The War Diaries of an Unorthodox Auschwitz Victim Are Published

Etty Hillesum, who never did hide, felt a growing identification with her fellow Jews – with whom she would choose to die.

David Green
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Etty Hillesum, shown in upper right corner, on backdrop of entrance to Auschwitz.
Etty Hillesum, shown in upper right corner, on backdrop of entrance to Auschwitz.
David Green

October 1, 1981, was the official day of publication in Dutch of “An Interrupted Life: The Diary of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943,” a selection from the war diaries of Etty Hillesum, nearly 40 years after her death at Auschwitz.

Previously unknown to most of the public, certainly outside the Netherlands, Hillesum (1914-1943) was 15 years older than another Jewish young woman from Amsterdam, whose diary captured the world’s imagination when it was first published, two years after the war.

Unlike Anne Frank, who was confined to the "Secret Annex" for the two years during which she kept her diary, Etty Hillesum was not in hiding, and her diary reflects the spiritual and emotional turmoil she was undergoing as a mature adult.

Initially, her focus is almost exclusively on herself, with little attention paid to the German occupation and the fate of her fellow Jews. Later, however, she reflects an increasing sense of identification and responsibility toward those same Jews.

'I have broken my body like bread'

Esther Hillesum was born on January 15, 1914, in Middelburg, Holland, where her father, Levie (known as Louis) Hillesum, was a teacher of classical languages. Her Russian-born mother was the former Riva (Rebecca) Bernstein. Etty had two younger brothers, Michael (Misha) and Jacob (Jaap).

The family moved as Louis changed jobs, before settling in Deventer, in the country’s northeast, in 1924, where he first taught at the local gymnasium and, from 1928, was its headmaster.

Etty studied Hebrew, and attended meetings of a local Zionist group for some time, but the family was not religiously observant in any way.

She received a bachelor’s degree in law in 1935 from the University of Amsterdam, and followed that by studying Slavic languages.

From 1937 until the time of her deportation, Hillesum boarded at the Amsterdam home of Hendrik Wegerif, a widower, who employed her as a housekeeper in place of taking rent. Gradually, however, their relationship became romantic.

Later, when she also began a sexual relationship with her therapist, Julius Spier, a Jewish refugee from Germany, and the man who suggested she chronicle her inner development in a journal, she observed that, “I have broken my body like bread and shared it out among men. And why not, they were hungry and had gone without for so long.”

It was Spier who suggested she use a journal to keep track of her ongoing process of inner growth.

Sharing the fate

Clearly, there are reasons why Etty Hillesum’s diary was not as obvious a candidate as Anne Frank’s to serve as a universally appreciated testament to the individual cost of the Holocaust.

Before she was deported, she entrusted her diaries to a writer friend, Klaus Smelik, and asked him to arrange for them to be published. Two letters written by Hillesum from the Westerbork transit camp were in fact published clandestinely in 1943, to give the outside world an idea of conditions in the camp, but no publisher was interested in bringing out the diaries.

It was only in 1979 that Smelik’s son Klaas A.D. Smelik found a home for the diary. The initial selections came out on this day in 1981, edited by Gaarlandt and published by De Haan, and a complete collection of her letters and diaries was published in Dutch in 1986. Translations have come out in 18 languages, including English.

Hillesum’s growing Jewish identification began after April 29, 1942, when Amsterdam’s Jews were ordered to display a Star of David. Presciently anticipating their eventual deportation, she volunteered with the social welfare section of the local Jewish council, and soon began accompanying transports as they carried Jews to the Westerbork transit camp.

She was given a pass that allowed her to come and go, and used that privilege to help as many people as she could, as they readied themselves for transport to the east.  Hillesum also rejected offers to go into hiding, writing that she “wished to share [my] people’s fate.”     

When her parents and Mischa were ordered to report for the trip to Westerbork, she decided to join them, on June 6, 1943. Three months later, they were deported to Auschwitz. Louis and Riva were killed immediately, and Etty died on or about November 30, 1943. Neither Mischa nor Jaap survived the war either.

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