A Life Cut Off In Its Prime – The Diary of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943

Dr. Gideon Greif

This article is part of a collection of articles by Dr. Greif which will be published in Germany later this year. It is forbidden to publish this article or copy from it, fully or partially, in any way before the book is published,without his written permission.

All copyrights for this article belong to Dr. Gideon Greif. This version was prepared for the Holocaust Museum Houston, Texas, USA, for the 2008 Teachers Summer Institute, directed by Dr. Mary Lee Webeck.

On Saturday, March 9, 1941, a young Jewish woman, 27 years of age, started writing a diary in Amsterdam, which was already under German occupation at that time. It was one of the many diaries that have been written during the Holocaust. However, these are outstanding, unique and extraordinary notes, because of the special personality of the author and her remarkable view of the world.

The events which Etty Hillesum watched from her window are part of her written memories, but they can be looked upon apart from her personal fate. These notes are a real treasure, filled with wisdom and civil courage. They are an analysis of the human being, not only because of their history of the Holocaust, but because of their universal values.

The diary focuses not so much on Etty Hillesum herself, but on the human being in general, and his feelings, love and hatred, and finally her relations to God.

Because the writer writes as a human being, and not necessarily as a Jewish girl, the universal ideas in these memoirs are a valuable treasure for readers in any society, culture or religion.

The writer’s personality bestows on the diary a general and principal character, because she is an open-minded person who listens to others. She is absolutely neither egoistic or egocentric, as most people are. The diaries are a plea for the good side of mankind.

It is very interesting to note that in the same city (Amsterdam), only a few kilometers away, in her hiding place, another Jewish girl kept a diary. The diary of Anna Frank became history immediately after the Holocaust when it was found, and has been read by millions of people throughout the whole world.

Anne Frank’s notes cover the time from June 12, 1942 to August 1,1944, three days before her arrest. Miep Gies, a friend of Anne, found the diary and hid it in the house. Otto Frank found the diary after his return after the war – he was the only one who survived of the people in the “Hinterhaus.” He was impressed by his daughter’s deep thoughts and her wish to became a writer. As a result, he arranged to publish it. The first edition was the original diary, known as version A, and a revised version by Anne known as version B. The time from December 1942 to December 1943 is missing from the diary, but information about that period is still available because of her revised version. Her father left out only a few comments about Anne’s mother and her own sexuality. He gave the manuscript to Anne Romein, who tried without success to edit the diary. Her husband published a report about it in the newspaper, and a publisher became interested in the notes of the young girl. This third edition, published in 1950 was called version C, the version of Otto Frank. This third version became a bestseller and was the base for numerous films and dramas. In 1986, the Nederlands Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie (NIOD) published a new, critical version about the diary with all of the different versions. The current edition contains all the text written Anne, which show also tensions between her and her mother, and between Otto Frank and his wife. Since the 80s, when Otto Frank died, there has been discussion about the authenticity and authorship of the texts.

The diary of Etty Hillesum, on the other hand, was unknown until 1981, though it is by no means less important. This proves how different the fate of different documents can be.

In any event, this emotional, rousing and philosophical diary, has been read by hundreds of thousands people all over the world, and has been recognized as one of the most important documents in our generation.

The two diaries – the one written by Anna Frank and the one written by Etty Hillesum – are basically different from each other. The authors had totally different personalities. Aside from the same geographical and historical background, there is no connection between the two memoirs.

In the stories of their short lives, there are only two common denominators. First, both girls were Jewish and had been condemned to death for this only reason. Second, both died in death concentration camps during the Holocaust. Etty Hillesum wrote her diary during the years of 1941 and 1942. Her last note was written on October 12, 1942. She also wrote letters during the time she spent in the transit camp Westerbork. These letters, which have been found and preserved as well, are an integral part of her diary.

Etty wrote her memoirs in nine copybooks in a very illegible, narrow, difficult-to-read handwriting, and handed them over to her friend Maria Tuinzing shortly before her deportation to Auschwitz.

She asked Maria to take good care of her diaries and to give them after the war to Klaas Smelik, a well-known writer in the Netherlands, and his daughter Johanna. She wanted the material to be published as a book and hoped that her friend would find a publisher for that purpose. Etty wanted to leave her memories for generations to come, and to share her experiences with others. Above all, she wanted to let others know the solutions she has found in the times of personal and general suffering. She had the feeling that her personal philosophy of life could be helpful for others, mainly after her death, which she had already accepted as an unalterable fact.

She wanted her ideas to assist people, to make their lives easier and less complicated – a principle that had accompanied her throughout her short life.

She was convinced until her last moments that people must be good, by no means evil-minded, and that malevolence (evil) – even that of the worst Nazis – is a kind of perversion that can be fought against and cured.

All efforts made by the Smelik family to publish Etty’s diaries failed.

Many big publishing houses saw the material, but did not understand their value or meaning. They finally gave up and stored the copybooks in an archive. Only one member of the family, the young Klaas, kept on trying and gave the copybooks in 1980 to a Mr. Gaarlandt, the editor of the De Haag Publishing House in the Netherlands.

“The first sentences I read overwhelmed me completely and I was fascinated,” wrote the chief-editor.

