Etty Hillesum, 1914-1943

en de es pt-br
by Dina Awwad (Palestine) and Emma Sham-Ba Ayalon (Israel)
“We still have to be born as human beings; that is the great task that lies before us.” 

Etty Hillesum was a Jewish Dutch woman who wrote her diaries during the Second World War. She was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of 29. On January 15th, 2014 she would have been 100 years old. Her diaries, written during the last two years of her life, are a testimony of love and compassion, of trust in life and deep spirituality. She describes, in her diaries and in the letters she wrote from the concentration camp “Westerbork,” her inner process of choosing to believe in life and in solidarity. Etty chose to go to the camps although she had the possibility to escape. She preferred to stay connected to her people rather than rescuing herself. More than this she preferred to keep her heart loving and free from bitterness, hatred and wishes of revenge. She wrote, “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”

Etty was a writer who used her diaries as a way to look deeply inwards, share her feelings and thoughts, ask questions and look critically at things around her and inside her. Her deep contact and love affair with her psychotherapist Julius Spier allowed her to question her picture of love and to look at the inner conflicts of a woman who wishes to find her source and independence. “I must not look at him as an end but as a means to growth and maturity. I must not want to possess him.” She also writes about the inner work one needs to go through in order to love truthfully, “We tend to forget that not only must we gain inner freedom from one another, but we must also leave the other free and abandon any fixed concept we may have of him in our imagination.” Her research in love can be a good teaching for all of us when wanting to look at what it means to love someone and stay free. At the end, she finds her picture of love and her task in the world – to be in service for all humans. She wrote from the concentration camp, “Since people have been telling each other for centuries that man is basically an egoist, one begins to believe it and actually becomes egotistic. There are so many sides to a human being that it would be nice to try something else, just for a change from boring and unproductive egoism.”

Through this whole time while the situation of the Jews got worse, Etty refused to see anybody as an enemy. She wrote after her encounter with a German soldier, “I know that I am dealing with human beings and that I must try as hard as I can to understand everything that anyone ever does… I felt no indignation rather a real compassion… for I know that pitiful young men like that are dangerous as soon as they are let loose on mankind. But all the blame must be put on the system that uses such people. What needs eradicating is the evil in man, not man himself.”

Going through these times of suffering enabled her to see the bigger picture; at the end both sides are victims of the same system. In this sense Etty was a messenger of a better future, “I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing the new age, by living it even now in our hearts.”

Yet, despite all the suffering and the pain that was surrounding her and that she was experiencing, she never forgot to enjoy life and find life interesting. She wrote, “And yet there it always is again: life remains so “interesting” through it all. Ever-present in me is an almost demonic urge to watch everything that happens. A wish to see and to hear and to be present, to worm out all of life’s secrets, to observe with detachment what people look like in their last convulsions. And also, suddenly, to be forced to face oneself and to learn what one can from the spectacle that one’s own soul enacts in these times. And later be able to find the rights words for it.”

She looked at life and knew that everything she witnessed outside was calling her for an inner work and for an inner change. “The misery is really big, but nevertheless, I often walk late in the evening when the day behind me has sunk away into profundity. I walk with whipping steps along the barbed wire and then it wells up out of my heart again and again – I cannot help it, it is the way it is, it is of an elementary power: Life is something wonderful and big, later we have to build up a whole new world – and each further crime and each further cruelty we have to contrast with a further piece of love and goodness which we have to conquer within ourselves.”

Her main power was coming through finding a truthful connection to God and to spirituality. Etty was raised in a secular family. Her quest for God was a result of deep inner work. “Deep inside me is a bottomless well. That is where God resides. Sometimes I can reach it, but more often rocks and grit are covering the well, and then God is buried. Then he has to be excavated again.”

She wanted to write a book with the title “the girl who learned to kneel.” She learned the power of prayer, which was stronger than any circumstances, “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. Withdrawing into the closed cell of prayer is becoming an ever greater reality for me, as well as a necessity. That inner concentration erects high walls around me within which I can find my way back to myself, gather myself together into one whole, away from all distractions.”

At the end of her diaries, she comes to a point when she writes, “At night, as I lay in the camp on my plank bed, surrounded by women and girls gently snoring, dreaming aloud, quietly sobbing and tossing and turning, women and girls who often told me during the day, ‘We don’t want to think, we don’t want to feel, otherwise we are sure to go out of our minds,’ I was sometimes filled with an infinite tenderness, and lay awake for hours letting all the many, too many impressions of far too long a day wash over me, and I prayed, ‘Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks.’ And that is what I want to be again. The thinking heart of a whole concentration camp.”


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  1. Pingback: Happy 100th Birthday Etty Hillesum… « quantumheartrevolution

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