Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Etty Hillesum

"If there is ever to be peace, it won't be authentic until each individual achieves peace within [them]self, expels all feelings of hatred for a race or group of people, or better, can dominate hatred and change it into something else, maybe even into love- or is that asking too much? It's the only solution."

- Etty Hillesum


I came across this post in my daily email from Queer Theology. I’ll be honest, I had never heard of Etty Hillesum, who was a diarist and Holocaust victim. There is probably a reason for that. Her diaries are not of a young girl like those of Anne Frank, but a woman who was open about her sexuality. In one of her writings she wrote, “I am accomplished in bed.” Hillesum journaled for two years and three months. In her first entry, she boasted of being, “just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers.” She was then sleeping with the man she was living with, Han Wegerif, a widower of 62. Soon, Etty would be sleeping with her therapist, Julius Spear. When it came to sexual freedom, Etty was a woman ahead of her time. But besides being a sexually free woman of the 1940s, who was Etty Hillesum?


Etty Hillesum was born on 15 January 1914 in Middelburg, Netherlands. After leaving school in 1932, she went to Amsterdam to study law. She also studied Slavic languages in both Amsterdam and Leiden. She greatly enjoyed student life moving several times within Amsterdam before settling down in an apartment on the Gabriël Metsustraat in 1937 which she shared with Wegerif. She lived in that apartment until her final departure for Westerbork (a Dutch camp that served as a staging ground for the deportation of Jews) in June 1943, and it was there in the Gabriël Metsustraat that she wrote her diaries.


At Westerbork, Etty was assigned to the registration of arrivals and acted as a social worker, psychologist, and spiritual counselor. The survivors of that period testified to her radiant personality and her great dedication. "One would like to be a balm poured on so many wounds." She devoted herself to others and bore the daily brunt of the stress in the camp such as the deportation of a part of its population every weekend. She finally fell ill, but thanks to her status, was allowed to go back to Amsterdam to be treated. Despite such pressure, Etty nevertheless remained determined to write, and she kept up her journaling. 


On June 5, 1943, when friends offered to help her hide, she chose instead to return to Westerbork and stay there to continue her work. She also had the opportunity to help her parents and her brother Misha who had been the victims of the great roundup of June 20-21, 1943. An unfortunate letter written by Etty’s mother to H.A. Rauter, the Commanding Officer of the police and the SS in the Netherlands, exasperated him and caused the entire Hillesum family to be deported. On September 7, 1943, they were sent to Auschwitz with 986 other Jews. According to the Red Cross, Etty was thought to have died there on November 30, 1943.


What survives her is a diary covering the last three years of her life. In Etty’s diary we discover her as she really was, day by day, and this presence which we perceive in her writing moves us much more than a biography written by someone else. A few letters also remain. They were published in 1982, and give us a deeply moving picture of Westerbork: "the home of Jewish suffering" stuck in the mud and barbed wire where Etty depicts men, women, children, old people who have nothing left except "the thin cover of their humanity." The end of her diary written in Westerbork unfortunately disappeared with her at Auschwitz.


The quote above shows her feelings about humanity. With protests, divisive politics, and an emerging police state surrounding us every day, we need to take her words to heart. We can honor her legacy by expelling those feelings of hatred we may have and achieve peace. We can turn our negative feelings to love and create a better world. I think Etty makes a very good point. It is something we should strive for in our lives.



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