Mr. Gaarlandt carefully chose 150 pages from the more than 400 original pages. The book was finally published on October 1, 1981. The ideas of Etty Hillesum were not lost, and thousands of readers all over the world, including Israel in 1985, could dive into Etty’s world with the help of her diaries, published as: “A Life Cut Off In Its Prime.”

The German version of the diary, “The Thinking Heart,” was published in 1985 by the Rohwohlt Taschenbuch Verlag. To date, the diary has been published in Dutch, German, English, Danish, Hebrew, Spanish, Swedish and Italian, and has appeared in numerous countries.

I will continue with some biographical information on the author, and I’ll point out certain spheres and principles which were the foundations of her world, according to her notes.

Etty Hillesum was born on January 15, 1914 in the town of Middelburg, Netherland, a child of an assimilated Jewish family. Her father was a very educated, cultivated man, who taught classic languages and was vice-director of the local Gymnasium. In 1942, the family moved to Deventer in East Holland, where the father was elected director of the Gymnasium. Her mother, Rebecca, had fled to the Netherlands from Russia after a pogrom. There is no doubt that a strong intellectual atmosphere prevailed in this house. Etty and both her brothers, Mischa and Jaap, were extremely intelligent and very talented. As a young girl, Etty was already sharp-witted and sparkled with life. She loved to read all kinds of books, especially philosophical texts. She was always ahead of her schoolfellows with her wisdom. Her brother Mischa was a highly-gifted pianist who at the age of six years had already played compositions by Beethoven before large audiences. According to the opinion of contemporary musicians, he was one of the most important pianists in Europe at that time. Mischa Hillesum was born on September 22, 1920 at Winschoten. Even as a child, he exhibited a striking musical talent. In 1931, he moved to Amsterdam, where he attended the Vossius Gymnasium for three years and spent the rest of his time studying piano. His mentor was George van Renesse. Around 1939, Mischa was committed to the institution at Het Apeldoornsche Bos and treated for schizophrenia. Even after his release, he continued to be extremely unstable.

The youngest brother Jaap studied medicine. At the age of 17, he had already discovered a very important vitamin. Thanks to this discovery he was a highly welcome guest at all laboratories belonging to the most famous universities. Later on he became a physician. Jaap Hillesum completed gymnasium in 1933. He went on to study medicine, first at the University of Amsterdam and later at Leiden. He was intelligent, wrote poems and was attractive to women. Mentally, he was unstable: he was committed to psychiatric hospitals on several occasions. During the war he worked as an intern at the Nederlandsch-Israelietisch hospital.

Etty graduated from her father’s school in 1932 and started studying Slavic languages at the University of Amsterdam. After World War II broke out, she started to study psychology. At the end of 1941 – on the occasion of a musical evening where her brother Mischa played the piano, she met the psycho-palmist (somebody who read in the lines in the human hands) Dr. Julius Spier. Spier was born in Berlin, and was already a well-known expert of hand lines, a pupil of Jung. At first Etty was treated by Dr. Spier; later on she became his friend and lover. She was immensely influenced by him and accordingly developed her new philosophy of life.

Chiromancy or cheiromancy is the art of characterizing and foretelling the future through the study of the palm, also known as palmistry, palm-reading, chirology or hand analysis. The practice is found all over the world, with numerous cultural variations. Those who practice chiromancy are generally called palmists, palm readers, hand readers, hand analysts, or chirologists.

Spier, which Etty calls “S” in her diaries, became the central person of her notes.

The progress in her relationship with Spier developed parallel to the development of her opinion about mankind in general, and about the individual relationship of each of us to his world and his God. Dr. Spier’s friends became her friends as well, and she describes this social circle in detail. Another group of acquaintances belonging to her professional and social circles were members of the academic world: professors and students of the Russian language and culture. During the time described in the diaries, Etty taught Russian to the students who were assigned to her by the university. Spier was born at Frankfurt am Main in 1887, the sixth of seven children. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to the Beer Sontheimer trading firm. There he succeeded in working his way up to a managerial position. His original ambition of becoming a singer was foiled by an illness that left him hard of hearing.

A third group of acquaintances who became part of her life and are mentioned frequently in the diary, are her neighbors in the house where she moved shortly before the outbreak of World War II. The address was Gabriel-Mezu-Street 6. in south Amsterdam.

Etty wrote her memoirs at the time when Holland had already lived for one year under the terror government of the Germans. From 1941, Jew-hostile laws had published in order to isolate, suppress and humiliate the Jews. They were dismissed from their work, forbidden to enter most of the shops, and restricted in the hours during which they were permitted to move outside their flats. Their possessions were partly confiscated; they had to live in certain quarters of the town and were deprived of their most elementary rights. The rope around the neck of the Jews in the Netherlands got tighter and tighter. Etty had a very special way to deal with these restrictions, which clearly shows her way of thinking:

“Tonight new measures against Jews. I have allowed myself to be upset and depressed about it for half an hour.” (Page 56)

Netherland was occupied by Germany in 1940. Directly after that, they started anti-Jewish measures. On February 9, 1941, with the participation of German and Dutch national socialists, an anti-Jewish pogrom occurred that can be compared with the one which happened on November 9, 1938 in Germany. The Jewish population reacted with an uprising and an active opposition movement, which were followed by more strict measures. From 1942, Jews were forced to wear the yellow star. Soon afterwards the “Reichssicherheitshauptamt” in Berlin fixed the deportation of 15,000 Jews. After ten days, the number was raised to 40,000. They were deported to the Westerbork transit camp, the last station before their transport to Auschwitz.

