Etty Hillesum (1914-1943), known as the Mystic of the Holocaust, was a young Jewish woman who lived in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation and who died as one of the millions of victims of the Holocaust. In her short, remarkable life, Etty grew to see God in the depths of her own soul as well as in all other people.
She was born in a Jewish family whose members suffered from some kind of nervous condition that resulted in illness and bouts of depression. Hillesum graduated from the University of Amsterdam with a master’s degree in law. She became a patient of Julius Spier, a German psychoanalyst who at one time was her lover; he was the spiritual teacher who set her on a quest for inner transformation.
As part of her therapy, she began to keep a journal where she registered her practice of listening to her soul, and the result was her well-documented internal life which recorded her spiritual awakening. She saw life in a new light and began serving Jewish refugees in a Nazi transit camp. Finally, she and her family were flung into the great nightmare. The death train transported them to Poland, and in Auschwitz, on November 30, 1943, at the age of 29, she died.
Friends held on the journals for decades, trying unsuccessfully to get them published. Finally, in 1981, they prevailed. The journals were published in Dutch; two years later in English. The world read them for the first time in a version entitled An Interrupted Life. Her account has become a monument of spirituality and spiritual resistance against persecution and hatred — her struggles, prayers, her growing awareness of God, her gradual peace with death. Her prose is spry and light. It seizes from the famous opening line: “Here goes, then.”
It is this quality that brings them up to date. From the day when Dutch Jews were ordered to wear a yellow star up to the day she boarded a cattle car bound for Poland, Etty consecrated herself to an ambitious task. In the face of her impending death, she endeavored to bear witness to the inviolable power of love and to reconcile her keen sensitivity to human suffering with her appreciation for the beauty and meaning of existence. For the last two years of her life Etty kept her meticulous diary, recording her daily experiences and the unfolding of her interior response. Published four decades after her death, this book was quickly recognized as one of the great moral documents of our time.
Etty maintained a clear sense of solidarity with the Jewish people. But her personal reflection was nourished by an eclectic range of sources, including Rilke, the Bible, St. Augustine, and Dostoevsky. When a friend exclaimed indignantly that her attitude on the love of enemies sounded like Christianity, she responded, “Yes, Christianity, why ever not?” But in fact she had little interest in organized religion of any kind. In a time when everything was being swept away, when “the whole world is becoming a giant concentration camp,” she felt one must hold fast to what endures – the encounter with God at the depths of one’s own soul and in other people.
“God is not accountable to us, but we are to Him. I know what may lie in wait for us…. And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful.”
There is an earthy and embodied dimension to Etty Hillesum’s spirituality. She described her romantic adventures with no more reticence than she reserved for descriptions of her prayer. For Etty, everything – the physical and the spiritual without distinction – was related to her passionate openness to life, which was ultimately openness to God.
In the meantime her life was unfolding within the tightening noose of German occupation. Etty’s effervescence might seem to resemble a type of manic denial. The fact is, however, that she seems to have discerned the logic of events with uncommon objectivity. In this light, her determination to affirm the goodness and beauty of existence becomes nothing short of miraculous. Her entry for July 3, 1942, reads:
“I must admit a new insight in my life and find a place for it: what is at stake is our impending destruction and annihilation…. They are out to destroy us completely, we must accept that and go on from there…. Very well then … I accept it…. I work and continue to live with the same conviction and I find life meaningful…. 1 wish I could live for a long time so that one day I may know how to explain it, and if I am not granted that wish, well, then somebody else will perhaps do it, carry on from where my life has been cut short. And that is why I must try to live a good and faithful life to my last breath; so that those who come after me do not have to start all over again.”
For Etty, this affirmation of the value and meaning of life in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary became her guiding principle. In the midst of suffering and injustice, she believed, the effort to preserve in one’s heart a spirit of love and forgiveness was the greatest task that any person could perform. This, she felt, was her vocation.
With increasing regularity, Etty described her compulsion to drop to her knees in prayer. Toward the end of her journals, God had become the explicit partner of her internal dialogue:
“God take me by Your hand, I shall follow You faithfully, and not resist too much, I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can…. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go…. I sometimes imagine that I long for the seclusion of a nunnery. But I know that I must seek You amongst people, out in the world. And that is what I shall do…. I vow to live my life out there to the full.”
