Etty Hillesum

Etty Hillesum and the Question of Our Age

A reflection on Etty Hillesum and her relevance to today.
Jonathan Fields

“To think that one small heart can experience so much, oh God, so much suffering and so much love. I am so grateful to you, God, for having chosen my heart, in these times, to experience all the things it has experienced.”
Etty Hillesum: The Diaries 1941-43 and Letters from Westerbork.

Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam during the Holocaust. She kept a diary and wrote many letters to friends during that time documenting her experience in that dark period of history.

She committed herself to the toil and discipline of her craft, which she understood to be the art of writing, and her insight into the heart of humanity is nothing short of breathtaking. As her circumstances became more perilous, she only grew in her ability to describe with a lucid and deeply personal tone the depth of her love for life with all of its meaningfulness – notwithstanding everything that was happening around her. This inspired me over time to try to enter into the toil and discipline of composing music in an attempt to somehow dialogue with her – getting to know her with the hope of knowing myself better.

In this turbulent period of our own history that for me became ever more intense during the pandemic and the social unrest that followed, I found in her a singular voice that helped me make sense of what seemed to be a completely senseless world. This experience of solidarity with Etty was before the attack on October 7th in Israel. Now her voice and message are even more urgent.

I, like Etty, have found that striving to master the difficult language of an art – music in my case – is my path to make sense of things I perhaps could not express in any other way. Confusion and pain, certainly when I was young, left me facing a void and a feeling that my life and life in general had no meaning. To create is for me an act of hope. From this point of view, Etty’s journey has pushed me to a much deeper commitment to my art, with the hope that this can communicate her profoundly human voice to my family and friends.

In one early entry at the age of 27 in 1941 Etty writes, “I used to believe that my inner conflicts were due to a particular cause, but that was much too superficial an explanation. I thought that they simply reflected the clash between my instinct as a threatened Jew and my socialist beliefs. But it goes deeper than that.” Already she understood that the ideologies and politics of her time did not account for her unease. “Everything has gone wrong again, I long for something and I don’t know what it is." Then, just two years later near the end of her life, before she was killed in Auschwitz in November 1943 at the age of 29, she wrote: “You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share out Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you, oh God, one great dialogue.

I could not believe this transformation from the self-centered unstable character that I met at the beginning of her diary to someone filled with gratitude for the beauty of life, even within the suffering of thousands of her fellow Jews in the Westerbork Transit Camp (this was the camp all Dutch Jews were sent to before being shipped to extermination camps).

Not only was her personal transformation exceptional but as I read I saw that her writing – her art – also blossomed, rising even to the genius of the great writers that kept her company from Dostoevsky to Shakespeare to St. Augustine to Rilke to the Old and New Testaments. I felt in her words perfect art from a perfected artist, the melding of craft with raw and honest personal expression. Reading her was pure music to me. Etty desired to "flow melodiously from the hand of God”, and I think she did.

Her diary entries become more dramatic and profoundly certain after she goes to Westerbork with the first group of Jews in June 1942. In July she wrote, “It is war time. There are concentration camps. I can say of so many of the houses I pass: here the son has been thrown into prison, there the father has been taken hostage, and an 18 year old boy in that house over there has been sentenced to death.” She continues, “And yet - at unguarded moments, when left to myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life …my own heartbeat is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant, as if it would never stop. This is also my attitude to life, and I believe that neither war nor any other senseless human atrocity will ever be able to change it.

Etty was such a big help to so many people in the camp that she was given the privilege to travel back and forth from Amsterdam to Westerbork for a period of time.

As the end draws near she writes, “Surrounded by my writers and poets and the flowers on my desk, I loved life. And there among the barracks, full of hunted and persecuted people, I still loved life. Life in those drafty barracks was no other than life in this protected, peaceful room. Not for one moment was I cut off from the life I was said to have left behind. There was simply one great, meaningful whole.

This responds to the question of our age: what generates peace? For there to be peace and an end to hatred we need most of all to recover the fact that Etty, with her reason full of affection, relentlessly tasked herself with discovering again and again the ultimate meaningfulness of life. With great courage in front of unspeakable injustice, this is the fact she is able to glimpse over and over – the possibility of affirming life even in the face of the forces of death. Peace – in her life and in the life of the world – is a consequence of this.

Etty poses a great challenge for me and for all of us: “...each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks must be destroyed in others. And remember that every atom of hate we add to the world makes it more inhospitable.