All these events are mentioned in the diary, but they are not the center of Etty’s descriptions. She even calls the year of 1941 the most beautiful year of her life. At this point it becomes already very clear how unusual and unique this diary is in comparison with other Holocaust diaries, and how remarkable the person was who wrote it.

Historical reality in form of concrete events is barely mentioned in the diary. The wording she uses reflects her relationship to God and the human being.

Even if we did not know when this text was created, this fact would not have done any harm to the meaning and strength of her notes, and would not have minimized the beauty and the honesty shining from these words. The Holocaust is mentioned, but it is not the main or most important factor.

With the help of friends, Etty becomes employed as a secretary in one of the departments of the Judenrat, or “Joodserat”, as it was called in Netherlands. Hundreds of Jews were working for the Joodserat. Etty had a critical opinion about the special relations of the Jews to the leading person of the Joodserat. Etty worked at the offices of the Joodserat for two weeks, from July 15, 1942 to the beginning of August 1942, a period which she describes as “Hell.”

On February 13, 1941 the Nazis appointed a “Judenrat” (Jewish council) for the city of Amsterdam. The majority of Dutch Jews lived in Amsterdam. The council was held accountable for the systematic liquidation of the Juden Viertel (Jewish Quarter). The council was headed by two chairmen, Mr. Abraham Asscher and Prof. Dr. David Cohen. In addition to their appointment as chairmen on the council, Asscher and Cohen were accountable to the German authorities for the launching of Het Joodse Weekblad – The Jewish Weekly. This newspaper appeared on a weekly basis with the approval of the German authorities until the Jewish question for the Netherlands was resolved. This, of course, was neither realized nor recognized by them until it was too late. The last issue of the Jewish Weekly came on September 28, 1943. After that date there was no longer any need for a Jewish newspaper. Most Dutch Jews and German refugee Jews had been deported. The Jewish Weekly relates in detail the death of the Jewish community in the Netherlands and allows the reader to observe the systematic and consequential method by which the Nazis carried out their heinous crime against the Jewish community in the Netherlands.

At that time the first chase after Jews in the streets of Amsterdam occurred. Etty decided to join the Jews that were captured and brought to the Westerbork transit concentration camp, of her own free will.

She did this because she did not want to shirk before the fate of her Jewish brothers and sisters. She wanted to share it with them. Thus she made practical use of her philosophy of life, which she had developed over the years, even before Westerbork, under the influence of the psychologist Spier.

Camp Westerbork was a concentration camp in Hooghalen, ten kilometers north of Westerbork, in the northeastern Netherlands. In 1939, the Dutch government erected it as a refugee camp, Centraal Vluchtelingenkamp Westerbork, in which people from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, mostly of Jewish faith, were housed after they had tried in vain to escape the Nazi terror in their homelands.

Those Jews who were with Etty in Westerbork and survived, reported that she was a bright spot at the horizon and a source for hope for many of them, until her deportation to Auschwitz. Etty was in Westerbork from August 1942 until September 1943 where she worked in the hospital. She had received from the Joodserat a special permit so that she could leave the camp and travel to Amsterdam. Although she endangered her life, every time she took letters and information from the camp with her and maintained connections with underground groups outside. Upon her return to the camp she brought a great deal of medicine for the imprisoned Jews.

During the last months of her life, her health was badly affected. Etty had to be hospitalized in Amsterdam during one of her trips from Westerbork into town. The last part of her diary was written in Amsterdam, one month after she had been deported to Westerbork. Etty’s friends in Amsterdam tried to convince her to hide. When she refused a decision that was naturally expected from Etty – because a flight would contradict her philosophy of life – her friends even considered kidnapping Etty. She turned down all help that was offered, and on September 7, 1943, she was deported together with her parents and her brother Mischa to Poland. She threw a postcard through the window of the train. Some farmers found it and sent the postcard to the address written on it. Among other things she wrote: “We were singing when we left the camp.”

According to the information received from the Red Cross, Etty was murdered on the November 30, 1943, together with her parents and her brother Mischa.

Her brother Jaap survived, but he was so weak that he died on his way back to the Netherlands.

We shall now examine the diaries to find out how Etty Hillesum dealt with the various aspects of life. The citations are taken from the English version, "Etty Hillesum – An Interrupted life and Letters From Westerbork,” New York, 1996.

The Meaning Of Love

A central motif in Etty’s memoirs is total love – love for all people, without any exception. The diaries overflow with love, a pure, unconditional and boundless love. Love for the people and love for God. Etty loved all people, even those who sinned and were unjust against themselves as well as others. She is prepared to love anyone and accepted the challenge to help those who had deviated from the right way and did not know how to live right. Etty – unlike most people – did not have the capability to hate. She could not even hate the Gestapo men, although she knew much about their crimes against Jews and other people. She writes:

“Something else about this morning: the perception, very strongly borne in, that despite all the suffering and injustice I cannot hate others” (Page 86).

