Like Anne Frank ,Etty (Esther) Hillesum, also kept a diary during World War 2,describing her experiences of the Holocaust. She was born in the city of Middelburg in the southwest of the Netherlands, on January 15,1914. She was the daughter of Levie Hillesum and Riva Bernstein. In 1932 she moved to Amsterdam to study law and Slavic languages.
She started her diary on March 7 1941, possibly at the suggestion of her analyst Julius Spier, whom she had been attending to for a month. Although his patient, Etty also became his secretary and friend and eventually his lover. His influence on her spiritual development is apparent in her diaries; as well as teaching her how to deal with her depressive and egocentric episodes he introduced her to the Bible and St. Augustine and helped her develop a deeper understanding of the work of Rilke and Dostoyevsky.
Etty was an intensely alive and sexual young woman, yet she felt herself plagued by what she called her ‘confounded eroticism”. But what healthy woman in her 20s isn’t interested in sex?
Rather then go to deep into her life, I feel it is better to reflect on what she felt by using some excerpts from her diary.
“This is a painful and almost insuperable step for me: committing so much that has been suppressed to a blank sheet of lined paper,” The thoughts in my head are so clear and sharp and my feelings so deep, but writing about them is hard. The main difficulty, I think, is a sense of shame. So many inhibitions, so much fear of letting go and allowing things to pour out of me, yet that is what I must do if I am ever to give my life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose. It is like the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love.”
“Only a few months ago I still believed that politics did not touch me and wondered if that was ‘unworldliness,’ a lack of real understanding. Now I don’t ask such questions any more”
“If there were only one decent German, then he should be cherished despite that whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people”
“I am not easily frightened. Not because I am brave but because I know that I am dealing with human beings and that I must try as hard as I can to understand everything that anyone ever does. And that was the real import of this morning: not that a disgruntled young Gestapo officer yelled at me, but that I felt no indignation, rather a real compassion, and would have liked to ask: ‘Did you have a very unhappy childhood, has your girlfriend let you down?’”
“MONDAY MORNING, 9 O’CLOCK. Come on, my girl, get down to work or God help you. And no more excuses either, no little headache here or a bit of nausea there, or I’m not feeling very well. That is absolutely out of the question. You’ve just got to work, and that’s that. No fantasies, no grandiose ideas and no earth-shattering insights. Choosing a subject and finding the right words are much more important. And that is something I have to learn and for which I must fight to the death: all fantasies and dreams shall be ejected by force from my brain and I shall sweep myself clean from within, to make space for real studies, large and small. To tell the truth, I have never worked properly. It’s the same with sex. If someone makes an impression on me, I can revel in erotic fantasies for days and nights on end. I don’t think I ever realised how much energy that consumes”
“Last night I asked Han in bed, ‘Do you think someone like me ought to get married? Am I a real woman?’ Sex for me is not all that important, although sometimes I give the impression that it is. Isn’t it cheating to allow men to be taken in by that impression and then be unable to give them what they want? I am not really an earthy woman, at least not sexually. I am no tigress and that sometimes gives me a feeling of inferiority. My primitive physical passion has been diverted in many different ways and weakened by all sorts of intellectualisations, which I am sometimes ashamed of. What is primitive in me is my warmth; I have a sort of primitive love and primitive sympathy for people, for all people. I don’t think I am cut out for one man”
“And yesterday I lay on that bed, for the first time naked in his arms, and it was less a night of love than that time. And yet it was good. It was not exciting, there was no ecstasy. But it was so sweet and so safe”
“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. I have learnt to love Westerbork”
“Can love one person and one person only one’s whole life long strikes me as quite childish. There is something mean and impoverishing about it. Will people never learn that love brings so much more happiness and reward than sex?”
“The misery here is quite terrible; and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire. And then time and again, it soars straight from my heart—I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force—the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent, and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.”
“A lot of unimportant inner litter and bits and pieces have to be swept out first. Even a small head can be piled high inside with irrelevant distractions. True, there may be edifying emotions and thoughts, too, but the clutter is ever present. So let this be the aim of the meditation: to turn one’s innermost being into a vast empty plain, with none of that treacherous undergrowth the impede the view. So that something of “God” can enter you, and something of “Love,” too. Not the kind of love-de-luxe that you can revel in deliciously for half an hour, taking pride in how sublime you feel, but the love you can apply to small, everyday things.”
Her last words though were not written in her diary, but on a postcard she threw out of the train on transport to Auschwitz.
“Opening the Bible at random I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower’. I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning…. We left the camp singing…. Thank you for all your kindness and care.”
Etty was murdered in Auschwitz on November 30,1943, aged 29.
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