Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork Info

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For the first time, Etty Hillesum's diary and letters appear
together to give us the fullest possible portrait of this extraordinary
woman in the midst of World War II. In the darkest years of Nazi
occupation and genocide, Etty Hillesum remained a celebrant of life
whose lucid intelligence, sympathy, and almost impossible gallantry were
themselves a form of inner resistance. The adult counterpart to Anne
Frank, Hillesum testifies to the possibility of awareness and compassion
in the face of the most devastating challenge to one's humanity. She
died at Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine.


Average Ratings and Reviews
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Reviews for Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork:

5

Aug 03, 2010

The writing is wonderfully alive. It is like having a conversation.

That Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman suffering the terrors of Nazi occupied Holland and finally the death camp, that she was engaged in the most peculiar relationship with therapist Julius Spier, that her age, circumstance, background and education are so different from my own, I feel makes no impact on the sense of my conversing with a contemporary. Her psychological insights, particularly her guards against vanity, The writing is wonderfully alive. It is like having a conversation.

That Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman suffering the terrors of Nazi occupied Holland and finally the death camp, that she was engaged in the most peculiar relationship with therapist Julius Spier, that her age, circumstance, background and education are so different from my own, I feel makes no impact on the sense of my conversing with a contemporary. Her psychological insights, particularly her guards against vanity, self-preoccupation, depression, and lack of centred stability seem for me the best I have read. Her spirituality, simply by being expressed obliquely, seems in that expression to suggest the universality of a genuine inner life as guide and comforter which is so important today, as it was then, when we are assailed by 'spiritual entertainment', 'spiritual' selfishness, 'spiritual' hedonism. Her gradual acceptance of suffering and dread as part of the whole of her Being is marked equally as genuine precisely by its being itself glimpsed (by her) obliquely, partially, through eyes misted with doubt and distrust: never did it become a lump of proud truth, a mere formulaic centre or hieroglyphic scribble of empty nonsense. She seemed the best of humanbeingness. And she has returned me to Rilke.

As the diary crosses over into her letters from Westerbork, the transit camp where Jews were brought en route to the concentration camps, the pathos becomes almost unbearable. It is in the tiny details. She becomes overwhelmed by the madness, the horror, the dread, the continuous losses, the ever-increasing scarcities, bureaucratic randomness, yet still has moments where she wonders at the beauty of the world while witnessing mass murder before her eyes. I can't recommend this book to anybody, It must come by chance or fortune. You get to witness not a memoir, a looking back, but a situation where the writing and thinking make up the situation itself. ...more
5

Oct 11, 2009

The record of a beautiful, questioning soul who sees life as whole and meaningful, even when it's most visibly divided and meaningless. She kept the diary in the two years before she was sent to Westerbork camp and then sent letters from the camp in the year before she was sent to Auschwitz and died there. She is humble and proud and fearless and scared and yearning, entirely human and brimming over.

But I still suffer from the same old complaint. For the one word that sums up everything within The record of a beautiful, questioning soul who sees life as whole and meaningful, even when it's most visibly divided and meaningless. She kept the diary in the two years before she was sent to Westerbork camp and then sent letters from the camp in the year before she was sent to Auschwitz and died there. She is humble and proud and fearless and scared and yearning, entirely human and brimming over.

“But I still suffer from the same old complaint. For the one word that sums up everything within me, the overflowing and rich sense of life. ‘Why did you not make me a poet, oh God? But perhaps You did, and so I shall wait patiently until the words have grown inside me, the words that proclaim how good and beautiful it is to live in Your world, oh God, despite everything we human beings do to one another.’ The thinking heart of the barracks.” 1942

“People here fritter their energy away on the thousand irksome details that grind us down every day; they lose themselves in detail and drown. That’s why they get driven off course and find existence pointless. The few big things that matter in life are what we have to keep in mind; the rest can be quietly abandoned. And you can find those few big things anywhere, you have to keep rediscovering them in yourself so that you can be renewed. And in spite of everything you always end up with the same conviction: life is good after all, it’s not God’s fault that things go awry sometimes, the cause lies in ourselves.” 1942

