Esther "Etty" Hillesum was a Jewish woman whose diaries and letters, kept between 1941 and 1943, describe life in Amsterdam during the German occupation. In 1981, they were published posthumously.
For the majority of the book, Etty reflects on her relationships with others, especially intimate relationships with several men. One in particular, Julius Spier (who was a psycho-chirologist who she met on February 3, 1941) became the central focus of this time period.
She met Spier when she was a "model" for him. Chirology or palmistry is the claim of characterization and foretelling the future through the study of the palm. It is also known as palm reading or chiromancy.
At any rate, Spier had a psycho-chirology practice and taught courses. The students at those courses and their friends invited "models," whose hands Spier analyzed by way of example.
Etty was impressed by Spier's personality and decided to go into therapy with him. On March 9, 1941 she began her diary which was most likely part of her therapy. Etty also liked keeping a diary because she hoped that it would provide material for a novel - the ultimate literary ambition she had.
Spier had a very great influence on Etty's spiritual development; and he taught her how to deal with her egocentric and depressive tendencies. He introduced her to the Bible and St. Augustine. Since the 1930s, Etty also had been reading other authors, such as Rilke and Dostoevsky, but under Spier's influence their work also took on deeper meaning for her.
In the course of time and in the diaries, the relationship with Spier assumed a less central position in Etty's life. When Spier died on September 15, 1942, Etty was able to accept his death with greater ease because she realized what his fate would have been since he was a Jew.
In contrast to the diary of Anne Frank which reflected her life in hiding, the diary of Etty Hillesum clearly detailed the increasingly anti-Jewish measures that affected her life. Yet, despite these challenges and restrictions, Etty's determination to continue her spiritual and intellectual development strengthened.
This precious gift, this one free day, is something I must use well.
Not by chattering or bothering those around me,
but by sustaining my spirit.
~~ Etty Hillesum ~~
When she was expecting a summons to report to Camp Westerbork, she applied for a position with the Jewish Council. She began working for the Jewish Council and performing administrative duties, but didn't care for the work. However, she found more meaningful work when she was with the "Social Welfare for People in Transit" at Westerbork, where she was transferred at her own request on July 30, 1942.
Her first stay at Westerbork did not last long; it was only 15 days before she was back in Amsterdam. She briefly visited her parents and then returned to Westerbork for about 3 1/2 months before she became ill and returned home.
Those two months behind barbed wire have been the
two richest and most intense months of my life,
in which my highest values were so deeply confirmed.
~~ Etty Hillesum ~~
Six months later, on June 5, 1943, she recovered and was allowed to return to Westerbork. Interestingly, she was not reluctant to go. Rather, she wanted to return and resume her work so as to provide a bit of support for the people as they were preparing themselves for transport to the concentration camps. It was for this reason that Etty Hillesum consistently turned down offers to go into hiding. She said that she wished to "share her people's fate."
She did not want to escape the fate of the Jewish people.
She believed that she could do justice to life only if
she did not abandon those in danger, and
if she used her strength to bring light into the life of others.
Survivors from the camp have confirmed that
Etty was a "luminous" personality to the last.
~~ Page xv, The Interrupted Life ~~
One month later, on July 5, 1943, an end was put to the special status granted to personnel at the Westerbork section of the Jewish Council. Half of the personnel were directed to return to Amsterdam, while the other half became camp internees. Etty joined the latter group because she wanted to remain with her father, mother, and brother Mischa, who had meanwhile been brought to Westerbork.
Mischa had a lot of musical talent, and his parents had hoped that he would receive special dispensation. Several people wrote letters of recommendation. However, instead of going to a special camp at Barneveld, he received special privileges during his stay at Westerbork.
When his mother wrote a letter to H.A. Rauter in which she asked for a few privileges as well. (Rauter was the highest representative of the SS, and primarily responsible for the persecution and oppression of the Dutch resistance and partly responsible for the deportation of Dutch Jews.)