But for Etty, it wasn’t easy to have this attitude. She always tries to get to the bottom of herself and does a lot of self-criticism:

”This is the problem of our age: hatred of German poisons everyone’s mind…Let the bastards drown, the lot of them” – such sentiments have become part and parcel of our daily speech and sometimes make one feel that life these days has grown impossible. Until suddenly, a few weeks ago, 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 that whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people.” (Page 11)

She even tries to understand the motives of a Gestapo man, who is hitting Jews.

This man, who is shouting at her, is rather awaking pity in her than indignation (anger). She asks herself whether this man has had a bad childhood or if his girlfriend has betrayed him, which makes him shout at her this morning.

“Yes, he looked harassed and driven, sullen and weak. I should have liked to start treating him there…” (Page 86).

She believes that the evil derived from inside and must be fought against:

“I see no other solution […] than to turn inward and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned from this war. That we must look into ourselves and nowhere else and to eliminate all the evil. I do not believe any more, that we can chance and better anything at the outside world, so long as we ourselves have not changed for the better. It seems to me that the only lesson which we should learn from this war is, to look for the evil inside ourselves and nowhere else.” (Page 84)

The Meaning Of Suffering And Death

One of the main subjects in which Etty gives us the opportunity to take part, is the question of suffering throughout the world, her personal suffering and the suffering of all mankind, Jews as well as Christians.

”They can harass us, they can rob us of our material goods, of our freedom of movement, but we ourselves forfeit our greatest assets by our misguided compliance. By our feelings of being persecuted, humiliated, and oppressed. By our own hatred. By our swagger, which hides our fear. We may of course be sad and depressed by what has been done to us; that is only human and understandable. However: our greatest injury is one we inflict upon ourselves.” (Page 144/145)

Etty believes that the Holocaust is no Jewish event; she interprets the Holocaust as a test. People are being tested. Thus it is not important to her why the Nazis hate Jews. It is much more important for her to find out how people dealing with suffering, which is an integral part of our life.

The character of suffering is unimportant as well and only the fact that men must see their suffering as inseparable from their life. She emphasizes that suffering does not mean defeat. Life can be beautiful and rich even at times of deep sorrow and pain. But in order to realize this, people must forget all existing ideas and norms and free themselves from all known conventions. Only then can people continue to enjoy life. The following quotation shows in which categories Etty is thinking:

 “Well, we shan’t be seeing any heath for a very long time, and every so often I find it a great deprivation, although I know that as long as one small street is left to us, the whole sky still stretches above it.” (Page 146)

She tries to be independent from all external and human burdens – life for her is mainly connected with spiritual things, with God and nature. Because of that, she is able to ignore in a certain way the daily oppression of the Nazis and sees the sky as a release from it.

Etty continues that this capability to enjoy life in spite of all the suffering is an inseparable part of herself. To achieve this capability, one must have physical ripeness. She also says, that she is happy, because she can see life in all its brightness, even if outside her own self, everything is bad and overwhelming.

“If you have a rich inner life, I would have said, there probably isn’t all that much difference between the inside and outside of a camp. Would I myself be able to live up to such sentiments?” (Page 88).

The prayer is helping her with this task:

 “The threat grows ever greater, and terror increases from day to day. I draw prayer round me like a dark protective wall, withdraw inside it as one might into a convent cell and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and more collected again.” (Page 133)

But she wants to find God inside of herself and not in the outside world:

”There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. The He must be dug out again. I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heavenward. They seek God outside themselves. And there are those who bow their head and bury it in their hands. I think that these seek God inside.” (Page 44)

Even with the sight of death before her eyes, she does not lose the capability to enjoy the beautiful sides of life and to be awake for the good things. If people lose everything, they still have a piece of heaven, and enough place to say a prayer.

Death itself has its own meaning. Also here, she expresses a unique interpretation.

She believes that death is a part of us, just as God and heaven and everything else are parts of us. Death as part of life can enrich a person and give his life new dimensions. Mortal fear, denial and rejection of death make our life poor and full of fear. Etty does not want to revolt against her death. She is not disappointed although she knows that her end is near. She does not see the fact that she accepts her end as capitulation.

On the contrary, the knowledge that death is near makes her soul stronger and stronger:

“By coming to terms with life, I mean: the reality of death has become a definite part of my life; my life has, so to speak, been extended by death, by my looking death in the eye and accepting it, by accepting destruction as part of life and no longer wasting my energies on fear of death or the refusal to acknowledge its inevitability. It sounds paradoxical: by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life…” (Page 155)

The biggest art of life, says Etty, is when one can save a small corner in one’s soul, which stays complete and unharmed, in spite of all the suffering.

This is the most important part for Etty. It is useless to hide, to run away, because nobody will be physically saved. She sees her task in the help she can extend to her brothers and sisters, when she goes together with them, sharing her fate together with them.

Unselfishness And Humaneness

The desire to continue with her life resulted from Etty’s goal to help others and to let them have these wonderful human feelings, which she keeps for herself: light and love, as she formulates it.