...more
5

Mar 28, 2007

If I could only take 10 books with me to a deserted island, this would be one. Sort of "Anne Frank" for adults, it is the journals of a young Dutch Jew caught up in the Holocaust. She is brilliant and outgoing and living life to the full, when Hitler's ugly shadow begins to fall over her world. The struggles and dramas that ensue highlight the development of her soul into a loving and courageous being,who was able to write, even as the net drew tighter around her: "I know that those who hate If I could only take 10 books with me to a deserted island, this would be one. Sort of "Anne Frank" for adults, it is the journals of a young Dutch Jew caught up in the Holocaust. She is brilliant and outgoing and living life to the full, when Hitler's ugly shadow begins to fall over her world. The struggles and dramas that ensue highlight the development of her soul into a loving and courageous being,who was able to write, even as the net drew tighter around her: "I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place. And I believe, childishly perhaps but stubbornly, that the earth will become habitable again only through the love that the Jew Paul described to the citzens of Corinth in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter." We need this kind of thinking and living as much in our 21st century world as they needed it in Europe in 1942. ...more
5

Apr 05, 2018

Etty Hillesums extraordinary diary and letters are a chronicle of the Holocaust unlike any other Ive read. They are devastating, uplifting, and above all distinctive. Her voice comes through so clearly and powerfully, as she initially describes her daily life in Amsterdam and then in the Westerbork labour camp. Her final letter was a postcard thrown from the train that took her to Auschwitz, where she, her parents, and her brother were killed in 1943. As circumstances for Jews in The Netherlands Etty Hillesum’s extraordinary diary and letters are a chronicle of the Holocaust unlike any other I’ve read. They are devastating, uplifting, and above all distinctive. Her voice comes through so clearly and powerfully, as she initially describes her daily life in Amsterdam and then in the Westerbork labour camp. Her final letter was a postcard thrown from the train that took her to Auschwitz, where she, her parents, and her brother were killed in 1943. As circumstances for Jews in The Netherlands deteriorated, she attempted to protect her family and friends, while retaining an incredible inner strength. Her spirituality appears from her writing quite bible-centric, yet her view of suffering recalled Buddhism. Not that I know a great deal about any religion in particular, but I was strongly reminded of The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. How strange that a book chronicling one of the most horrific crimes against humanity should remind me of such a title! In that dialogue, the essential similarity between Christian prayer and Buddhist meditation is emphasised. Etty Hillesum cultivated habits of introspection and prayer that seem a lot like meditation and her acceptance of suffering while rejecting hatred echoes the Dalai Lama. For example, she wrote in 1942:

Does this mean I am never sad, that I never rebel, always acquiesce, and love life no matter what the circumstances? No, far from it. I believe that I know and share the many sorrows and sad circumstances that a human being can experience, but I do not cling to them, I do not prolong such moments of agony. They pass through me, like life itself, as a broad, eternal stream, they become part of that stream, and life continues. And as a result all my strength is preserved, does not become tagged on to futile sorrow or rebelliousness.

Her diary and letters confront the reader with complex questions about the nature of resistance in extreme circumstances. Etty refused opportunities to potentially escape or hide, despite knowing that if she stayed in Westerbrok she would almost certainly be transported to Poland and killed. Her love of life, even the horribly degrading life inside the camp, did not prevent her accepting death. She clearly wanted to help others for as long as she could, while also having reconciled herself to death’s approach after careful thought. In this respect and others, her diary reminded me of The Journal of a Disappointed Man & A Last Diary, another voice of one long dead that seems so close by as you read their words. Etty wrote this extraordinary passage shortly before being sent to Westerbork:

I shall always be able to stand on my own two feet even when they are planted on the hardest soil of the harshest reality. And my acceptance is not indifference or helplessness. I feel deep moral indignation at a regime that treats human beings in such a way. But events have become too overwhelming and too demonic to be stemmed with personal resentment and bitterness. These responses strike me as being utterly childish and unequal to the fateful course of events.

