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The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943 (Complete and Unabridged)

by Edited by Klaas A.D. Smelik. Translated by Arnold J. Pomerans
800 pages,
ISBN: 2895073430


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Etty Hillesum Speaks to Us
by Manny Drukier


We ached and despaired over the fifteen-year-old Anne. As we read The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43, we find that the city and era are the same. In 1944, just months before the war's end, betrayed by a neighbour, the Frank family is discovered in their Amsterdam hideout. Only the father survives.
Etty Hillesum, twenty-seven years of age, holds that it is her duty to bear witness to the murder of a people. The diary is her testimony. In closeup, Etty's unblinking gaze is sardonic. Cigarette between fingers cupping her chin, she appears disinterested in our opinion but ungrudgingly lays open her perceptions of unfolding events.
Some background: Nazi Germany subjugated twenty nations in the heart of Europe. The war took millions of lives and lasted six years. The deportations of Dutch Jews to death camps in Poland began only after all non-Dutch Jews were expelled. When the diary begins in 1941, only young men are rounded up for 'transport'. The community is led to believe that work awaits the deportees. In succeeding months and years, people of all ages are forced out of their homes. Westerbork, a transit camp, is established in a desolate part of Holland. The commandant is a German gentleman who finds it honourable to deliver each Tuesday evening precisely 1000 men, women, children, the terminally ill, and pregnant women to the 20 cattle cars arranged in a line at a siding.
Before the worst happens, Etty relates everything about her time in Amsterdam: the people she meets, her family, and particularly her efforts to be honest with herself. The diary opens with Etty ensconced as femme de honour at the home of an accountant, the widower, Han. Also very much in her life is "S", a German-Jewish psycho-chirologist. There follows a parade of acquaintances and exceptional individuals whom she befriends.
Etty is piercingly intelligent, sensitive, hard working, artistic, and a born leader. She speaks Dutch, German and her Russian is good enough for her to teach. She devours the classics, has taken up chirology, is attractive and extraordinarily popular. She writes like a dream. Her manuscript, for the range of issues tackled, is unparalleled. Furthermore, the author never repeats herself. Just when a topic seems to have been exhausted, Etty surprises us: "And I shall 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."
The Hillesums are a gifted family: Etty's father, Dutch born, teaches classics in a small town school. Her elegant mother is Russian born and is, as Etty implies, neurotic¨a mother she avoids. There are two brothers, Jap and Misha. The latter, a talented pianist is, in 1942, under the care of "S" due to a nervous breakdown. By today's standards, the family would be considered slightly dysfunctional. But not in the 1940s. Etty is a rock.
Since these are dangerous times, every Jew is desperate to keep out of sight. Etty, however, is adamant in her refusal to hide from the Nazis. Any man or woman would wish for the kinds of friends she has¨gentiles who are prepared to risk their lives for Etty. The following is one of the many pages she pens, giving her reasons for staying the course:

"Many accuse me of indifference and passivity when I refuse to go into hiding; they say that everyone who can must try to stay out of their clutches, it's our bounden duty to try. But the argument is specious. For while everyone tries to save himself, vast numbers are nevertheless disappearing. And the funny thing is, I don't feel I'm in their clutches anyway, whether I stay or am sent away. They may well succeed in breaking me physically, but no more than that. I may face cruelty and deprivation the likes of which I cannot imagine in even my wildest fantasies. Yet all this is as nothing to the immeasurable expanse of my faith in God. I shall always be able to stand on my own two feet even when they are planted on the hardest soil. And my acceptance is not indifference or helplessness. I feel moral indignation at a regime that treats human beings in such a way."

Easy times inspire travel writing. Grave times produce literature. Up until page 360, the diary speaks thus of the Germans:

"I shall only hate the evil that is within me, though hate is perhaps putting it too strongly even then. In any case, we cannot be lax enough in what we demand of others and strict enough in what we demand of ourselves. And I believe that the reason why I am not frightened at times like these is because everything that happens is so close to me, because it originates¨no matter what monstrous dimensions it may sometimes assume¨from humankind, and thus time and again is reduced to human dimensions. And that is why so many events do not fill me with fear, because I keep thinking that they originate in man, which makes everything understandable and ensures that deeds never degenerate into monstrously inhuman misdeeds. We only wish!"
From 1941 to 43, Etty and I were exposed to similarly demanding conditions. I, the more lucky, survived Buchenwald. She died in Auschwitz. Though I was 14 years her junior, had we met, I would surely have been smitten by Etty Hillesum. She would have found me wanting. Etty showed a marked preference for older, wiser men. She writes:

My immediate reaction on meeting a man is invariably to gauge his sexual possibilities. I recognize this as a bad habit that must be stamped out.
Oh men, men! With your petty possessive instincts. Max, who after ten years more or less asked me to state an oath whether I had always been faithful to him. And Klaas, who begged for just one night, and Han, who now and then thinks he has to get worked up about my "Past". And on Saturday afternoon I just crept into Han's bed, when a grin suddenly spread across his stony face, and he said, "Aren't you the shameless one! First you go out with your old 'Seducer' and now you seduce me!" And so on. And yesterday morning I told S. on the telephone how I had crept under Han's blankets for half an hour, and he said, "Don't take it too seriously." But then he quickly added, "But not taking it seriously mustn't be allowed to become an excuse for leading a dissolute life."
I can do without man. Is it because I have always had so many of them around me?"

A liberated woman, ahead of her time, is Etty.
Etty manages to juggle perhaps a dozen balls at a time and records each "take" faithfully. There is much to learn from Ms. Hillesum:

"If I have one real duty in life, in these times, then it is to write, to record, to retain. I think I have learned to take it all in, to read life in one long stretch. And in my youthful arrogance I am often sure that I can remember every least thing I see and that I shall be able to relate it all one day .. .I live my life to the full, but I feel ever more strongly that I am being forced to assume growing obligations towards what I might call my talents."

There is no other way but to quote verbatim portions of Etty's letters from Westerbork to friends outside:

Tonight I shall be helping to dress babies and to calm mothers¨and that is all I can hope to do. I could almost curse myself for that. For we all know that we are yielding up our sick and defenseless brothers and sisters to hunger, heat, cold, exposure, and destruction, and yet we dress them and escort them to the bare cattle cars¨and if they can't walk we carry them on stretchers.
This girl has thin wrists and a peaky little face. She is partly paralyzed, and has just been learning to walk again, . . . one step at a time. "Have you heard? I have to go. We look at each other for a long moment. Then she says in a level, gray little voice, "Such a pity, isn't it?"

More heartbreaking gems follow:

"Over there is that affectionate little woman from Rotterdam. She is in her ninth month. Two nurses try to get her dressed. She just stands there, her body leaning against her child's cot. Drops of sweat run down her face. She stares into the distance, a distance into which I cannot follow her, and says in a toneless, worn-out voice, "Two months ago I volunteered to go with my husband to Poland. And then I wasn't allowed to, because I always have such difficult pregnancies. And now I do have to go. . . just because someone tried to run away tonight."
A young mother says to me almost apologetically, "My baby doesn't usually cry; it's almost as if he can tell what's happening." She picks up the child, a lovely baby about eight months old, from a makeshift crib and smiles at it. "If you don't behave yourself, Mummy won't take you along with her!"
The little woman with the wet washing is on the point of hysterics. "Can't you hide my child for me? Go on, please won't you hide him; he's got a high fever, how can I possibly take him along?" She points to a little bundle of misery with blond curls and a burning, bright-red little face. And she sobs, "They take the sick children away, and you never get them back."

Etty is influenced by St. Augustine. In her diary she quotes extensively from Rilke, Lermontov, Dostoevski, Jung, and Julius Speer, "S", whom she quotes: "You are a masturbating little bitch, intellectually I mean. You say nothing, and you go on saying nothing, then back home you probably fill ten pages in your diary, and six months later you might deign to tell me about it."
A confirmed pacifist, Etty devotes a good portion of her diary to views that many people today share. (Not the reviewer.) One is obliged, in closing, to give Etty the space to have her say:

"I firmly believe that I would go on finding life beautiful, always, despite everything. All disasters stem from us. Why is there war? Perhaps because now and then I might be inclined to snap at my neighbor. Because I and my neighbor and everyone else do not have enough love. Yet we could fight war and all its experiences by releasing, each day, the love that is shackled inside us."

When every Jew is frantically trying to get away, she remains serene. A remarkable woman. Over many pages our heroine gives us her reasons for giving in:
People often get worked up when I say it doesn't really matter whether I go or somebody else does, the main thing is that so many thousands have to go. I am only bowing to the inevitable . . .I don't think I would feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer. They keep telling me that someone like me has a duty to go into hiding because I have so many things to do in life, so much to give.

The single false note is her letter¨a postcard dated September 7th, 1943, dropped by Etty from a nailed-shut cattle car¨destination Auschwitz¨which reads: "We left singing." No one sang, we can be sure of that. ˛

Manny Drukier is the author of Carved in Stone, a memoir, and Duty and Passion, a novel.
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