Instead of Fleeing the Nazis, She Helped Inmates and Documented Life at Concentration Camp

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Etty Hillesum
Etty Hillesum.Credit: Illustration: Roei Regev
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev

In one of the immense wooden barracks in the Westerbork transit camp, exposed to the frigid winds of December 1942, a young woman lay on the top of a three-tier, rust-eaten iron bunk bed, clutching precious items: a pen and a few sheets of paper. The camp, located in northeastern Holland, was the final station on Dutch soil for 102,000 Jews and thousands of Gypsies and resistance members before they were transported to death camps.

Even in the face of her own inevitable death and that of all her loved ones, Etty Hillesum, 28 years old at the time, maintained a rare humanistic-spiritual outlook. “I really see no other solution than to turn inward and to root out all the rottenness there,” she wrote. “I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned from this war. That we must look into ourselves and nowhere else” (from “An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-43,” translated from the Dutch by Arnold J. Pomerans)

Hillesum’s diaries and letters were discovered by chance almost 40 years after they were written, and have been translated into nearly 20 languages.

“She possesses the latent fire of secular believers who, like Janusz Korczak, on the edge of the abyss, rise to become saint-like,” Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld noted about her in the preface to the Hebrew translation of the diaries. (Korczak, the director of a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw, declined an offer of sanctuary and accompanied the children to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942.)

Home as hell

'I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned from this war.'

Esther (Etty) Hillesum was born on January 15, 1914, in Middelburg, in southwestern Holland. Her father, Dr. Levi (Louis) Hillesum, a teacher of Greek and Latin, was short of stature and deaf in one ear; he bore a stoic approach to life and had a dry sense of humor. Her mother, Riva (Rebecca), née Bernstein, was very different from her husband: an extroverted, boisterous redhead who fled to Holland alone from Russia in 1907, in the wake of a pogrom in her native town of Surash.

Etty had two younger brothers: Jacob (Jaap), a brilliant youth who wrote poetry and, while in high school, discovered several previously unknown vitamins; and Michael (Mischa), a gifted pianist who as an adolescent was considered one of Europe’s most promising musicians and composers. The genius in the family sprang from fertile, albeit unstable ground: Jaap, though he became a physician, was confined several times to psychiatric hospitals, Mischa was diagnosed as a schizophrenic at 16.

“Our house is a remarkable mixture of barbarism and culture,” Hillesum wrote of her home. “Spiritual riches lie within grasp, but… are carelessly scattered about… It is sheer hell in this house.”

In 1924 the family moved to the city of Deventer, in eastern Holland, where Etty attended the Municipal Gymnasium, where her father served as assistant headmaster. It was about then when Etty began to learn Hebrew and took part in meetings of a Zionist youth organization. In contrast to her brilliant brothers, Etty was not an outstanding student, and her grades were average. She went on to complete two law degrees, and concurrently studied psychology and Slavic languages, in Amsterdam.

The first pages of her diaries present a picture of a young woman lacking in self-confidence and tending to moodiness, which she coped with through eating or sex.

Jews in the Westerbork transit camp, 1943.Credit: Chronos Dokumentarfilm GmbH/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Such was her situation when she happened to attend a presentation by Julius Spier, a Jewish dealer in metals who had decided to devote himself to psycho-chirology, the study of personality structure as determined by reading of the palm. Spier had undergone psychoanalysis with Carl Gustav Jung in Zurich, and at Jung’s advice opened his own clinic.

Impressed by Spier’s personality, Hillesum began therapy with him, during which he exposed her to the possibility of living a deep and authentic spiritual existence. In time the two became close friends and also apparently had a brief love affair. Hillesum started to write her diary shortly after meeting Spier, in 1941, probably with his encouragement.

In God’s world

The diary is rife with uncompromising self-observation, although its purpose was apparently not therapeutic. Indeed, literature was the fulcrum of Hillesum’s life and wanted to devote herself completely to writing. “I ought to spend all my life behind a desk,” she confided to her diary. She believed that prowess as an writer necessitated a deep and empathetic understanding of humanity, to which end she needed to familiarize herself with all the aspects of humanity within herself.

Hillesum immersed herself in a daily writing regimen, demanding fiercely of herself to “find really suitable words.” She began writing a novel, which has been lost, and at the same time set down in her diary a detailed, unbiased account of her life, trying to be as attentive as possible to everything that was happening – to her feelings, her thoughts, her desires, as well as to the people she met, the objects around her, plants, colors, books.

In July 1942, the Nazis started transporting Jews from Amsterdam to Westerbork. She joined the deportees of her own volition and worked in the camp’s hospital.

“Attentiveness” – aandacht in Dutch – is a term that occurs frequently in Hillesum’s diary entries. She would, for example, look at an ordinary stone on her porch and write, “I should like to write a whole book about a pebble... I could live with nothing but a pebble for a long time and still feel that I was living in God’s great world of nature.”

Perhaps this is the way of true artists? Indeed, George Orwell once related something similar about himself in his autobiographical essay “Why I Write.” For 15 years, beginning at age 10, he was making up of a continuous “story” about himself, “a sort of diary existing only in the mind,” describing to himself every deed and every thing he saw as he wended his way in the world: “A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains… Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf.”

Orwell noted that some people are driven to write by a “historical impulse” to reveal facts and to document them, others by a “political purpose,” while for some writing is motivated by an aesthetic enthusiasm for the world and for language. As a young man, he admitted, such motives seemed remote to him, and by nature he might have been content to write “ornate or merely descriptive books,” rather like his first novel, “Burmese Days.” However, Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War “turned the scale”: From that point Orwell poured all his talent into political writing.

