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Finding faith amid the Nazi persecution

Etty Hillesum

Still on the subject of letter-writing, there is another omission from Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s anthology which I blogged about earlier this week, which merits inclusion: the Letters from Westerbork by the Dutch Jew, Etty Hillesum.

I was reminded of her Letters and Diaries – first published together in 1996 – when I was recently in Groningen, in the north of Holland. Visiting the Jewish synagogue there, lovingly restored after having been used as a laundry for many years, I found a pamphlet about the 100,000 or so Jews interned at Westerbork before being sent in cattle trucks to die in Sobibor and Auschwitz. Groningen is not far from Westerbork in Drenthe province but I lacked the transport and time to get there; thus remembering Etty’s Letters is one way to keep her spirit alive.

Etty, who died at Auschwitz in November 1943, aged 29, was from a secular but highly cultured Jewish family; her father was headmaster and taught classics at the gymnasium in Deventer; her brother Mischa was one of Holland’s most gifted pianists; and her brother Jaap a dedicated and innovatory doctor. The whole family was to perish in the Holocaust.

What makes Etty’s Diaries, and particularly her letters, stand out is her gift for vivid images, her capacity to select the most telling aspects of an event, her vivacity, humour and irony – and most particularly her capacity to grow in moral and spiritual stature as oppression of the Dutch Jews remorselessly intensified.

Her diaries display some features of youthful immaturity: self-absorption, endless self-questioning, confessions of a very muddled love-life, the tendency to escape into Russian translating (her mother was Russian) or bury herself in the poetry of Rilke. But what is so moving about them is also Etty’s restless quest for spiritual answers to the human predicament and her growing realisation of the reality of a loving God. “I have recently been picking odd sentences from the Bible and endowing them with what for me is a new, meaningful and experiential significance” she writes.

“The girl who could not kneel” was gradually transformed into the girl who could write, “Is there anything so intimate as a man’s relationship to God?” and, in a final extract before sent to Westerbork, “I prayed, let me be the thinking heart of these barracks” – a 20th century young woman’s response to St Therese of Lisieux, who wanted to be “love at the heart of the world.”

The Letters from Westerbork, sent to friends and colleagues in Amsterdam, her former bohemian world, bring out the best in her literary gifts, just as the sufferings she saw all around her bring out the more compassionate and self-forgetful aspects of her personality. She meditates on “the love that the Jew Paul described to the citizens of Corinth in the 13th chapter of his first letter” and makes her own motto the words in St Matthew’s Gospel: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

What would modern feminists make of Etty? She should be one of them, surely: intelligent, well-educated, secular in outlook (at the start, anyway), a free spirit with a colourful love-life, full of opinions and self-confidence. But Etty could never be so narrowly categorised; for a start she appreciated the company of men, her brothers, her colleagues, her friends and her lovers; for another, as a member of a despised and persecuted minority she knew real suffering, not the ersatz kind; finally, her deepest inner drive led her to pursue a spiritual path rather than a shallow cause, ever expanding in resentment and victimhood.

The best writers elevate their readers, widening and deepening their hearts and imagination in the process. Etty does this. It would have been good to have found her in Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s otherwise often dispiriting anthology.