Etty is by no way pessimistic; she is an optimist and feels that wonderful times will come for her people and all mankind. She wants to stay alive for the human times to come and for the new society that will be built, when she believes she could be of great help:

“And if at the end of a long life I am able to give some form to the chaos inside me, I may well have fulfilled my own small purpose.” (Page 36).

In her diary she conducts a dialogue with God concerning her vision:

“How great are the needs of Your creatures on this earth, oh God. They sit there, talking quietly and quite unsuspecting, and suddenly their need erupts in all its nakedness. […] And I thank You for the great gift of being able to read people. Sometimes they seem to me like houses of open doors. […] And I promise You, yes, I promise that I shall try to find a dwelling and refuge for You in as many houses as possible. […] God, give me calm and let me face everything squarely.” (Page 204/205)

Etty developed this unselfish love, the desire to help other people in times of misery, into one of her philosophic ideals and destination of her life.

In Amsterdam as well as in Westerbork, Etty found time and again the strength to support others, to help and to comfort. And it was always important to her not to reveal her own suffering and pain. She did not want to be a burden for others; she wanted to be their support.

Etty felt that she wanted to pray for others and support them with her love – a kind of love which would make the lives of other people easier.

On top of this universal love, Etty yearns for some romantic love – a subject that she mentions very often in her notes.

Romantic Relations

Etty not only deals with her universal love for God and mankind, but she also with her personal love relations, her physical and sexual love, and men in general.

Her personal love life with her friend Spier and others is completely separate from outward and historical events. The dramatic events did not keep her away from her relationship with men, especially S (Dr. Julius Spier). Nevertheless, the relationship is located in the context of the war and S. is connected to it when Etty wrote: “A few weeks ago when there was talk of all Jews being sent to a concentration camp in Poland, he [S.] turned to me and said, “Then we shall get married, so that we can stay together and at least do some good still.” (Page 64) This shows that Etty also shared with S. her strong will to do good for mankind.

Like Etty, he also feels a great love for mankind. She invokes his word in her diary.

Etty who had planned for her memoirs to be published, describes very intimate details and writes about her nights with Spier and other men. She does not hide anything, but her description does not seem cheap. On the contrary, her writings are sensitive, full of feelings and very moving.

Her affection to the beauty of the world and nature is also linked to sexual connotations:

“I realized it only this morning, when I recalled my short walk. […] It was dusk, soft hues in the sky, mysterious silhouettes of houses, trees alive with the light through the tracery of their branches, in short, enchanting. And then I knew precisely how I had felt in the past. Then all that beauty would have gone like a stab to my heart, and I would not have known what to do compose verses, but the words would still have refused to come. I would have felt utterly miserable, wallowed in the pain, and exhausted myself as a result. The experience would have sapped all my energy. Now, I know it for what it was: mental masturbation.” (Page 14).

She feels that there is a fight between the mental affection to Spier and her sexual desire for him as a man: “I don’t love him at all as a man, that’s the maddening thing, so does it all came down to my confounded desire to be important, to want to own someone? To want to own his body, while I already have his spirit, which is much more important? Is it that confounded unhealthy tradition that insists that, when two people of the opposite sex are in close contact as well? That feeling is ingrained in me. 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. He is probably better at self-control that I am, though he, too, has to fight his erotic impulses.” (Page 37).

Etty has a very clear conception of being a woman and permits us to share these ideas. She deliberates words like desire, feminism, platonic relations with men and the liberation of women:

“Perhaps the true, the essential emancipation of women still has to come. We are not yet full human beings; we are the ’weaker sex.’ We are still tied down and enmeshed in centuries-old traditions. We still have to be born as human beings; that is the great task that lies before us.” (Page 34).

For Etty, it is important that the power of the will to life must be taken from life itself and not only from another person. In her opinion, “Life itself must be our fountainhead, never something or someone else. Many people, especially women, draw their strength from others, instead of directly from life. A man is their source, instead of life.” (Page 32).

She is very much preoccupied by the question whether a woman should give her love only to one man during her whole life, or if it would not be desirable to love the whole of mankind. Step after step with the development of her diary, she comes to the conclusion that universal love to all people should be preferred to the love bestowed upon one man only.

This perception of hers is also expressed by the fact that Etty never wanted to marry in a conventional manner. A traditional marriage would mean a hindrance for her and would confine the love which she wanted to give all people.

Slowly Etty develops a concept of love and trust. It confirmed that the love she wanted to dedicate to mankind and God, as well as her mission to help people, to support and console them, could be disturbed by the concentration of love towards one man only.

Finally she decides that physical love and attraction, in comparison with the true, clean and emotional love, could possibly be harmed. “I shall spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go. But we shouldn’t boast of our love for others. We cannot be sure that it really exists. I don’t want to be anything special, I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfill its promise.” Page 63.

This true love is meant for everybody, but also for God, who plays an important role in Etty’s diary.


Etty draws her inner strength to accept reality from her faith in God.

With this power (authority) she leads a vivid dialog in her diary. She speaks with God, who makes her life worth living. She believes that everybody must discover God in his heart. The nature of this God in us is the only thing that matters.

Love for God is total, and is the only love that has any value in our lives.

