Self-isolation – lessons from Etty Hillesum

Self-isolation – lessons from Etty Hillesum

Hilary Pearson writes:

Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) was a Dutch Jew. Her father was a teacher, her mother was a Russian Jewish refugee.  Etty studied in Amsterdam, first law, then Slavonic languages and philosophy. Before she had completed her studies the Second World War began, and the German army occupied Holland in 1940. They immediately began rounding up Jews, separating them from the rest of the population and making them wear a yellow Star of David.  In 1941 they started sending Jews to a transit camp called Westerbork, near the German border, and in 1942 began sending train loads of captives from there to Auschwitz – one of whom was Anne Frank.

Etty managed to get a job in Amsterdam as a typist with the Jewish Council.  This had been set up by the Nazis, ostensibly to negotiate for the Jews with the Nazi government; the members of the Council were led to believe that they could help save at least some Jews, but that was not the intention of the Nazis.  Etty volunteered to accompany Jews sent to Westerbork and worked in the camp hospital. Her parents and brother were sent to the camp, and Etty managed to use her influence to save them when they were first due to be put on a transport to Auschwitz.  In the end she could not save them –  or herself – and in September 1943 they were all put on a train and died in Auschwitz shortly afterwards.

During this period Etty kept a diary, which ought to be as well-known as Anne Frank’s.  Among other things, this records her remarkable spiritual development.  Here is an extract from the early part of her time in the camp:

‘…I repose in myself.  And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call “God” … Truly, my life is one long harkening unto myself and unto others, unto God.  And if I say that I harken, it is really God who harkens inside me.’

Shortly after that she wrote: ‘“God give me calm and let me face everything squarely.” There is so much to face.  First, I must start living a disciplined life…I have moments when I am suddenly filled with sadness; sadness that I cannot walk out of my barracks and onto the great moor outside…Those two months behind barbed wire have been the two richest and most intense months of my life, in which my highest values were so deeply confirmed.’  Can we, in our much less difficult ‘imprisonment’, say the same?

After she had learned that she could not delay the trip to what she knew was almost certain death, she wrote in a letter to a friend: “You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share Your beauty with open hands.”  And her last writing, a postcard thrown from the train as it left for Auschwitz, said: “We left the camp, singing…”

If you can get hold of the book of her writings “An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork”, I cannot think of better reading for our period in lock-down.  It shows how the human spirit open to God can rise above the harshest situations, even in the face of great evil.