People often get worked up when I say it doesn’t really matter whether I go or somebody else does, the main things is that so many thousands have to go. It is not as if I want to fall into the arms of destruction with a resigned smile – far from it. I am only bowing to the inevitable, and even as I do so I am sustained by the certain knowledge that ultimately they cannot rob us of anything that matters. But I don’t think I would feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer. They keep telling me that someone like me has a duty to go into hiding, because I have so many things to do in life, so much to give. But I know that whatever I may have to give to others, I can give it no matter where I am, here in the circle of my friends or over there, in a concentration camp. And it is sheer arrogance to think oneself too good to share the fate of the masses.

There is so much in Etty’s writing to move the reader and inspire introspection. She rejected binaries and generalisations, always seeking deeper and more nuanced understanding:

A world is in the process of collapse. But the world will go on, and so for the present shall I, full of good heart and goodwill. Nevertheless, we who are left behind are just a little bit destitute, though inwardly I still feel so rich that the destitution is not fully brought home to me. However, one must keep in touch with the real world and know one’s place in it; it is wrong to live only with the eternal truths, for then one is apt to end up behaving like an ostrich. To live fully, outwardly and inwardly, not to ignore external reality for the sake of an inner life, or the reverse – that’s quite a task.

Throughout the diary and letters, Etty found solace in reading, however she emphasised the importance of books for study in pursuit of understanding rather than escape. I found this especially stimulating:

All this devouring of books from early youth has been nothing but laziness on my part. I allow others to formulate what I ought to be formulating myself. I keep seeking outside confirmation of what is hidden deep inside me, when I know I can only reach clarity by using my own words. I really must abandon all that laziness, and particularly my inhibitions and insecurity, if I am ever to find myself, and through myself, find others. I must have clarity, and must learn to accept myself.

Even while falling victim to the horrific murderous system of Nazism, Etty exhibited incredible empathy:

That was the real import of this morning: not that a disgruntled young Gestapo officer yelled at me, but that I felt no indignation, rather a real compassion, and would have liked to ask, “Did you have a very unhappy childhood, has your girlfriend let you down?” Yes, he looked harassed and driven, sullen and weak. I should have liked to start treating him then and there, for I know that pitiful young men like that are dangerous as soon as they are let loose on humankind. But the blame must be put on the system that uses such people. What needs eradicating is the evil in man, not man himself.

Something else about this morning: the perception, very strongly borne in, that despite all the suffering and injustice I cannot hate others. All the appalling things that happen are no mysterious threats from afar, but rise from fellow human beings very close to us. That makes these happenings more familiar, then, and not so frightening. The terrifying thing is that systems grow too big for men and hold them in a satanic grip, the builders no less than the victims of the system, much as large edifices and spires, created by men’s hands, tower high above us, dominate us, yet may collapse over our heads and bury us.

I hardly need to point out the continued relevance of these comments today.

Perhaps the most powerful theme in Hillsum’s writing is the strength that comes from understanding oneself through a combination of introspection and discussion with a wide circle of loved ones. To read her words 75 years after she was murdered is a reminder of an appalling genocide that must never be allowed to happen again, as well as an insight into the mind of a fascinating, complicated woman who I would love to have known as a friend. She retained her distinctive voice even as the end neared and she wrote, ‘For us, I think, it is no longer a question of living, but of how one is equipped for one’s extinction’. Yet the phrase from the book that most struck me is this: ‘Somewhere deep inside me is a workshop in which Titans are forging a new world’. That's one of the most beautiful expressions of hope that I have ever read. I can hardly recommend Etty Hillsum’s writing highly enough. ...more
5

Jul 07, 2011

Etty Hillesum was "discovered" dozens of years after her death, when her diaries were recovered and published.

I would advise everyone to read this book, which includes both her diaries and a number of letters exchanged by her and her friends.
This is an INCREDIBLE HUMAN BEING, someone who's Soul opened up in the midst of the terrible persecutions during the second world war.
A mystic of a kind, Etty made her incredible spiritual development during two plus years, from the age of 27 till her death, Etty Hillesum was "discovered" dozens of years after her death, when her diaries were recovered and published.

I would advise everyone to read this book, which includes both her diaries and a number of letters exchanged by her and her friends.
This is an INCREDIBLE HUMAN BEING, someone who's Soul opened up in the midst of the terrible persecutions during the second world war.
A mystic of a kind, Etty made her incredible spiritual development during two plus years, from the age of 27 till her death, aged 29 years old.

