Confronting evil

Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943

By Mark Heffernan

A review of Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943 by Edited By Klaas A.d. Smelik

Published on April 1, 2003

Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943
Edited By Klaas A.d. Smelik

Novalis
$45
cloth
800pp
2-89507-343-0

These diaries describe the inner life, friends, and lovers of a 28-year-old Amsterdam Jewess in the two years preceding her deportation to Auschwitz, where she died.

Etty Hillesum’s goal was to make sense of her life, and to this end she read Rilke’s poetry and ideas about interiority with the same dedication that earlier seekers might have read The Imitation of Christ. She wanted to be a writer, and at times her descriptions do achieve literary force, as in this passage about her spiritual guide and lover, the chiromancer Julius Speir:

“…it struck me how defencelessly his face was given over to the constant flow of emotions that, as it were, kept moulding it afresh and differently from within. The heavy head – the forehead: not high, but so intent and strong, the fawn’s ears, the hair that is greying but still so young…and then that irrepressible curve in his lower lip…leaping out of the context of his face, almost a small mouth on its own.

Many of the diary entries deal with Etty’s struggle for meaning, her effort to escape the confines of a limited, unhappy self. For a period of time she had two lovers, both of them twice her age, and wondered whether it was perversity that made her go from the arms of one into the bed of the other. But the pleasures of sex were not as important to her as certain states of mind associated with them, like gazing into her lover’s room when the sun was shining on the bed. She was inclined to spiritualize experience, to take the ersatz phenomena of an “accidental” life and transform it into a destiny. This tendency increased to a point where, during her internment in Westerbork as a camp worker, she saw the negative content of the situation in absolutely positive terms:

“These two months behind barbed wire have been the two richest and most intense months of my life…it was as if I stood before the bare palisade of life. Life’s innermost framework, stripped of all outer trappings.”

As the Jews were being rounded up like livestock for the slaughter, she exhorted them to be strong, and to accept their “destiny.” She refused to go into hiding and blamed those who did so for trying to “dodge a fate they ought to be sharing with the rest.” Her reason, confronted with horror, began to exhibit signs of a millenarian logic: Etty felt herself to be at the front lines of a cosmic confrontation with evil. But to say that people ought to share her fate reveals something of the dualism that plagues the religious: when in the grip of their God-vision, they find human nature pathetic, and when merely human, they can’t understand why God has abandoned them.

Etty’s intense altruism, which the threat of extinction only seemed to augment, did not blind her to the burlesque spectacle of camp life. When she was not praying or sick, she observed people with the same writer’s eye that made Borowski’s descriptions of Auschwitz in This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen so powerful. They witnessed an inversion of social life, where the conventions were exposed against a backdrop of carnage and pain. When she saw the faces of the guards accompanying a train to Poland, she thought of “the words that preside over human life: ‘And God made man after His likeness.’ That passage spent a difficult morning with me.”

Commissioned by the Etty Hillesum Foundation to assemble a complete edition of her writing, this book represents the work of many scholars. The translations are highly literate and the extensive footnotes provide vital historical information.
mRb

Mark Heffernan is a Montreal writer.

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