Etty worked for a while as a typist for the Jewish Council, a job that delayed her deportation to the transit camp at Westbork. Eventually she renounced this privilege and volunteered to accompany her fellow Jews to the camp. She did not wish to be spared the suffering of the masses. In fact, she felt a deep calling to be present at the heart of the suffering, to become “the thinking heart of the concentration camp.”
Her sense of a call to solidarity with those who suffer became the specific form of her religious vocation. But it was not a vocation to suffering as such. It was a vocation to redeem the suffering of humanity from within, by safeguarding “that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.”
“I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing the new age, by living it even now in our hearts.”
In a Nazi transit camp, Etty Hillesum wrote in her diary: “Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on earth, my eyes raised towards heaven, tears run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude.”
On September 7, 1943, Etty and her family were placed on a transport train to Poland. From a window of the train she tossed out a card that read, “We have left the camp singing.”
She died in Auschwitz on November 30, at the age of twenty-nine.
In her book Etty Hillesum: Essential Writings, editor Anne Marie Kidder writes, “Etty is a mystic who, amid the war’s horrors, could affirm the goodness and beauty of life and taught herself, as she taught others, to explore the landscape of the soul and the soul’s quest for truth and God.”
Etty’s transforming journey is a textbook case, Kidder observes.
“In the beauty of the smallest pebble, the petals of a flower, the curling branches of a tree, she could detect the entire cosmos, and this discovery made her burst out with the exuberant pronouncement that life was beautiful and God was good. When Etty decided to volunteer working at the Nazi transit camp and insisted on remaining there against the urging of friends…it was from the conviction that she would be carrying her peace and love into the world in order to transform the world, at least to some small degree.”
“If you want to teach others how to live,” Etty wrote in 1941, “you must first take yourself in hand. You are going to have to go on taking stock of yourself …”
She’s unafraid to submit herself to mystery and grace. “I sometimes feel I am in some blazing purgatory and that I am being forged into something else.”
Her transformation unfolds, and she records a slow emergence of astounding inner freedom. From hatred to love, withdrawal to engagement, violence to nonviolence, resentment to forgiveness, feeling hopeless to hope. She could no longer “live with the kind of hatred so many people nowadays force upon themselves against their better nature.”
With new inner resources, she learns to take her “quiet room” with her wherever she is, even into the barracks and, one presumes, later to her death. She achieves, she writes, “a state of complete equilibrium,” even in the most horrendous moment of Nazi occupation.
“I now listen all day long to what is within me, and am able to draw strength from the most deeply hidden sources in myself. I keep following my own inner voice even in the madhouse… Let me perform a thousand daily tasks with love, but let every one spring from a greater central core of devotion and love.”
And through devotion and love she discovers detachment. “I know what may lie in wait for us,” she writes. “I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps. I know about everything and am no longer appalled by the latest reports. In one way or another I know it all. And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful. From minute to minute.”
Life in the madhouse becomes “one great, unpredictable, continuous inner adventure.” “I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me…. I vow to live my life out there to the full.”
And she is not bereft of strength. “Everything we need is within us. But we must know what motives inspire our struggle and we must begin with ourselves, every day anew.”
Etty’s painful, transforming inner journey to God, love and peace, leads her to accept suffering — leads her to identify with all those who are suffering. For me, this is the crucial task of the Christian and every spiritual seeker. It is the attitude of the nonviolent Jesus on the cross, where he becomes one with all those who ever suffered in history, with the whole human race. Identifying with sufferers transforms suffering into explosive, disarming, universal nonviolent love.
“Ought we not, from time to time, open ourselves up to cosmic sadness?” she asks.
“I am in Poland every day, on the battlefields. I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day. But I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window.”
She never felt alone in her sadness and fatigue. Though death hovered like a ghoul, she stared it down and accepted it. She didn’t shy from the paradox — by accepting death, she said, one finds richness and freedom. And in this freedom, she found herself at one with the untold millions who ever suffered over the centuries.