This young woman who was cultured, had studied Law and Psychology, could speak, besides her native Dutch, at least German and Russian fluently and possibly other languages as well, who played music and was a writer, dug deeply into the recesses of her soul in order to find beauty and harmony in a time of relentless pain and difficulty.She had friends who could have helped her to escape, but she declined that, assuming her fate with a song in her heart. A Great Soul.

Maria Carmo

7 7 2011 ...more
0

Mar 18, 2015

How can I put a star rating on edited personal diary pages and letters written from a transit camp just prior to transport to Auschwitz? I cannot. Discovered and published 40 years after the authors death, they introduce us to Etty, a 27 year old Jewish woman in the Netherlands who is on a parallel journey of self-discovery. She reads Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, and loves philosophy and Rilke. Facing the Holocaust with eyes wide open, she can write: when left to myself, I suddenly lie How can I put a star rating on edited personal diary pages and letters written from a transit camp just prior to transport to Auschwitz? I cannot. Discovered and published 40 years after the author’s death, they introduce us to Etty, a 27 year old Jewish woman in the Netherlands who is on a parallel journey of self-discovery. She reads Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, and loves philosophy and Rilke. Facing the Holocaust with eyes wide open, she can write: ‘…when left to 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 if it would never stop. That is also my attitude to life and I believe that neither war nor any other senseless human atrocity will ever be able to change it.’ And: ‘Not for one moment was I cut off from the life I was said to have left behind. There was simply one great, meaningful whole. Will I be able to describe all that one day? So that others can feel too how lovely and worth living and just — yes, just—life really is?’ Yes, she did, in spite of it all. ...more
5

Aug 07, 2016

Etty Hillesums diaries have been extremely inspiring and even uplifting for me, despite the horror of what she witnessed and endured around her. She starts off a little melancholic and unsure of herself, which are feelings I can easily relate to, and she often mentions how her hormones can completely dictate her moods. Again, relateable. This is before things around her get really bad, when aquaintances take their lives out of fear of their future fate and friends and family are starting to get Etty Hillesums diaries have been extremely inspiring and even uplifting for me, despite the horror of what she witnessed and endured around her. She starts off a little melancholic and unsure of herself, which are feelings I can easily relate to, and she often mentions how her hormones can completely dictate her moods. Again, relateable. This is before things around her get really bad, when aquaintances take their lives out of fear of their future fate and friends and family are starting to get called up. As her freedoms becomes smaller her mind seems to expand for other thoughts which she seems so be able to write down ever more lucidly. She focuses more on the lives of those around her and becomes a great source of comfort for many as she volunteers to go to the camps early to help transport others and look after them.

Her writings make me try to remember that we should always focus on love at the heart of everything and not allow hate to obscure our thoughts.. She says at one point that we often wish people would understand us more, but how often do we try to understand others? ...more
5

May 04, 2010

Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jew from Amsterdam; she studied Russian, gave Russian lessons, and kept a diary, focusing mainly on her love affair with psychologist Julius Spier and her efforts to deal personally with the effects of the Nazis taking control of the Netherlands. In 1942, she went to Westerbork, the camp where Dutch Jews were assembled for deportation to other concentration camps; she wrote letters to friends back in Amsterdam, before she was eventually sent to Auschwitz, where she Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jew from Amsterdam; she studied Russian, gave Russian lessons, and kept a diary, focusing mainly on her love affair with psychologist Julius Spier and her efforts to deal personally with the effects of the Nazis taking control of the Netherlands. In 1942, she went to Westerbork, the camp where Dutch Jews were assembled for deportation to other concentration camps; she wrote letters to friends back in Amsterdam, before she was eventually sent to Auschwitz, where she died.

