through Jungian psychotherapy. It was probably Spier who advised Hillesum to start keeping a diary, a practice that she found therapeutic as well as a way to nourish her literary talent. However, her notebooks were destined to become valuable chronicles, not only of her psychological and spiritual development, but also of the fate of the Jewish people.
I very much urge everyone to read her diaries and letters, which have been published in 18 different languages and speak more than ever to our contemporary times. Hillesum was able to poetically recount the daily challenges of her inner and outer life – her personal and spiritual psychosynthesis. Her writing is highly accessible, intimate, imaginative, and full of subtle ironic humor. Woven along with her own story is the story and circumstances of others she observed, as together they struggled to live under the terror of German occupation.
Hillesum’s spirituality does not fit neatly into any one dogma or institution. Born Jewish in a non-practicing family, she read Jung and loved German poet Rilke and the Russian novelist Dostoevsky. She drew inspiration from St. Augustine and the Bible. When she arrived at Camp Westerbork, the transit camp in the eastern region of The Netherlands, she had both the Koran and the Talmud in her bag. During the last months of her life at the camp, she wrote how she was “cleaning toilets and reading Meister Eckhart.”
“I want to share the fate of my people”
In the end, Hillesum refused to escape Nazi persecution, despite friends offering her multiple opportunities to hide. “I want to share the fate of my people,” she said. Hillesum felt her vocation was to use her skills with people and words, to care for the most vulnerable and to chronicle what she called “their adventures.” In July 1942, she volunteered, through the Jewish Counsel, to go to Camp Westerbork to work in the department of ‘Social Welfare for People in Transit.’ She wrote at that time:
“I will wield this slender fountain pen as if it were a hammer. And my words will have to be so many hammer strokes with which to beat out the story of our fate. A piece of history…”
In the camp, in addition to writing in her diary and letters to friends, she cared for the elderly and sick, and visited people in the hospital. Throughout this time, she refused to hate, calling it a “sickness of the soul.” Hillesum wrote:
“It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it still more inhospitable… I try to look things straight in the eye. Even the worst crimes, to discover the small naked human being amid the monstrous wreckage caused by man’s senseless deeds.”
“God is what is deepest and best in me.”
In the end, her personality was able to synthesize into a radiate presence, full of Love and Light. Part of her practice towards achieving inner awareness and strength was hineinhorchen, the German word for “to harken to.” She reflected:
“What I do is hineinhorchen (it seems to me that this word is untranslatable). Harkening to myself, to others, to the world. I listen very intently, with my whole being, and try to fathom the meaning of things.
…God is what is deepest and best in me… It’s really God who harkens inside me. The most essential and deepest in me harkening onto the most essential and deepest in the other, God to God.”
In my introduction to Roberto Assagioli’s prison diary, Freedom in Jail, I reflect on how such an experience of the deepest Self can paradoxically occur while in prison – an experience confirmed by Assagioli and Hillesum, as well as Viktor Frankl. Assagioli was a friend and colleague of Frankl’s. Since Hillesum’s diaries were only published in 1981 seven years after Assagioli’s death, he would not have known her.
All three shared the initial experience of acceptance with regard to their state of imprisonment. Acceptance brought them an inner freedom. And this inner freedom mysteriously invoked higher realizations and deep wisdom. While spending time in Camp Westerbork barracks, Hillesum tells us about being:
“… jam-packed [into] hangers of drafty slats, under a lowering sky… And there among the barracks, full of hunted and persecuted people, I found confirmation of my love of life … Not for one moment was I cut off from the life I was said to have left behind. There was simply one great meaningful whole.”
“Let me be the thinking heart…”
During the three months she spent living amongst the “mud, overcrowding and people arriving every day in truckloads”, she vowed to become the “thinking heart of the barracks”:
“At night, as I lay in the camp on my plank bed, surrounded by women and girls gently snoring, dreaming aloud, quietly sobbing and tossing and turning, women and girls who often told me during the day, “We don’t want to think, we don’t want to feel, otherwise we are sure to go out of our minds,” I was sometimes filled with an infinite tenderness, and lay awake for hours letting all the many, too many impressions of a much-too-long day wash over me, and I prayed, ‘Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks.’ And that is what I want to be again. The thinking heart of a whole concentration camp.”
The last line of her preserved journals, reads: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.” On the day she left for Poland, she had in her rucksack a bible and Russian grammar. Hillesum managed to write a postcard and drop it through a crack of the cattlecar. The card was found by a farmer who sent it onto the addressee. On it, Hillesum wrote:
“We left the camp singing…”
An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941 – 1943. Trans: Arnold J Pomerans. London: Persephone Books, 1999 (Reprinted 2007).