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Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from…

by Etty Hillesum

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A first-hand account of terrible events always resonates strongly I think, but when that first-hand account is beautifully written, with real spiritual depth and intelligence it becomes something rather more special. Etty Hillesum a young Jewish, Russian scholar shared a house with a group of other intellectuals in Amsterdam during World War Two. Etty’s remarkable diaries shine a light on the changing times as the Nazi’s vile agenda and the continually worsening strictures placed upon Jewish citizens gradually take hold. Initially however the terrible times in which Etty and her friends are living serve as something of a backdrop to Etty’s ruminations on life, love and spirituality. While living as the mistress of the much older man who owns the house where she lives, Etty also begins a relationship with another older man, a psychoanalyst, palm reader and therapist Julius Spier – whose methods seem questionable at best. With Spier Etty developed a strong and passionate connection, and learned a lot about love and spirituality. Spier’s unique influence lasted for the rest of Etty’s tragically short life.
“Sometimes I long for a convent cell, with the sublime wisdom of centuries set out on bookshelves all along the wall and a view across the cornfields--there must be cornfields and they must wave in the breeze--and there I would immerse myself in the wisdom of the ages and in myself. Then I might perhaps find peace and clarity. But that would be no great feat. It is right here, in this very place, in the here and the now, that I must find them. ”
Etty begins work as an assistant for The Jewish Council – the organisation that helped in the implementation of the latest restrictions that the Nazi’s put upon Jewish Dutch citizens. Etty had an enormously difficult role to play, but it was one that allowed her to gain an acute understanding of fascism and oppression. Etty’s spirit is what comes across so powerfully in these diary entries, her refusal to hate may seem strange to some, yet it simply feels remarkable and poignant.
“I had a liberating thought that surfaced in me like a hesitant, tender young blade of grass thrusting its way through a wilderness of weeds: If there were only one decent German, then he should be cherished despite the whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people”
In her role as an assistant to the Jewish Council, Etty volunteered to accompany other Jewish people to Westerbork camp. Westerbork camp was the place from where people were “transported” to Auschwitz. In letters from Westerbork camp in 1942 and 1943, Etty describes vividly the overcrowding, fear and the daily struggle to survive. Initially Etty’s role came with certain privileges – which meant she could help many people at Westerbork, she was also allowed (required in fact) to return to Amsterdam for several months when she was suffering from serious health issues. However, even when back in Amsterdam, once she had spent time in Westerbork, Etty belonged heart and soul to her people, and was desperate to return to them. Whilst away from Westerbork she wrote wonderful letters to the circle of new friends she had gathered around her there. Etty looked forward to going back to them, never doubting that her health would improve just enough to allow her to go back. She refused all attempts from friends to save her, refused to go into hiding – Etty knew what her fate would be ultimately – and she faced it bravely all the time trying to calm the fears of those around, she persisted in talking about a time when she would be returned to her friends, and all should be over. This was a time, when those at Westerbork did not know of the horrors of the gas chambers, although “Poland” as it was always termed, was synonymous with death, no one seemed to doubt that “transportation” could only end one way. For some time, Etty was able to travel, send letters unrestricted and could intervene to keep people off the list for the next transportation. Slowly however, and inevitably Etty’s privileges were removed, she could no longer leave, her influence lessened. Good friends from Amsterdam, as well as members of her own family had joined her in Westerbork, and slowly the camp emptied, as more and more people were transported out to Poland. Their turn had to come, and come it did, in September 1943 Etty, and her brother and parents were herded on to that train heading away from Holland and to certain death. Etty Hillesum died in November 1943 in Auschwitz – thanks to this book some of her spirit survives.
According to Jan G Gaarandt’s introduction; survivors of the holocaust who had known Etty in Westerbork camp were later to speak of Etty Hillesum as a shining personality for me that is unsurprising, as reading her words is a powerful and emotional experience, how much more impressive would it have been to have known her.
The diary section of this book clearly show Etty to have been a thoughtful, intelligent woman, deeply introspective at times she examines herself and criticises what she sees around her with a surprising lack of bitterness. In the letters from Westerbork, we see a lighter side of Etty at times, but I felt I also heard her voice, the way she spoke to her friends – her wish to shield those she loved from the terrors around them – her love for whom she calls her people and of course her family, for whom she does all she can, even when often suffering herself. It is astonishing to me that Etty Hillesum isn’t as well-known as Anne Frank. It is again thanks to the wonderful Persephone books that a woman who could have been tragically forgotten by history again is given a voice. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Nov 20, 2013 |
I’ve been putting off and putting off writing a review of An Interrupted Life, mostly because I wanted everything to sink in and also because I really didn’t know what to say about this wonderful, albeit heartbreaking book. There I go again, using clichés to describe this book, but I loved it from start to finish.

Etty Hillesum was born in January 1914 in Holland and lived in Amsterdam working as a translator of Russian and Russian teacher. Even still she aspired to be a writer, and kept a journal to that effect during WWII. As a Jew, Etty’s life became increasingly circumscribed by the restrictions placed upon her; she was later given a job as a typist in the Jewish Council, an organization that sought to mediate between the Nazis and Dutch Jews. Etty later volunteered to help accompany Jews to Westerbork, a detention camp that was the last stop to Auschwitz; and eventually ended up in Westerbork herself.

