Amsterdam to Auschwitz

The diaries of romance and suffering

In 1943, the Dutch underground printed two letters written from a transit camp located in the northeast of Holland from which the bulk of Dutch Jews were shipped to their deaths in the annihilation camps of Poland. The camp was known as Westerbork and the author of these letters, still alive when they first came out, was a woman in her late twenties named Etty Hillesum. The first letter, dated December 18, 1942, recorded her impressions of the camp; the second, written two weeks prior to her own deportation to Poland on September 7, 1943, described the night before a transport, after the “Angel of Death” had visited the barracks with the list of next day’s victims.

For a long time very little was known about the woman who wrote these letters, and though occasionally reprinted and liberally quoted by historians, few Dutch people made the effort to acquaint themselves with the details of the author’s past. No one except a few close friends knew that during 1941 and 1942 she had filled eight exercise books with diary entries. These she had given to a friend for safekeeping at the time she received her final call-up for Westerbork, with instructions to find a publisher for them in case she did not return from the camps. Etty Hillesum was gassed in Auschwitz, but no publisher would touch the diaries until 1981 — 38 year later! — when parts of them finally appeared in print under the title Het verstoorde leven (An Interrupted Life).

The young woman’s diaries took Holland by storm —11 printings in less than a year. Letters she wrote while she was interned in Westerbork soon found their way into print as well. The English version of the diaries came out in 1983, and Letters from Westerbork in 1986. Together, the diaries and the letters tell the story of Etty Hillesum’s last years, years she celebrated — eye to eye with the executioner — as the richest and most beautiful of her life.

Etty Hillesum grew up in a home where the cultivation of the mind was a consuming pursuit. Her grandfather had been chief rabbi of Holland’s three northern provinces. Her father, a calm, benign, impractical man, was a professor of classical languages and the principal of a secondary school in a Dutch provincial town. Her mother was Russian. One brother, Mischa, was a gifted pianist; another practiced medicine. Etty herself had a graduate degree in law. At the time she began keeping a diary, she was studying Russian and delving deeply into the fields of literature, religion, psychology and the arts.

For Hillesum the center of the universe was a desk, her desk, which stood in a small room that overlooked the square in back of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Here she pondered life’s mysteries — the mystery of suffering and the mystery of love, the mystery of death and the mystery of God — in dogged pursuit of the “great redeeming formula” and the “crystallizing thought” which would bring spiritual clarity and inner freedom, and supply the answers to the questions posed by “these terrible times.” Navigating by the brightest stars in her literary firmament — Rilke, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky Jung, St. Augustine and the Gospels — she gradually arrived at a creed which satisfied her intellectually and emotionally and enabled her to deal with the terror at large. And this the creed: life was beautiful, no matter what; hating was wrong and morally indefensible; love conquers all; nothing could rob one of one’s freedom; God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.

Besides her literary mentors, she also had a guru of flesh and blood. His name was Julius Spier, a refugee from Nazi Germany who made his living with a glorified form of palm reading known as psychochirology. They had met in the first months of 1941, when Etty was looking for help in unblocking what she called her “spiritual constipation,” her inability to open up, which at times made her feel like “a miserable, frightened creature.” Julius Spier taught her to cope with her neuroses, manifested in frequent and prolonged headaches, depressions, spells of nausea and assorted stomach ailments. He encouraged her to write and, what pleased her best, “to speak the name of God without embarrassment.” Etty venerated him, and they became lovers. It was largely because of him that she considered the war years to have been the happiest of all.

There is something adolescent about Etty Hillesum’s relationship with Julius Spier, twice her age at 54. She gloried in his every pronouncement, be it ever so banal, and dubbed him a “magical personality.” There was something youngish, too, about her daily life. Though no longer a student, she still lived like one. Apart from teaching a little Russian, she did not work. She boarded in a middle-class home, and had a sexual affair (one of several) with the head of the household, an elderly gent known in her writing as Father Han. At this stage, early 1941, the war hardly seemed to touch her, and her days passed pleasantly enough. She went bicycling, attended concerts, took walks with Spier, had therapy, read and worked on her Russian. Life was beautiful.