Thus we see, that the inner peace and even joy which Etty develops in those hard, cruel times, is due to the internal peace with God.

Etty does not expect anything from God. She does not hope or want to be rescued by him. Through this lack of expectation, her Jewish identity stays untouched by the external events, and her faith does not suffer at all - because she does not accuse God.

Other Jews who survived the Shoah, whether they were religious or not, were angry with their God who had not helped them, although he saw the suffering of his people from above. In comparison, Etty accepts the “conduct” of God and does not ask him for any explanation. On the contrary, she says that God is entitled to get an explanation from us, the people.

“I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. 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.” (Page 187)

Etty Hillesum’s dialog with God gets more intensive while she is in Westerbork.

When she begins to feel very physically ill, she asks God to make her healthy again, so that she can continue to help others. She is grateful that God sends people to her whose fate is worse than her own. She is also grateful for the fact that she is capable to give psychological help. She promises God to become his Temple and is sure that God exists inside her body. This God is the deepest part of herself, which can listen to other people and find God in them. This capability she calls “From God to God.”

The possibility and the gift to help others makes her very happy and satisfied, so that she loves her life in Westerbork and misses it when she has to leave the camp for a short while. She considers her life in Westerbork as a beautiful gift from God.

Everybody who knows life in the concentration camps will be astounded about and amazed her words. The internal world of Etty is without doubt a very rare one, something special. “Stomachache and depression and that taut sensation inside me and the feeling of being crushed under a heavy weight are the price I have to pay for my grasping insistence on knowing everything about life, on being aware of everything.” Page 49. Maybe it is exactly this awareness of what life is that makes her so strong and able to resist the her sorrow and the sorrow of other people and the whole world. Her attitude toward life in general was pessimistic, but in her eyes she saw it as fact which one has to accept and nothing else. “Life is a vale of tears and all human beings are miserable creatures.” (Page 69)

Only very few human beings have reached such an internal peace. Only an extraordinary personality like Etty, was capable of having feelings of happiness and content during the period of the Shoah, especially in Westerbork.

The Optimal Argument With Evil

The historic reality of concrete events plays only a minor role in Etty Hillesum’s diary. Historic circumstances do not ameliorate life or make it worse. They are understood as decoration for real life, which is happening on a spiritual and psychological level. Yet, it must be emphasized, that the author is by no means unaware of reality. She know exactly what is going on in the streets, but this reality – the persecutions, the oppression, the hate and the sadism – do not dissuade her from her way.

“A hard life is in store for me. Sometimes I don’t feel like carrying on. At the moments when I feel I know exactly what is going to happen to me, what life will be like, I get so tired and feel no need to experience things as they come.” Page 45.

Her sense of life does not depend on outward events. She is very well-acquainted with the desperations of the people around her, the human suffering, the persecutions and oppression, the arbitrary actions, the blind hatred and the sadism.

“I know how very nervous people are, I know about the mourning and despotism and the impotent fury and the terrible sadism. I know it all. And yet – at unguarded moments, when left of myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life, and her arms round me are so gentle and so protective and my own heartbeat is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant, as it would never stop.” (Page 135.)

She also says: “It is not that I am cutting myself off from all the suffering around me, nor is it a dulling of own day. I take everything in and store it away, but I go my own way.” (Page 191)

The slight connection of the text of the diary with reality is the difference between Etty’s memoirs and other memoirs written at that time. Another important difference is Etty’s interpretation to yield to the unalterable, to accept what happens and to be satisfied with fate.

Etty does not believe that lack of power and helplessness on the basis of reality, are a disgrace. This acceptation of facts is by no means a sign of capitulation or subjection. She sees the acceptance of fate as a victory and as a sign of inner, psychological power.

“And surrender does not mean giving up the ghost, fading away with grief, but offering what little assistance I can wherever it has pleased God to place me.” (Page 168).

On the other hand, she believes that all experiments to change reality, are pointing on a low moral level of the human being. Etty Hillesum does not see the human being as master of his fate. It can only define his attitude towards his fate:

“All he can do is determine his inner response.” (Page 85)

In terms of the Shoah this means that the Jews can do nothing against the persecution. Etty does not feel this fact as tragic. She would like the Jews to immunize themselves against these persecutions. If they succeed, all these sadistic steps will lose their meaning. The persecutions cannot humiliate or suppress them, if they develop an internal power:

“Ultimately what matters most is to bear the pain, to cope with it, and to keep a small corner of one’s soul unsullied, come what may.” (Page 172).

Etty wants people to renounce fighting the dark reality, a fight that can end only in defeat. Instead she advises that the true, important fight should take place in ourselves, in order to come out of it strong and powerful.

Every human being can end such an inner fight victoriously if he prepares himself accordingly, even if he is defeated in the real world. Thus, Etty Hillesum turns passivity and acceptance of fate, which many authors describe as negative, into something very positive. Even more: Weakness and helplessness during Holocaust or any other catastrophe are desired and a situation of high spiritual value.

She condemns the attempt of people to fight their fate. Those people who try in a poor, feverish manner to change their fate and reality, which are much stronger than they are, develop an ugly side of their character, as well as hate and evil.