Etty’s journals and letters cover the period of November 1941-summer 1943, several months after she met Dr. Julius Spier, a Jungian psychoanalyst who figures largely in her journals as both a friend and mentor. Etty was outgoing and social in real life, yet her journals show a rich internal life as well, one in which Etty was given to a lot of introspective thought. Etty was well read and intelligent, and she had knowledge of not only literature but of psychology as well (she is constantly reading Jung and Remarque throughout). Every single page of her book is filled with insights both from her head and about the world around her. She was skilled at questioning herself, of criticizing what she knew. As the diary progresses, therefore, we start to see how Etty embraces her self-doubt and fears. The result is an acceptance of what she knew would happen to her eventually.

At one point she wonders if it was escapist of her to look so much into herself when the outside world eclipsed individuals’ lives; her answer was no. I think one of the most powerful lessons of Etty’s diary is that she thought it was important for people to look inwardly, to wage the war within first. Even at Westerbork, her writings about life in the camp are matter-of-fact, rational. As an effect of insights like this and many others, Etty’s diary is electrifying in its intensity. I thought the diary portion of this book was much stronger than the letters she wrote from Westerbork; her letters are more trivial and give you less of a sense of who Etty was. ( )
1 vote Kasthu | Oct 14, 2012 |
~~ BOOK REVIEW 1~~

In Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43
Persephone, 1999, 2007.
Originally published in Holland, 1981




What an extraordinary record of the life and musings of a young woman, and one living at a difficult and dangerous time. Etty Hillesum lives in Amsterdam and is 27 at the beginning of these writings.

This volume falls reasonably easily into two pieces, the diaries and the letters. The diaries are primarily concerned with the inner thoughts, explorations and challenges that Etty is pondering on. Her development and personal growth. Here we meet her friends and lovers, and especially meet with her psychological analyst ‘S’ who is almost twice her age, and as the introduction points out, behaves in ways that in our time we would perceive as horrifying in many respects in a doctor/patient relationship. But their relationship was far more than that, and Etty is not a weak victim in any sense of the word, either here or in what follows. The third part of the diaries we begin to feel the encroachment of time. Amsterdam was taken over by the Germans, and with the aid of the Dutch and their logical and organisational characteristic, found it very easy to be able to identify and impose regulations on the Jewish population. Yet Etty’s thoughts about life under such an increasingly crushing regime are rarely of fear. She keeps her will and attention on the bigger picture.

I marked a lot of her thoughts, but few stand alone outside the context of what she wrote, however, here are two that can be seen as universal musings, and were both intended to be so as well as to be specific ones to her own experience.

“The terrifying Thing is that Systems Grow too big for men and hold them in satanic grip, the builders no less than the victims of the system, much as large edifices and spires, created by men’s hands, tower high above us, dominate us, yet may collapse over our heads and bury us”. EH, pp105

“Humiliation always involves two. The one who does the humiliating, and the one who allows himself to be humiliated. If the second is missing, that is if the passive party is immune to humiliation, then the humiliation vanishes into thin air. All that remains are vexatious measures that interfere with daily life, but are not humiliations that weigh heavily on the soul”.EH, pp176

The second part of this edition (the last third of the volume) are specifically letters of someone who is now residing in a ‘transit camp’ before being moved to a concentration camp in Poland. Etty is there, and has some freedom, as she is working with one of the Jewish organisations which has been drawn together to attempt to make things more easy for their Jewish compatriots, although as one can see, this is also making the German task more inevitable as well. Etty is well down the pecking order, and is here because although she is aware that she could save herself, and has been bid to do so a number of times by friends. She has been able to come and go from the camp on two or three occasions, but she asks herself why she should be saved over the lives of others. Why she too should not experience what they are going through. Westerbok (pron Vesterbok) camp is not as horrific as one of the concentration camps, not as violent nor as final, but it is a very disturbing place to be imprisoned. Despite this Etty retains her sanity to the last, continuing to look outside her immediate experience to the universal, whilst acknowledging and writing about the detail of the situation she finds herself in. For Etty, as for millions of others, not just Dutch jews, there is to be no happy ending, but in reading volumes such as this, we can learn so much both of ourselves and of those whose lives were curtailed too soon. Etty refuses to flinch to the last, and our final sight of her is as she waves from a cattle truck on her way to Auschwitz where she is to die in November of 1943.


Etty at her oft mentioned desk in Amsterdam ( )
2 vote Caroline_McElwee | Aug 5, 2007 |
I'm considering not speaking to any of my friends that don't start reading this book *immediately*. ( )
1 vote alienpuffin | Feb 12, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805050876, Paperback)

For the first time, Etty Hillesum's diary and letters appear together to give us the fullest possible portrait of this extraordinary woman in the midst of World War II. In the darkest years of Nazi occupation and genocide, Etty Hillesum remained a celebrant of life whose lucid intelligence, sympathy, and almost impossible gallantry were themselves a form of inner resistance. The adult counterpart to Anne Frank, Hillesum testifies to the possibility of awareness and compassion in the face of the most devastating challenge to one's humanity. She died at Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:27:45 -0400)

For the first time, Etty Hillesum's diary and letters appear together to give us the fullest possible portrait of this extraordinary woman. In the darkest years of Nazi occupation and genocide, Etty Hillesum remained a celebrant of life whose lucid intelligence, sympathy, and almost impossible gallantry were themselves a form of inner resistance. The adult counterpart to Anne Frank, Hillesum testifies to the possibility of awareness and compassion in the face of the most devastating challenge to one's humanity. She died at Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine.… (more)

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