And she found this meaningful. “Meaningful in its meaninglessness.” Suffering has been always with us, for her people from the Inquisition to pogroms to war, she explained to herself. It’s for us to fit death compassionately into our lives. “True peace will come when every individual finds peace within himself; when we have all vanquished and transformed our hatred for our fellow human beings of whatever race–even into love one day. It is the only solution.”
Through her ultimate identification with all those who suffer and die, Etty feels an inexplicable — even scandalous — love of life. “At night, as I lay in the camp on my plank bed, I was sometimes filled with an infinite tenderness and I prayed, ‘Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks.’ That is what I want to be. The thinking heart of a whole concentration camp.”
Etty challenges us to make the same determined inner search for God and freedom, and so to identify with all those who suffer in the world, and to reach out with nonviolent love and do what we can for peace and justice, and to do it from that holy inner space of love.Etty invites us to be the “thinking heart” of our country, as it moves toward fascism and empire, the thinking heart of the world, as it hangs on the brink of perpetual war, total poverty, nuclear destruction, and climate catastrophe.
Kidder tries to sum up this dear mystic’s life:
“Mystics are people who begin their quest for wisdom or for God not in the world of externals but in the microcosm of their own soul. There they allow themselves to be fully present to the experiences of a deep-felt joy or sorrow, of beauty or suffering, of gain or loss, so that these opposing poles might in time reconcile and grow and ripen into a harmonious whole. Once this inner harmony has grown from within and wells up as a peace that defies all rational explanation, mystics can carry this inner harmony into the world, thus becoming catalysts in the transformation of the world.”
That is the journey before us all.
Some quotes from her journals:
“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.”
“Become simple and live simply, not only within yourself but also in your everyday dealings. Don’t make ripples all around you, don’t try to be interesting, keep your distance, be honest, fight the desire to be thought fascinating by the outside world.”
“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.”
“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes.”
“Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.”
“I do believe it is possible to create, even without ever writing a word or painting a picture, by simply molding one’s inner life. And that too is a deed.”
“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…”
“I really see no other solution than to turn inwards and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we first change ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned.”
“I don’t want to be anything special. I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfill its promise.”
“One must also accept that one has ‘uncreative’ moments. The more honestly one can accept that, the quicker these moments will pass.”
“Sometimes I long for a convent cell, with the sublime wisdom of centuries set out on bookshelves all along the wall and a view across the cornfields–there must be cornfields and they must wave in the breeze–and there I would immerse myself in the wisdom of the ages and in myself. Then I might perhaps find peace and clarity. But that would be no great feat. It is right here, in this very place, in the here and the now, that I must find them. ”
“We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies.”
“Slowly but surely I have been soaking Rilke up these last few months: the man, his work and his life. And that is probably the only right way with literature, with study, with people or with anything else: to let it all soak in, to let it all mature slowly inside you until it has become a part of yourself. That, too, is a growing process. Everything is a growing process. And in between, emotions and sensations that strike you like lightning. But still the most important thing is the organic process of growing.”
“Despite everything, life is full of beauty and meaning.”
“The inner world is as real as the outer world. One ought to be conscious of that. It, too, has its landscape, contours, possibilities, its boundless regions.”
“My ideas hang on me like outsize clothes into which I still have to grow. My mind lags behind my intuition.”
“It is sometimes hard to take in and comprehend, oh God, what those created in Your likeness do to each other in these disjointed days. But I no longer shut myself away in my room, God; I try to look things straight in the face, even the worst crimes, and to discover the small, naked human being amid the monstrous wreckage caused by man’s senseless deeds.”
“That is probably the hardest thing a person can learn, as I so often find in others (and in myself as well in the past) to forgive one’s own mistakes and lapses.”
“I am ready for everything, for anywhere on this earth, wherever God may send me, and I am ready to bear witness in any situation and unto death that life is beautiful and meaningful and that it is not God’s fault that things are as they are at present, but our own.”
“Through me course wide rivers and in me rise tall mountains. And beyond the thickets of my agitation and confusion there stretch the wide plains of my peace and surrender. All landscapes are within me. And there is room for everything. The earth is in me, and the sky. And I well know that something like hell can also be in one, though I no longer experience it in myself, but I can still feel it in others with great intensity. And that is as it should be, or else I might grow too complacent.”