These people are prepared to do everything, even to spoil their soul, in order to use any chance to save themselves. She mocks at those who are ready to kill – and to get killed – in order to rescue themselves.

These ideas and arguments with helplessness during the Shoah, are totally different from any other diary written at that time, and are something very unique. Conspicuous is the fact that in most other diaries the author gets slowly weaker and weaker from the horrible living conditions. One gets disappointed and pessimistic. With the diary of Etty, her mental situation gets stronger with time. One can even say, that the persecution of Jews speeds up her moral and mental development.

Only her inner strength and especially her relations to God, make it possible for her to cope with the helplessness opposite the world. She believes that if you find God within yourself, you do not notice the world outside, and can leave it there.

A further aspect, mentioned time and again in Etty’s diaries, is her decision never to be disappointed, something, which was very difficult during the Holocaust, and the harsh conditions under which Jews had to exist.

A capitulation before disappointment would be a betrayal of God. Though disappointment is human, Etty believes that one should at least try never to be disappointed. The inner strength is the means to overcome this disappointment.

A third aspect, closely linked with Etty’s belief of inner strength, is the possibility that people renounce any dependence from material possessions.

Most of the Jews living then in ghettos and concentration camps occupied themselves with the question of survival and its chances. Etty has no such reflections. She thinks that the mental and spiritual survival is more important than physical rescue.

In this matter, people have to change their attitude towards their body. The rescue of the soul, not the rescue of the body, is the most important thing. Etty finds it unworthy to see only the body and to forget the soul. The goal is that the soul exists and is capable of observing its duties.

One has to try to disengage himself from the physical and teach the body to be satisfied with a minimum, even when you live in times of hunger and privation.

The most important thing is to distinguish between the important things in life and the trivial matters.

Even if sometimes you have to do without important things, that does not mean accepting the end of humanity. She mentions, for example, the fact that she had to do without her bicycle, which was a very important means of transportation for the Jews of Amsterdam.

Etty looks very critically at the fact that men concentrate on their small world and their self-satisfaction. That also goes for members of her own people.

However, one can notice, that her critique remains very reserved. She sees the result of German oppression in the behavior of the Jews, a fact that strengthens the evil sides of the human soul.

She tries not to react in the usual way to such oppression: “The whole nation must be destroyed root and branch. And now and then I say nastily, “They’re all scum,” and at the same time I feel terribly ashamed and deeply unhappy but can’t stop even though I know that it’s all wrong.” (Page 13)

Nevertheless she especially criticizes the behavior of the Joodserat and cannot find any excuse for their deeds.

She writes how much she learned about the human nature every day in the offices of the Judenrat and that people cannot disconnect themselves from everyday trivialities. Yet, contrary to other known diaries and chronicles, which criticize pungently the Judenrat and especially the Jewish police, Etty remains much more conciliatory and indulgent with her critique. She understands what harm the Germans have done to the souls of these people.

Not only does she watch the behavior, but she also recognizes the reason for it. She greatly criticizes the fact that the Judenrat prepared the deportation lists.

Though she analyzes the reasons for this behavior, and tries to understand them, she sees this participation with the Germans as an unforgivable deed. She is certain that history will ask those who took part to render an account.

Here she has the same opinion as other critics, although she emphasizes that it was only a small minority which took part in this collaboration.

Though Etty is apparently very little orientated with events and facts, her prognosis for the Jewry of the Netherlands specifically and European Jewry generally are very true and correct, even prophetic. This is hard to understand when one takes into consideration that the “prophet” was a woman who had no sources or information.

“There are few illusions left to us. Life is going to be very hard. We shall be borne apart, all who are dear to one another. I don’t think the time is very far off now. We shall have to steel ourselves inwardly more and more.” (Page 88).

“I know what may lie in wait for us. Even now I am cut off from my parents and cannot reach them, although they are only two hours away by train. […] But I am also aware that there may come a time when I shan’t know where they are, when they might be deported to perish miserably in some unknown places. I know this is perfectly possible. The latest news is that all Jews will be transported out of Holland through Drenthe Province and then to Poland. And the English radio has reported that 700,000 Jews perished last year alone, in Germany and the occupied territories. And even if we stay alive we shall carry the wounds with us throughout our lives.” (Page 150)

“Of course, it is our complete destruction they want! But let us bear it with grace.” (Page 224)

She predicts that no Jew will survive and that the Germans have decided to kill all Jews, without any exception.

“I believe that we must rid ourselves of all expectations of help from the outside world, that we must stop guessing about the duration of the war and so on.” (Page 178)

It is inexplicable that Etty Hillesum –one of few – predicted the plan of destruction of all Jews as early as 1942. At that time there were only very few Jews who could grasp this fact. The understanding only came later.

Above all, Etty understood, contrary to many others, that nobody would help the Jews. She said that the Jews should have no illusions that somebody from outside would try to help them.

Etty was very well aware of what was going on around her; she knew it better than many of her contemporaries. Yet, according to the philosophy of her life, she tried not to fight what seems to her a hopeless battle, and was rather looking for the mystic and philosophical meaning of fright and mortal fear, which she witnessed and perceived. She was looking for the real meaning of life, its essence. One should find just this meaning for which people should be looking especially in times of distress.