Ingenuously, the diarist created a romance out of suffering. She thanked God for casting her in the eye of the storm and extolled her friend Liesl Levie as “a great woman” because she considered it “a great privilege” to have been marked for suffering. While others shuddered at the prospect of being bundled off to an “unknown destination”-i.e. Poland — Etty Hillesum insisted that there was no such thing as an “unknown destination:”

Won’t there be the same earth under my roving feet and the same sky with now the moon and now the sun, not to mention all the stars, above my grateful head? So why speak of an unknown destination?

She said it made no difference to her where the Nazis chose to dump her, inasmuch as she felt “a bond with all God’s warring creatures” and she intended to carry her message of conciliation to everyone — friend or foe.

Despite this idealization of suffering, Hillesum’s ideas rested on a sound philosophical foundation. Between her first diary entry in February 1941 until her last words from Westerbork (a postcard flung from the train that was taking her to Auschwitz), she propounded a view of suffering that was designed along existential and historical lines. There had always been suffering, she observed, and there always would be — it was an unalterable condition of existence — with each century merely inventing new ways to inflict it. But what really mattered was the quality of our emotions, how we fit suffering into our lives. In other words, the fact that Jews wore yellow stars, were put in concentration camps, and sent to their death was less important than the manner in which they reacted to these torments. There was a way to die just as there was a way to live. With dignity and without. That attitude did not make her “feel less militant,” she quickly clarified, “for moral certainty and moral indignation are also part of the ‘big emotions.'”

And what about the persecutors? It was wrong to hate the Germans, she asserted, for people did not have to be good in order to be loved. “I know that those who hate,” she ended her letter of December 18,1942, “have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and the easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here (at Westerbork) how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place.”

The worst thing about hating, Hillesum asserted, was that it kept Jews from realizing that the Germans could not really hurt them. It was only because they felt “persecuted, humiliated, and oppressed,” only because they had a weak inner life, because they hated (she wrote all this prior to the mass deportations from Westerbork) that they viewed the German measures against them as if they were death sentences. To her, having a curfew, not being able to ride the streetcar or go to the beach, were only minor vexations. If one had a rich inner life, it probably did not make much of a difference whether one was inside a camp or outside one, she said. “There will always be a small patch of sky above, and there will always be enough space to fold two hands in prayer.”

Not that Hillesum was unaware of the peculiarity of her views. She admitted that she was spoilt and she could see why people might call her a mystic. More than once she asked herself if she was out of touch with reality. Still, beneath the mystic who saw beauty and God’s hand everywhere was a trained analytical mind that was not fooled for a moment about the Nazi plans. Long before most Jews, she grasped what was in store. Two weeks prior to the first official transport from Holland to the East it dawned on her that the Nazis were after the Jews’ “total destruction,” and that “total destruction” included her. But instead of wallowing in despair, she quietly began preparing herself to face her extinction. People feared death unnecessarily, she said. A few days more or less made no difference — for every day could be a lifetime in itself.

And so, at a time when Jews moved heaven and earth to stay out of the clutches of the Nazis, Etty Hillesum refused to lift a finger to save herself. She could easily have gone into hiding. She had a wealth of offers. But she dismissed them all, even when as a social worker for the Jewish Council her duties enabled her to come in and out of the camp almost at will. Her own strength — “and it was a great one,” she conceded — lay in acceptance and suffering. She thought that the only adequate gesture left was to fold one’s hands and to bend one’s knees, to bear destruction with grace. When friends accused her of Christianity, she shot back: “Yes, Christianity, and why ever not?” She would do nothing to escape.

At bottom, however, Etty Hillesum’s refusal to save her own skin had to do with a deep-seated feeling of solidarity with the Jewish people and a highly developed sense of justice. She was glad to be a Jew. She refused to try to evade the “Jewish fate” by banking on her privileges as an intellectual, while others, the large Jewish proletariat, had no such escape. It was her duty, as she saw it, to be with the victims, to share their pain, to be of use to them. She knew that if she saved herself, another Jew would have to go in her place.