She was a natural writer, and her diaries and letters are very vivid (particularly the letters, when she describes Westerbork in great detail) and moving, often almost unbearably so. She had a great gift for self-analysis, and her writings show the remarkable emotional journey she made in the course of mastering her own unruly emotions, coming to a point of equilibrium which allowed her to face the destruction of her friends, her family, and her own life with calm resolve. ...more
5

Jul 06, 2010

This is the diary (and letters) of a young, sensitive, intelligent, loving Dutch Jewish woman during the Nazi occupation, living in Amsterdam and ultimately dying In a concentration camp. Sounds familiar? Yes, but Etty is older than Anne Frank, more mature, more complex. She is highly spiritual in a completely personal way. Her mind and heart continue to shine even as the Nazi net around her slowly closes, and ultimately kills her. I'll never forget this book, though I find it hard to re-read it This is the diary (and letters) of a young, sensitive, intelligent, loving Dutch Jewish woman during the Nazi occupation, living in Amsterdam and ultimately dying In a concentration camp. Sounds familiar? Yes, but Etty is older than Anne Frank, more mature, more complex. She is highly spiritual in a completely personal way. Her mind and heart continue to shine even as the Nazi net around her slowly closes, and ultimately kills her. I'll never forget this book, though I find it hard to re-read it - to realize that such a beautiful person was purposefully killed, brings home the madness of war and racism in an almost unbearable way. Still, do read it! It's beautiful, fascinating, both in a historical sense, and as a story of personal growth. ...more
0

Aug 17, 2013

Absolutely excellent. Probably among the top five books I have ever read. Etty Hillesum's writings are filled with insights that one cannot read without becoming completely transformed and renewed.
5

Jan 22, 2008

I took this book out of the library in Amsterdam when I had a couple of weeks to spend there. Man! Out of nowhere it blew me away. Or rather, it wasn't even on such a large outward scale. It was the story of someone going deep inside their own soul, in the hardest of hard time, to open up to all of her life. Because it's written without pretension (because it is a diary she was just keeping for herself), and because she writes through the ups and downs, it feels like a very real journey and I took this book out of the library in Amsterdam when I had a couple of weeks to spend there. Man! Out of nowhere it blew me away. Or rather, it wasn't even on such a large outward scale. It was the story of someone going deep inside their own soul, in the hardest of hard time, to open up to all of her life. Because it's written without pretension (because it is a diary she was just keeping for herself), and because she writes through the ups and downs, it feels like a very real journey and therefore inspires me to think about my own. ...more
5

Jan 24, 2016

nothing i write can describe reading a book by someone so alive and so thoughtful and appreciative of life as Etty was as she experienced the atrocities of the Holocaust
5

Apr 04, 2018

This would be on my list of "Best 20 Books Ever Written". Ms. Hillesum was an inspiring and gifted person who brings the human and inhumane circumstances of her reality into clear focus. Without any doubt this is the most suggested book I ever reference as "must reads".
5

Jun 14, 2007

I read this book in my undergraduate philosophy class and was absolutely blown away because I felt like I knew Etty Hillesum. I identified so much with her and she was able to express feelings that I had but couldn't express myself. She was Jewish and living in the midst of a Nazi occupation. Not something I can identify with at all, yet we had so much in common. I wanted to know her.
5

Jan 22, 2009

I first became aware of this book when I heard our pastor at the time mention it in a homily. He lent me his copy to read, and afterward, I got one of my own. I found Etty's diaries very moving- tracing her growth from a frivolous party girl into a young woman beginning to test the boundaries of her spiritual faith.
5

Jan 20, 2009

Wow. This is one of the most moving, and definitely haunting, books I have read in a long time. It evoked so many emotions in me. Anger, sadness, a feeling of helplessness, yet also wonder and joy at the beauty and the meaning of life. I wish the last diary hadn't been lost. In case you haven't heard of Etty Hillesum (I hadn't), she was writing diaries in Holland just a couple of miles away from Anne Frank, at the same time, during the WWII years. A truly remarkable book by a remarkable person.
5

Dec 15, 2008

Among Holocaust literature, one of the most hopeful; EH is a sensual, compassionate, honest & nonreligious woman of prayer. One of her prayers:

"the jasmine behind my house has been completely ruined by the rains and storms of the last few days; its white blossoms are floating about in muddy black pools on the low garage roof. but somewhere inside me the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed, just as profusely and delicately as ever it did. and it spreads its scent round the house in which Among Holocaust literature, one of the most hopeful; EH is a sensual, compassionate, honest & nonreligious woman of prayer. One of her prayers:

"the jasmine behind my house has been completely ruined by the rains and storms of the last few days; its white blossoms are floating about in muddy black pools on the low garage roof. but somewhere inside me the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed, just as profusely and delicately as ever it did. and it spreads its scent round the house in which you dwell, oh God. you can see, i look after you, i bring you not only my tears and my forebodings on this stormy, gray sunday morning, i even bring you scented jasmine … i shall try to make you at home always." ...more
3

Apr 15, 2007

It's a shame Etty Hillesum is not as well known as Anne Frank. She's the Anne Frank for girls in their 20s-30s. She was someone I wish I could be friends or make out with. She was a cool, complicated, intellectual Jewish Dutch girl who died in the gas chambers. She was recomended to me by a friend a long time ago, and this was the first book of hers I was able to get my hands on. I wish that I could have gotten her diaries before I read the letters. While these were interesting, they weren't It's a shame Etty Hillesum is not as well known as Anne Frank. She's the Anne Frank for girls in their 20s-30s. She was someone I wish I could be friends or make out with. She was a cool, complicated, intellectual Jewish Dutch girl who died in the gas chambers. She was recomended to me by a friend a long time ago, and this was the first book of hers I was able to get my hands on. I wish that I could have gotten her diaries before I read the letters. While these were interesting, they weren't (I'm guessing) as introspective or personal as her diaries probably are (which is why I gave it three stars). This was more testimonial, and (this may sound a wee bit callous) I've read loads of Holocaust lit. over the years (taken several classes in it, etc.) and this was more of the same things I've already read about. I'm more interested in her life before she was put in the camps rather than while she was in the camps...so I'm looking forward to reading her diaries. Overall, I recomend reading her diaries first and then reading her letters. ...more
5

Jun 04, 2019

I can't believe I never heard of Etty Hillesum until I visited Deventer, the small town in the Netherlands where she lived. It took me 8 months to hunt down an English copy of this book, which I regretted not buying at the museum dedicated to her. Etty Hillesum is commonly described as an adult Anne Frank, but the comparison to unfair to both. Etty's diaries are mainly about what she calls her 'inner life'....her introspection and reflections, rather than the actual events happening all around I can't believe I never heard of Etty Hillesum until I visited Deventer, the small town in the Netherlands where she lived. It took me 8 months to hunt down an English copy of this book, which I regretted not buying at the museum dedicated to her. Etty Hillesum is commonly described as an adult Anne Frank, but the comparison to unfair to both. Etty's diaries are mainly about what she calls her 'inner life'....her introspection and reflections, rather than the actual events happening all around her in the months before she was taken to a concentration camp and killed. Her inner strength is astounding. So much of what she wrote reminded me of Buddhist ideals - relying on a peaceful mind to overcome external challenges, extending loving-kindness to all (even her enemies), valuing compassion above all else, recognizing the importance of equanimity. It is amazing to read how she implemented these values in daily life, even in the most difficult of circumstances imaginable. Her journals show her spiritual development, and by the end, she is hoping she is taken to a camp so she can provide peace and comfort to her fellow inmates. I expected to learn about the Holocaust in the Netherlands from reading this, but I learned much more about the power of meditation and compassion instead. On top of that, Etty was a spirited, funny, openly sexual, ahead of her time feminist. This is required reading for anyone with an interest in Holocaust studies or spiritual studies. ...more
5

