29 January 2020, The Tablet

Etty Hillesum: Auschwitz victim was a light in the dark

Etty Hillesum: Auschwitz victim was a light in the dark

Etty Hillesum pictured in 1939


Her refusal to hate the Nazis even as they murdered her people, and her insistence that, in spite of the horrors of the camps, ‘life is glorious and magnificent’, make the diaries of Hillesum, who died in Auschwitz in 1943, one of the most extraordinary testimonies of the twentieth century

Etty Hillesum was a Jewish diarist in her twenties living in Amsterdam in the early years of the war. She had grown up in the small town of Deventer in the centre of Holland, where her father was the headmaster of the local secondary school. It was a dysfunctional family. She describes her home as “a madhouse”. “My parents always felt out of their depth,” she writes. Her father was scholarly and withdrawn; her mother was emotionally tempestuous. She had two gifted younger brothers, who both suffered from mental illness. Etty was an intense and highly intellectual young woman, but her emotional life was chaotic. She was insecure, confused and sexually adventurous – early in the diary she describes herself as “accomplished in  bed” and writes of her “confounded eroticism” – and she suffered from severe bouts of depression.  

Her diary begins on 9 March 1941, nearly a year after the German occupation of The Netherlands had begun, with her writing a letter to Julius Spier, a 56-year-old Jungian psychoanalyst with whom she forms a complex relationship. Spier, a German Jew who had fled to Holland from Berlin, becomes her therapist, her intellectual soul-mate, her friend, occasionally her lover, and also to a degree her spiritual mentor. Gradually, through this relationship, her evolving contemplative practice, her wide reading (particularly of Jung, of Christian texts and of the poems and letters of Rainer Maria Rilke), and through her own fierce determination to deal with her inner chaos, a transformation occurs. The chaos and turbulence that dominates the early part of the diary gradually give way to a profound wisdom and clarity of insight into the suffering of the Jewish people. In the transit camp where all the Dutch Jews were sent and to which she voluntarily goes to care for other inmates, she is described by one prisoner as “radiant”. 

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