When she first saw Westerbork, in August 1942, she realized that she had been unaware that a few hundred stateless German Jews had been living there since 1939! She met people with memories of Dachau and Buchenwald, with stories of the St. Louis and its fruitless quest of a landing. With wry self-condemnation she explained that she had been busy during these years “taking up collections for Spanish and Chinese Children.” With shame she acknowledged to herself how far she had fallen short of sharing the “Jewish Schicksal (destiny)” which had been unfolding for nearly a decade.

The fact that she took a job with the Jewish Council which for a year or so kept her from being deported to Poland does not tarnish this image of a woman welcoming fate with open arms. She did it reluctantly, in hopes of helping her family and friends. But knowing that she had special privileges, preyed on her conscience. “I don’t want that scrap of paper for which most Jews would give their right arm. I don’t want it in the least… .I want to be sent to every one of the camps that lie scattered all over Europe, I want to be at every front, I don’t ever want to be what they call ‘safe’….” Most of all she was put off by her employer’s role in the work of destruction. “Nothing,” she wrote, “can ever atone for the fact, of course, that one section of the Jewish population is helping to transport the majority out of the country. History will pass judgement in due course.”

Whether or not one agrees with Etty Hillesum’s beliefs, there can be no doubt about her readiness to shoulder the practical consequences. “Unless every smallest detail in your daily life is in harmony with the high ideals you profess,” she wrote in her diary, “then those ideals have no meaning.” The true test of her beliefs, she said, would come when she was under fire, and by all accounts in Westerbork, she passed this test brilliantly. In contrast to her behavior when she worked at the Jewish Council in Amsterdam and looked down her nose at people straining every muscle to preserve life, in Westerbork she was utterly saintly. A boundless compassion drove her. With a leather bag slung over her shoulder, she dashed from barrack to barrack, becoming, indeed, what she had once hoped to become: “a balm on all wounds.” A fellow inmate recalled that an age-old wisdom, a thousand-year-old mourning, seemed to have settled on her young, radiant face.

On September 6, 1943, two weeks after she had penned the account of the transport published by the Dutch resistance, Etty Hillesum’s name surfaced on the list of inmates to be deported to Poland on the next day’s transport. The tiding caught her completely off guard, and her first reaction was one of shock, reported Jopie Vleeschouwer, her “comrade-in-arms” in Westerbork. Perhaps, in accounting for the sudden loss of composure, she was reminded of an insight she had had after a heated discussion concerning Christ and the Jews, “that every hotly championed philosophy hides a little lie.” But “within the hour,” she had pulled herself together and had started packing, making sure to take her diary (the diary she kept in Westerbork; it was never found), her little Bible, Russian grammar and Tolstoy. Two months later she was dead.

“If I have one duty in these times,” Hillesum stated in her diary, “it is to bear witness.” This sense of mission — to be “the eyes and ears of a fragment of Jewish history”-was one the diarist shared with scores of victims. But while others construed their task literally, as one of reporting the facts in all their gruesomeness, Etty Hillesum had something else in mind. Even when she knew that Jews were being gassed in Poland, she had no desire, she said, “to become a chronicler of horrors.” In the journal she kept, the details pertaining to the persecution of Dutch Jewry are rarely in evidence other than as scaffolding for her emotional and spiritual development. Hillesum intended to extract from the cataclysm at hand great truths. That was her deepest purpose.

In her short life, Etty Hillesum demonstrated an unwavering commitment to values that ran counter to her daily existence: love, forgiveness, compassion, selflessness. To the storm that gathered over Jews before reducing them to dust, she opposed an even greater force: her spirit. The worst of times could not stop Etty Hillesum from washing with lilac soap, donning bright clothes or enjoying nature. Nor, when forbidden to ride the streetcar, could she be stopped from a long walk on blistered feet to buy a bouquet of roses.

Jacob Boas, associate director of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, has a Ph.D in modern European history. He was born in Westerbork