She was testing the situation of the human soul in times of catastrophe and disaster.

She looks for the possibility to preserve one’s inner stability in times of highest distress and to preserve one’s inner harmony, the brightness of the soul and above all to keep awake a clear, understanding mind.


It was easy to fall in love with Etty Hillesum just by reading her diaries.

The delicate self-description, her moral strength, her inner sincerity, and her mental ripeness can be felt on each page of her notebooks. That is why it is so difficult to tolerate that such an Etty does not exist anymore in our world.

The idea that Etty Hillesum was murdered with Cyclone B gas and that her ashes were thrown into the Wisla River is unbearable and unbelievable.

A woman like her would certainly have enriched our lives with her inner beauty.

Our life would have been richer and more cultivated if Etty were still alive.

In any event, she has left us a very valuable treasure with her diaries.

We can perceive how Etty Hillesum sees the persecution, the humiliation and the murder of the Jewish people by the Germans, only as the victory of a Jewish girl over the Germans. They did not succeed in harming her soul, nor could they destroy her human values, her dignity as woman and as a Jew, for her faith in mankind. The Germans could not take any of this from her.

Etty went to the gas chamber as winner; the victory was all hers.

This diary stands for the victory of good over evil, a victory without weapons, based on inner strength and stability and on faith in the good. Though the Germans tried very hard to destroy all of these qualities, they did not succeed in doing do so. Against background of these dark times, the philosophy of Etty Hillesum stands as a light in the darkness. Her diaries are therefore an incomparably important document for everybody – Jewish or not, religious or secular, young or old.

In one of the last letters Etty sent from Westerbork, she writes:

“I become aware of that inside of me there is a substance or however I shall call it that has its own life and from which I can design things. From this substance I can create many kinds of lives which all come from me.”

Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian who established the “Oneg Shabbat” Archives in the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote in his diary: “The future historian will have to dedicate an appropriate page to the Jewish woman in the war. She will take up an important page in Jewish history for her courage and steadfastness. By her merit, thousands of families have managed to surmount the terror of the times.

“Jewish women in the Holocaust applied their intellect in places that deprived them of their minds and brought strength to places where none was to be found. And in the places where they and their families were not given the right to live, they walked each step towards death imbuing every additional moment of life with meaning and significance.”

(Footnote) Dalia Rabikovitch, in: Yad Vashem, Quarterly Magazine, Vol. 45, Spring 2007, S. 7.

by Dr. Gideon Greif
Edited by Jonathan Cohen

Dr. Gideon Greif – born in 1951 in Tel Aviv - has been working as a historian and educator for the past 29 years at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem and Givatayim. There he has been involved in many prestigious research projects on the Holocaust and various unique educational programs. He has initiated, organized and conducted numerous pedagogical seminars for teachers and students from Germany, Poland and  Austria, and initiated the first group of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum employees and guides to Yad Vashem in 1993, a project which has since then became tradition and has tremendously changed the way and method the Holocaust  is presented to millions of visitors at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

Furthermore, Dr. Greif was involved in the planning and developing pedagogical projects for teachers and students in Yad Vashem and has put into practice many of his original educational concepts and ideas. 

Parallel to these educational activities, he has been conducting historical research, especially on issues relating to the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Based on hundreds of interviews he has conducted, he has acquired first-hand knowledge of the catastrophe and plight of the Jews under Nazi rule in many places in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Dr. Greif’s pioneer research on the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau has received worldwide praise and paved the way for a hugh historical  interest in the subject, which was until then completely nerglected. The testimonies of the Sonderkommando are the most important and essential testimonies on the mass killing of the Jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau and  the most direct documentation on the Final Solution in its making. The few survivors of the Sonderkommando are the only ones who are able to report from first sight on the industrial mass killing of the Jews in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

Gideon Greif published various books and articles on Auschwitz and other topics on the Holocaust, in Israel and abroad. Among these are: “We Wept without Tears... the Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando in Auschwitz”, Yale University Press, 2005), “The Jeckes - German Jews in Israel Report”, “The Jew Who Saved Jews in Auschwitz”, “We, the Dying Living”, and numerous sceintific articles. 

Besides his research and his pedagogical work at Yad Vashem Dr. Greif was responsible for a team of lecturers and tutors at the Open University of Tel Aviv, where he was in charge of the pedagogical programs for students and also developed learning units in Jewish Studies. He was senior lecturer at the University of Haifa where he developed the original course on Auschwitz and was visiting Professor at the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami.

He also holds advisory positions in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum - where he is involved in planning and developing exhibitions, films and educational resources , in the “Survivors of the Shoah” (Visual History Foundation in LA) and the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation in New York.

In addition he created radio series on the History  of Zionism and the History of the Holocaust , e.g.: “Saloniki – Auschwitz” – The Life and Death of a Jewish Community (which was awarded with the Sokolow Prize), “The March of the Living” - the first live broadcast ever made direct from Auschwitz-Birkenau and “50 years after the Reichskristallnacht” - a live broadcast with eyewitnesses and historians.

He was also involved in several film documentaries, in Israel and abroad, as historical consultant and interviewer. He is currently preparing a film on the Sonderkommando, based on interviews he made with six survivors of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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