Rauter was enraged and on September 6, 1943, ordered the entire family to be immediately sent on transport. The camp commander at Westerbork interpreted this as an order to send Etty on the next day's transport as well, despite the attempts by her contacts in the camp to protect her from this. On September 7, 1943, the Hillesum family were deported from Westerbork to Auschwitz.
Etty's father and mother either died during transport to Auschwitz or were gassed immediately upon arrival. The date of death provided was September 10, 1943. According to the Red Cross, Etty died at Auschwitz on November 30, 1943.
Before her final departure for Westerbork, Etty gave her Amsterdam diaries to Maria Tuinzing. Etty asked her to pass them along to the writer Klaas Smelik with the request that they be published if she did not return.
In 1946 or 1947, Maria Tuinzig turned over the exercise books and a bundle of letters to Klaas Smelik. His daughter Johanna (Jopie) Smelik then typed out sections of the diaries, but Klaas Smelik's attempts to have the diaries published in the 1950s were not successful. There were two letters that Etty had written, in December 1942 and on August 24, 1943, concerning the conditions in Westerbork that did get published.
In late 1979, Klaas A.D. Smelik, now director of the Etty Hillesum Research Centre, approached J. G. Gaarlandt with a request to publish the diaries left to him by his father, Klaas Smelik. This resulted in the publication in 1981 of Het verstoorde leven (An Interrupted Life) and in 1986 of all Hillesum's known writings in Dutch, later translated into English. An Interrupted Life was republished in 1999.
As a side note, Anne Frank stayed at Westerbork from August until early-September 1944, when she was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She and her family were put on the first of the three final trains on September 3, 1944 for Auschwitz, arriving there three days later.
Etty Hillesum was interned at Westerbork from July 30, 1942 until September 7, 1943, when she and her family were put on a train to Auschwitz.
What I found most interesting about An Interrupted Life was the evolution of Etty's spiritual and personal growth. The first part of the book (pages 1-164) which has a more egocentric and outward-focused nature is not as engaging as the latter part of the book (pages 165-277). Perhaps that is why it took me a while to read this book: I had difficulty connecting with and, frankly, caring about her personal relationships.
It feels as if great changes are taking place in me and
I believe it is more than a passing mood.
~~ Etty Hillesum ~~
Some things that Etty wrote that resonated with me were:
=> I life here-and-now, this minute, this day, to the full, and life is worth living. And if I knew that I was going to die tomorrow, then I would say: it's a great shame, but it's been good while it lasted.
=> As long as you're so full of vanities and fantasies you have not made much progress in the art of forgetting yourself.
=> I must learn to feel genuinely indifferent to my appearance, not to care in the least how I look. I must lead a much more inward life.
=> 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. That attitude is as distorted and unnatural as it possible can be.
=> On those days when you are at odds with your neighbors you are really at odds with yourself.
=> Always [strive] for more simplicity. yes, to become simple and live simply, not only within yourself but also in your everyday dealings. Don't make ripples all around you, don't try so hard to be interesting, keep your distance, be honest....Instead, reach for true simplicity in your inner life and in your surroundings, and also work.
=> I am not really frightened of anything, I feel so strong; it matters little whether you have to sleep on a hard floor, or whether you are only allowed to walk through certain specified streets, and son on - these are all minor vexations, so insignificant compared with the infinite riches and possibilities we carry within us. We must guard these and remain true to them and keep faith with them.
=> You never expect anything and that's why you never go away empty-handed.
=> True peace will come only when every individual finds peace within himself; when we have all vanquished and transformed our hatred for our fellow human beings of whatever race - even into love one day.
=> We have to accept death as part of life....It sounds paradoxical: by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich it.
=> The main thing is that even as we die a terrible death we are able to feel right up to the very last moment that life has meaning and beauty, that we have realized our potential and lived a good life.
=> Once you begin to lower your demands and your expectations, you can let go of everything....Every day I shall put my papers in order and every day I shall say farewell. And the real farewell, when it comes, will only be a small outward confirmation of what has been accomplished within me from day to day.
=> Each moment I free myself more from dependence on eternal props and draw closer inwardly to those from whom I cannot be separated however far apart we happen to be.
=> The only strength comes, not from others,but from within.