In the midst of the horror of Nazi persecution, Etty Hillesum found beauty and hope and reason to be grateful. And showed that despite its tragedy and loneliness, life is beautiful.
These questions are as old as shame, sickness and death, and yet they are always with us, thundering to us through human catastrophes like the Holocaust; through every act of senseless violence we encounter and experience. Perhaps no one is better prepared to help us respond than those who took notes on their way to the gas chambers.
Don’t get the wrong idea — Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork — is not a bleak tome about the meaning of suffering, nor is it an excruciating, desperate journey to the camps. It is actually one of the most hopeful books I’ve ever read — and one of the most celebratory.
The journals open when she is only 27 years old and end as abruptly as her life did, at 29. But hope seeps through every page. As she wrote from her desk in Occupied Amsterdam, “Life is beautiful. And I believe in God. And I want to be right in the thick of what people call ‘horror’ and still be able to say, ‘life is beautiful.'”
Her desire to suffer with others, to be present with them in their pain and to continually praise God echoes the words of ancient Christian mystics, who longed to suffer with Christ for others, believing that their own suffering was redemptive. The final line of her journal sounded undeniably Christian, when she wrote, “We should be a balm for all wounds.”
And yet Etty never identified herself as a Christian, although she read the New Testament and stories of the saints with passion and openness. After her death, both Jews and Christians wanted to claim her as their own. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has even gone so far as to suggest that Etty should be canonized.
But be forewarned: Etty’s journals are laced with a good dose of “unsaintly” material. Especially early on in the journals, her passages about faith alternate with descriptions of her romantic exploits — she volunteers details about every aspect of her life without shying away from any of it.
Her authenticity, after all, is what makes her journal so powerful, her insights so compelling. The journals are especially rich when she grapples with the questions surrounding evil in the world (and in her our own heart). She, who had every reason to capitulate to despair, instead offers a compassionate, reasoned response to situations that were anything but reasonable.
Learning to Kneel
Etty’s journals offer a glimpse into her own spiritual journey. From the beginning, she longs to kneel in prayer. She sensed that she was created for it, yet she is ashamed of her desire.
Yet the urge became increasingly strong and irrepressible. She writes, “A desire to kneel sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if my body has been meant and made for the act of kneeling. Sometimes in moments of deep gratitude, kneeling down becomes an overwhelming urge, head deeply bowed, hands before my face.”
She also seems to understand, almost intuitively, that even our loneliness can become fertile ground if we’re willing to acknowledge it and be present within it. “Life may be brimming over with experiences, but somewhere, deep inside, all of us carry a vast and fruitful loneliness wherever we go.” She writes. “And sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inward in prayer for five short minutes.”
The War Within
Another fascinating element of Etty’s journals is her refusal to waste her energies on rage at the Nazis. She believed that the battles we wage internally are far more essential than the external battles we wage with others. Perhaps she was able to stay sane by focusing on what was possible instead of all that was beyond her control.
She knew she couldn’t stop the flood of anti-Semitic sentiment and the destruction that grew from it. But she believed that she could quell the hatred in her own heart, that she could work toward love in small, concrete ways, even within the confines of the concentration camps.
“We have so much work to do on ourselves that we shouldn’t even be thinking of hating our so-called enemies,” she writes, “We are hurtful enough to one another as it is…. Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.”
When she shared this thought with a friend of hers, he accused her of thinking like a Christian. To this she replied, “Yes, Christianity, and why ever not?”
During the course of the journals, she began to read her Bible, to struggle over the letters of Paul and to kneel more and more frequently. And she records how her mentor, Julius Spier, reports from his deathbed that he’s had a strange dream — that Christ came and baptized him.
Etty doesn’t comment on Spier’s deathbed epiphany, but she grows increasingly convinced that her only defense against the barbaric conditions she will face in the camps will be “to guard little pieces of God inside of herself,” and to devote herself to peace: “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty,” she wrote. “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.”
Etty’s life was replete with gratitude. I get a little depressed when my “check engine” light goes on. Etty, on the other hand, was able to retain her buoyancy even as she grew in the knowledge that she would soon die in a concentration camp.
Some people might imagine that her resiliency was a form of escapism. But perhaps she just glimpsed the reality behind the reality, the larger reality that that holds all realities together. In the face of this reality she couldn’t stop offering flowers to God.
As she sat at her desk in Amsterdam preparing herself for her journey to Auschwitz, she thought of the jasmine that no longer bloomed outside. And she realized that spring remained inside of her, and it would continue even in the barracks.
“Somewhere inside of me the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed, just as profusely and delicately as it ever did,” she wrote. “And it spreads its scent round the house where you dwell, oh God…. I bring You not only my tears and my forebodings on this stormy, gray, Sunday morning, I even bring you scented jasmine. And I shall bring you all the flowers I meet along my way, and truly there are many of those.”
When she wasn’t offering jasmine to God, she was offering Him a song.
On the train to Auschwitz, she threw a postcard out of the window, which was found by farmers who mailed it for her. On the postcard, she wrote, “We left the camp singing.” She entered the gas chambers on November 30, 1943.
Copyright 2006 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Jenny Schroedel lives in Holualoa, Hawaii, with her husband and two daughters. Her fifth book, Naming the Child: Hope-filled Reflections on Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Infant Death was released by Paraclete Press.