Nov 16, 2013

A first-hand account of terrible events always resonates strongly I think, but when that first-hand account is beautifully written, with real spiritual depth and intelligence it becomes something rather more special. Etty Hillesum a young Jewish, Russian scholar shared a house with a group of other intellectuals in Amsterdam during World War Two. Ettys remarkable diaries shine a light on the changing times as the Nazis vile agenda and the continually worsening strictures placed upon Jewish A first-hand account of terrible events always resonates strongly I think, but when that first-hand account is beautifully written, with real spiritual depth and intelligence it becomes something rather more special. Etty Hillesum a young Jewish, Russian scholar shared a house with a group of other intellectuals in Amsterdam during World War Two. Etty’s remarkable diaries shine a light on the changing times as the Nazi’s vile agenda and the continually worsening strictures placed upon Jewish citizens gradually take hold. Initially however the terrible times in which Etty and her friends are living serve as something of a backdrop to Etty’s ruminations on life, love and spirituality. While living as the mistress of the much older man who owns the house where she lives, Etty also begins a relationship with another older man, a psychoanalyst, palm reader and therapist Julius Spier – whose methods seem questionable at best. With Spier Etty developed a strong and passionate connection, and learned a lot about love and spirituality. Spier’s unique influence lasted for the rest of Etty’s tragically short life.
“Sometimes I long for a convent cell, with the sublime wisdom of centuries set out on bookshelves all along the wall and a view across the cornfields--there must be cornfields and they must wave in the breeze--and there I would immerse myself in the wisdom of the ages and in myself. Then I might perhaps find peace and clarity. But that would be no great feat. It is right here, in this very place, in the here and the now, that I must find them. ”
Etty begins work as an assistant for The Jewish Council – the organisation that helped in the implementation of the latest restrictions that the Nazi’s put upon Jewish Dutch citizens. Etty had an enormously difficult role to play, but it was one that allowed her to gain an acute understanding of fascism and oppression. Etty’s spirit is what comes across so powerfully in these diary entries, her refusal to hate may seem strange to some, yet it simply feels remarkable and poignant.
“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 the whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people”
In her role as an assistant to the Jewish Council, Etty volunteered to accompany other Jewish people to Westerbork camp. Westerbork camp was the place from where people were “transported” to Auschwitz. In letters from Westerbork camp in 1942 and 1943, Etty describes vividly the overcrowding, fear and the daily struggle to survive. Initially Etty’s role came with certain privileges – which meant she could help many people at Westerbork, she was also allowed (required in fact) to return to Amsterdam for several months when she was suffering from serious health issues. However, even when back in Amsterdam, once she had spent time in Westerbork, Etty belonged heart and soul to her people, and was desperate to return to them. Whilst away from Westerbork she wrote wonderful letters to the circle of new friends she had gathered around her there. Etty looked forward to going back to them, never doubting that her health would improve just enough to allow her to go back. She refused all attempts from friends to save her, refused to go into hiding – Etty knew what her fate would be ultimately – and she faced it bravely all the time trying to calm the fears of those around, she persisted in talking about a time when she would be returned to her friends, and all should be over. This was a time, when those at Westerbork did not know of the horrors of the gas chambers, although “Poland” as it was always termed, was synonymous with death, no one seemed to doubt that “transportation” could only end one way. For some time, Etty was able to travel, send letters unrestricted and could intervene to keep people off the list for the next transportation. Slowly however, and inevitably Etty’s privileges were removed, she could no longer leave, her influence lessened. Good friends from Amsterdam, as well as members of her own family had joined her in Westerbork, and slowly the camp emptied, as more and more people were transported out to Poland. Their turn had to come, and come it did, in September 1943 Etty, and her brother and parents were herded on to that train heading away from Holland and to certain death. Etty Hillesum died in November 1943 in Auschwitz – thanks to this book some of her spirit survives.
According to Jan G Gaarandt’s introduction; survivors of the holocaust who had known Etty in Westerbork camp were later to speak of Etty Hillesum as a shining personality for me that is unsurprising, as reading her words is a powerful and emotional experience, how much more impressive would it have been to have known her.
The diary section of this book clearly show Etty to have been a thoughtful, intelligent woman, deeply introspective at times she examines herself and criticises what she sees around her with a surprising lack of bitterness. In the letters from Westerbork, we see a lighter side of Etty at times, but I felt I also heard her voice, the way she spoke to her friends – her wish to shield those she loved from the terrors around them – her love for whom she calls her people and of course her family, for whom she does all she can, even when often suffering herself. It is astonishing to me that Etty Hillesum isn’t as well-known as Anne Frank. It is again thanks to the wonderful Persephone books that a woman who could have been tragically forgotten by history again is given a voice.
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5