Rilke as real

For her part, Hillesum followed a similar course. At the outset of her creative path, she was preoccupied with herself and her writing, convinced that politics had nothing to do with her. “Reality is not entirely real to me,” she wrote. “A single line of Rilke’s seems more real to me than moving house or anything like that.” However, the Nazi invasion of her country, in 1940, provoked an immense shift of consciousness; her writing became in and of itself an ethical act.

Etty Hillesum, circa 1939.Credit: The Jewish Cultural Quarter

Hillesum began to perceive herself as “a small battlefield, in which the problems, or some of the problems, of our time are being fought out. All one can hope to do is to keep oneself humbly available, to allow oneself to be a battlefield.” The mature artist, she believed, is a microcosm of all of humanity. Not only does she identify, understand and document, but actually lives the events in her consciousness, digests and processes them, and imbues them with a transformative power that casts a wide net of influence: “I shall have to solve my own problems. I always get the feeling that when I solve them for myself I shall have also solved them for a thousand other women.”

For many artists, their oeuvre, the fruit of their own private struggle, is their principal contribution to society. Orwell and Hillesum are splendid examples of those for whom this was not enough.

Orwell went to Spain as a journalist to cover the Civil War, but after a short time decided to participate in the fighting with the Republican forces. He was seriously wounded on the battlefield by a sniper’s bullet that cut through his throat, a hair’s breadth away from the carotid artery.

Along with taking determined action in the real, physical world, or perhaps thanks to it, Orwell devoted himself to writing. He wrote his masterpiece, “1984,” in a small house that was not even connected to the power grid, on the isolated Scottish island of Jura in the winter of 1946-47, one of the harshest winters in British history. His physical condition deteriorated, but he persisted in his feverish work, typing the final draft of the novel in bed, because he was too weak to walk. Only after he completed the book did Orwell leave the island and seek medical treatment for his tuberculosis, but it was too late. He died in 1950, half a year after the book’s publication, at the age of 46.

For Hillesum, too, writing fed an intense involvement in the world, and was also nourished by it. In July 1942, the Nazis started transporting Jews from Amsterdam to Westerbork. Although her name did not appear on the deportation lists, she joined the deportees of her own volition and worked in the camp’s hospital. Equipped with a special permit from the Joodsche Raad – as the Jewish Council (Judenrat) was called in Holland – which allowed her freedom of movement, she passed letters on from inmates in the camp to Amsterdam and to underground groups, and also smuggled medication back into the camp. Attention begets love, which always leads to action.

She sought to 'wield this slender fountain pen as if it were a hammer, and my words will have to be so many hammer strokes with which to beat out the story of our fate.'

Unbowed by suffering

Hillesum refused to escape or go into hiding, as her non-Jewish Dutch friends implored her to do; on one occasion, they even tried to kidnap her in order to save her. Although she was not obliged to do so, she always insisted on returning to Westerbork, even after becoming ill and being hospitalized in Amsterdam.

She was not naive; she knew exactly what she was returning to. “I caught myself saying it aloud in the night, aloud to myself and quite soberly, ‘So that’s what hell is like.’” However, her presence there was essential. She felt an obligation to document the events in the camp as precisely as she could, demanding of herself to “wield this slender fountain pen as if it were a hammer, and my words will have to be so many hammer strokes with which to beat out the story of our fate and of a piece of history as it is and never was before.” Indeed, that is the experience of reading her descriptions of life in hell.

She did not make do with the artistic and documentary aspects of her role as a writer, or even with her work as a nurse. Like Orwell, who was known as “St. George” with good reason, she wished to have an impact on the consciousness and spirit of her brethren, and in that sense to actually save them.

As Prof. Rachel Feldhay Brenner, a scholar of Jewish literature, observed, Hillesum grasped that the Nazis’ overriding goal was not only to annihilate the Jews physically: Their diabolical purpose was also to corrupt their souls, to turn them into despicable creatures, corroded by hate, while thrust into an existential situation like persecuted, frightened animals. According to Brenner, “Once the victims had relinquished moral values for the sake of physical survival, they were bound to lose their humanity.”

Barracks at the Westerbork transit camp after liberation.

Hillesum saw it as her duty to assist her people in preserving their human dignity in the face of extinction, “to catch and stop them in their flight from themselves and then take them by the hand and lead them back to their own sources.” This would be very difficult to accomplish, but it could be done, as she herself showed with her big heart and mind.

“I know that those who hate have good reason to do so,” she wrote, and added, “But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place.”

To love, she argued – “childishly perhaps but stubbornly” – was the only response to the horrific situation into which humanity had led itself. And that included, almost incomprehensibly, love for the persecutors and murderers of her people – for they, too, she always sought to remember, were created in God’s image.

“The misery here is quite terrible,” Hillesum wrote from the bowels of hell – in Westerbork on July 3, 1943 – to a friend, “and yet late at night, when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire. And then time and again, it soars straight from my heart – I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force – the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent, and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.

“Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves. We may suffer, but we must not succumb.”

The final entry in her diary ends with a prayer: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”

With a song

That July, the special status and privileges granted to the members of the Jewish Council of Westerbork were revoked. The were told that only half of them would be able to return to Amsterdam. Hillesum chose to be part of the group that remained behind in the camp, together with her parents and her brother Mischa, who had also arrived there. Two months later, the four members of the family were transported to Auschwitz. Riva and Levi Hillesum either died on the horrific journey, or were gassed upon arrival at the death camp. Etty Hillesum perished on November 30, 1943, and Mischa on March 31, 1944. Their brother Jaap apparently died on a death march toward the end of the war.

From the ghastly train car on the way to Auschwitz, Etty Hillesum threw a postcard out that was found by a farmer and sent to its destination. “We left the camp singing,” she wrote.

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