I met a remarkable person about ten years ago in two too-short collections of her letters and journal entries. 2014 is the centennial of her birth. She died when she was only 29. As I read from the two books which contain her writings, my heart simultaneously breaks and soars. My tiny gift to her memory and legacy is to pass her enormous gift on to others who may not yet know of her.
In the context of the late 1930s and early 1940s, she was a young woman with modern attitudes. Her professional endeavors were intellectual ones, in research and psychology. Her lifestyle was decidedly outside the narrower views of morality which predominated in Western cultures of the time. Perhaps it was the untypical themes in her life before the rise of Nazi Europe that were the fertile soil in which the great spiritual fruits of her life were able to grow. My only hope here in this offering is to pique the interest of some to spend more time with her in her writings and, in so doing, know something new and more of the God that Etty came to adore.
In 1941, Etty Hillesum, then a 27-year-old Jewish woman living in Amsterdam, began to write a journal, portions of which were finally published in 1983. The journal covers the period from March, 1941, to October, 1942- not a very long time. But, with the Third Reich in Europe at the time serving as a terrifying backdrop, the journal records the spiritual transformation of a somewhat self-absorbed intellectual into someone in deep communion with the God of her understanding. Etty has been called the Mystic of the Holocaust, but any attempt, however well intended, to categorize her spirituality is diminishing of it.
Her writings span that time period from when the Nazi oppression in the Netherlands began to worsen, and continue through to her family’s relocation to Westerbork, a holding camp for various “undesirables” being shipped weekly to Auschwitz in Germany. The last record we have of her writing is a postcard she threw from the train which carried her from Westerbork to Auschwitz. It was found by some farmers along the train’s route and mailed and mailed to the address penned on it by Etty. On the postcard were written her words, “We have left the camp singing.” Odd words, one might conclude, to have been written by someone who knew well what that train ride to Auschwitz meant. But they were words written after months of profound and wonderful discoveries about God, even in the midst of circumstances that were destroying the faith of many others.
As she had months earlier watched the intentional and cruel destruction of the Jewish ghetto in Amsterdam, she wrote in the journal she kept at the time:
“The jasmine behind my house has been completely ruined by the rains and storms of the last few days, its white blossoms are floating about in muddy black pools on the low garage roof. But somewhere inside me the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed, just as profusely and delicately as it ever did. And it spreads its scent round the House in which You dwell, oh God. You can see, I look after You. I bring you not only my tears and my forebodings on this stormy, grey Sunday morning, I even bring you scented jasmine.. I shall try to make you at home always. Even if I should be locked up in a narrow cell and a cloud should drift past my small barred window, then I shall bring you that cloud, oh God, while there is still the strength in me to do so.”
After several months at Westerbork, where conditions became more and more crowded and more deplorable as more and more Jews were passed through its gates, Etty wrote these words of almost unimaginable meaning:
“You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue. .At night, when I lie in my bed and rest in You, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer.”
Etty, her parents, and a brother and sister died at Auschwitz in November, 1943. The diaries and journals written by Etty before and during her time at Westerbork were not discovered until 1981. They have been published under the title An Interrupted Life-The Diaries of Etty Hillesum. The book has since been translated into 14 languages and deserves to be read by many others for years to come. Others, many others, need to know that, even in the worst of circumstances, it is possible to leave “the camp singing.”
Here are some other quotations from Etty Hillesum’s journals. They are part of a spiritual feast, served by Etty, which will be nourishment for spiritual seekers for generations to come:
“ALAS, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”
“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”
“We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies.”