Jul 28, 2013

The Diaries conclude the first part of the book, and truly, are profound. So much wisdom in such a young woman. cannot say enough.sometimes it is as if she is speaking to and from my heart. An intimate self-portrait, a generous life, lived fully and joyously and consciously despite truly dark times.
I finished Letters From Westerbork. Etty desired to be the "thinking heart" of Westerbork and she was determined to bear witness. She succeeded. A series of letters which describes in detail the The Diaries conclude the first part of the book, and truly, are profound. So much wisdom in such a young woman. cannot say enough.sometimes it is as if she is speaking to and from my heart. An intimate self-portrait, a generous life, lived fully and joyously and consciously despite truly dark times.
I finished Letters From Westerbork. Etty desired to be the "thinking heart" of Westerbork and she was determined to bear witness. She succeeded. A series of letters which describes in detail the lives of people with whom she came into contact as the transports of Jews from the rest of Holland came into Westerbork and onto Poland. In her work with people, getting them necessities, putting them in contact with loved ones, writing letters petitioning for their exemption from the labor and death camps in Poland, she remained committed to her promise to help people find the peace and self-repose she had found within. Amazing letter about the transport of children, pregnant mothers, the aged and infirm. Some things are beyond imagining, she writes, yet they are an everyday occurrence here in westerbork. a thoughtful, deep look at the intentions of the human heart. Cannot say enough. ...more
2

Nov 29, 2009

For most of the book, I kept waiting for it to start. Who wants to read page after page about that feeling of being 28 and all sexed up over some guy you can't have? Tedious. There was a nice paragraph on page 70, beginning with "Then something dawned on me." in which she explains how she came to an understanding about her father. Also, I liked the passage on page 87 that starts "There was one bright spot." about taking responsibility for rooting out the evil within and not letting ourselves off For most of the book, I kept waiting for it to start. Who wants to read page after page about that feeling of being 28 and all sexed up over some guy you can't have? Tedious. There was a nice paragraph on page 70, beginning with "Then something dawned on me." in which she explains how she came to an understanding about her father. Also, I liked the passage on page 87 that starts "There was one bright spot." about taking responsibility for rooting out the evil within and not letting ourselves off the hook by blaming the really bad guys (in this case, the Nazis). There are also some spots where Etty observes that the oppressors are human too. If this were a novel, I would say the point is that we should aim to be the bright spot. But it's a diary, which is why I decided it was okay (2 stars) instead of didn't like it (1 star), even though I didn't really get it. For example, she reads and quotes from the new testament, but she never explains why a Jew would turn to Christianity. ...more
4

Jan 01, 2017

I am heartbroken. Etty's diaries are raw and honest. You can imagine her whispering secrets, desires and philosophy to you over bitter coffee in a small kitchen. From her observations you get a real sense of the growing anti Jewish laws that gradually brought havoc to many lives in Europe. Etty's outlook on life is what makes this book so relatable. Her letters from the concentration camps are just awful. You get a real glimpse of what her outward persona was to others and how much she affected I am heartbroken. Etty's diaries are raw and honest. You can imagine her whispering secrets, desires and philosophy to you over bitter coffee in a small kitchen. From her observations you get a real sense of the growing anti Jewish laws that gradually brought havoc to many lives in Europe. Etty's outlook on life is what makes this book so relatable. Her letters from the concentration camps are just awful. You get a real glimpse of what her outward persona was to others and how much she affected and helped those around her. A poignant and powerful memoir. ...more
5

May 26, 2013

This seemed like the adult version of Anne Frank. I have used thoughts and quotes from this book over the past few years in my work as a UCC minister. It is profound. The reader accompanies Etty Hillesum through her confinement and ultimately the fate that awaited her as a Jewish woman during WW2. The honesty with which she dealt with her feelings about love and life was compelling. I read it a long time ago, but her story stays with me.
4

Aug 01, 2007

"I think I know what all the 'writing' was about...just another way of 'owning,' of drawing things in more tightly to oneself with words and images. And I'm sure that that used to be the very essence of my urge to write...to creep silently away from everyone with all my carefully hoarded treasure, to write it all down, keep tight hold of it, and have it all to myself."

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