At first, I was reluctant to use the word beauty in the title because we now live in an era where some people might find that offensive, and they will scream about it. I pity them because they lose out on so much.
Etty Hillesum was a beauty in every sense of the word. It may have been too much for the Nazis because they murdered her. She was murdered on November 30, 1943, in Auschwitz according to data from the Red Cross.
Etty (or Esther) was the daughter of Levie Hillesum and Riva Bernstein. She was born on January 15, 1914, in Middelburg in the Dutch province of Zeeland. In 1932 she moved to Amsterdam to study law and Slavic languages. In Amsterdam, she met Julius Spier. He became her teacher and great love. During the war, she worked for the Jewish Council at Camp Westerbork and other places. She wrote several letters from Westerbork and kept a diary.
In March 1937 she took a room at 6 Gabriel Metsustraat in south Amsterdam in the house of an accountant Hendrik (Han) Wegerif, a widower aged 62 who hired her as a housekeeper. He also began an affair with her. She lived in this house until her final departure for Westerbork in 1942, and it was in her room there that much of her diary was written. The small community of people who shared the house with her were important to her. In addition to Han Wegerif, there was his 21-year-old son Hans, a German cook named Kathe, a student Bernard Meylink, and a nurse, Maria Tuinzing, who became one of Etty’s close friends.
The most important relationship of the diary is with the psychochirologist (hand reader) Julius Spier. Born in 1887 in Germany, he had come to Amsterdam in 1939. Spier had worked in Zurich with Jung, who had encouraged him to develop his skill in chirology, the practice of psychoanalysis through the reading of people’s palms. He was a gifted and charismatic figure and gathered around him a group of students, particularly women. Etty became part of this group and went into therapy with Spier, developing a close relationship with him and becoming his secretary.
Etty was an intensely alive and sexual young woman, yet she felt plagued by what she called her ‘confounded eroticism”. But what healthy woman in her 20s isn’t interested in sex?
In 1942 she was given a position in the cultural affairs department of the Jewish Council. She worked there for only two weeks, which she calls hell in her diary. In August 1942, she received a call for deportation to Westerbork. Etty left and continued her social activities in Westerbork. As a member of the Jewish Council, she had a special travel visa that allowed her to return to Amsterdam many times before being deported with her family on September 7, 1943.
Just as Anne Frank also wrote a diary, which was released after the war, titled, “An Interrupted Life,” I’ve chosen a few quotes from the diary. The words are profoundly sad but also beautiful and with a sense of hope.
“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
“Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others”
“As life becomes harder and more threatening, it also becomes richer, because the fewer expectations we have, the more good things of life become unexpected gifts that we accept with gratitude.”
“Sometimes my day is crammed full of people and talk and yet I have the feeling of living in utter peace and quiet. And the tree outside my window, in the evenings, is a greater experience than all those people put together.”
“My immediate reaction on meeting a man is invariably to gauge his sexual possibilities. I recognize this as a bad habit that must be stamped out”
“Yes, we women, we foolish, idiotic, illogical women, we all seek Paradise and the Absolute. And yet my brain, my capable brain, tells me that there are no absolutes, that everything is relative, endlessly diverse, and in eternal motion, and it is precisely for that reason that life is so exciting and fascinating, but also so very, very painful. We [women] want to perpetuate ourselves in a man.”
“I don’t want to be anything special. I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfil its promise.”
“I know and share the many sorrows a human being can experience, but I do not cling to them; they pass through me, like life itself, as a broad eternal stream…and life continues…”
“By ‘coming to terms with life’ I mean: the reality of death has become a definite part of my life; my life has, so to speak, been extended by death, by my looking death in the eye and accepting it, by accepting destruction as part of life and no longer wasting my energies on fear of death or the refusal to acknowledge its inevitability. It sounds paradoxical: by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich it.”
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