Monday, August 16, 2010

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters From Westerbork by Etty Hillesum, published in one volume in English 1996

"[B]y knowing and feeling so deeply and fully, an unknown young woman became one of the most exceptional and truest witnesses of the devastation through which she lived and of the suffering humankind whose fate she chose to join." Eva Hoffman from the preface to the 1996 one-volume edition of Etty Hillesum's diaries and letters

Etty Hillesum, a Dutch citizen and an assimilated Jew, was born in 1914 and died in Auschwitz three months after she arrived there from the Westerbork transit camp in 1943.  These bare facts are movingly fleshed out in the volumes of Etty’s diaries that she kept from 1941-1943 when she lived in Amsterdam and in letters she wrote to her friends in Amsterdam from the Westerbork transit camp.

In the Introduction J.G. Gaarlandt, who saw to the publication of the diaries and the letters in 1981, stated that Etty started the diary at the same time she became involved with Julius Spier, a German Jewish refugee who had trained with Jung. The diary was a place where Etty could reflect on her effort to be more conscious of her psycho-social development.

The backdrop to the diaries was obviously the war and the German occupation of Holland. But early in the diary Etty made a point to turn inward and focus on issues of body and soul. An intellectual who was studying Russian and tutoring students studying Russian, she had read widely in many philosophical, religious and literary texts – from St. Augustine’s Confessions to the Gospel of Matthew to Psalms to the poet Rilke and the novelists Tolstoy and Dosteovsky. She contemplated the meaning in these texts as she sought to live a spiritual life, a less selfish life, one devoted to others. She wrote a lot about what "God" meant; she spoke directly to God; she prayed for strength; she refused to hate.

The contents of the diary entries shifted in the later entries. Etty could not help but be preoccupied with the terrifying world outside her room in Amsterdam and spent some time planning for when she would be in a labor camp. It is heartbreaking to read about her plan to go to the dentist soon so that she would be in good physical shape to withstand the hardships of labor. And she also thought about what books she would bring with her.

In an act of defiance, despite the increasingly horrifying situation of Holland’s Jewish population, she continued to see beauty all around her – both in human nature and in her natural surroundings. She refused to go into hiding, despite the urging of her friends, choosing to volunteer to go on the first transport from Amsterdam to Westerbork where she worked for the Jewish Council and spent much of her time in the camp’s hospital. Having the privilege of postponing deportation because she was a worker made her very uncomfortable, but she used it to help keep her parents off of the weekly deportation lists. She wanted no dispensation for herself. Eventually, despite her position, she and her parents and a brother were deported. The last written communication from her was a postcard she threw from the train to Auschwitz.  Addressed to a friend, it was found by a Dutch farmer and mailed.

Her letters to her friends read like journalism: she reported in detail about the physical conditions in the camp as well as the tension and despair amongst inmates. She was very consciously bearing witness: she asked a friend to whom she entrusted the diaries to get them published.

Note: The combined volume that was published in 1996 that is widely circulated is an abridged edition of Etty Hillesum's diaries and letters.. The volume of the complete diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, a more scholarly volume,  was commissioned by the Etty Hillesum Foundation at the University of Ghent and was published in 2002 as a joint venture with Novalis at St. Paul University.

The 1996 volume has a Preface by Eva Hoffman (author of Lost in Translation, subject of an earlier post) which focuses on the personality of Etty that emerges from her diaries and letters. An Introduction  by J.G. Gaarlandt focuses more on background material on the family and the war in the Netherlands. This volume also includes very helpful footnotes and photos.

To read a short biography of Etty Hillesum and to see family photos, go to the site of the Etty Hillesum Foundation, by clicking here.

To read an article about the leaders of the Jewish Council at Westerbork and the choices they made, click here.

Louis Hillesum – married to Rebecca Bernstein; author’s parents
    Jaap – their son
    Esther (Etty) – their daughter; author
    Mischa – their son

Friends and Acquaintances
Julius Spier – engaged to Hertha Levie
    Ruth Busse-Spier – Julius’ daughter by his 1st marriage
    Wolfgang – his son by his 1st marriage
Werner and Leisl Levie
    Miriam and Renate – their daughters
Sam de Wolff
    Leo de Wolff – his son
Joseph Isadoor (Jopie) Vleeschhouwer – married to Cato Cahen
Joseph and Hedwig Mahler
Werner Sterzenbach – married to Alice Sterzenbach-David
Max Witmondt
Paul Cronheim
Eduard Spier
Herbert Kruskal
Max Osias Kormann – married to Rosa Laufer
    Gerd – his son
Herman Boasson
Milli Ortmann
Grete Wendelsgelst – Milli Ortmann’s sister
Philip Mechanicus
Friedrich Weinreb
Renate Laqueur – married to Paul Goldschmidt
Julius Simon
Leo Krijn
Max Ehrlich
Clara (Chaya) Goldstein
Willy Rosen
David Cohen
Abraham Asscher
Simon van Gelder
Joseph Spier


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