Les Amis d'Etty Hillesum

Etty Hillesum
Middelburg 1914 - Auschwitz 1943

EttyEttyEttyEtty Français


Etty4 Esther Hillesum was born on 15 January 1914 in the town of Middelburg in Zeeland, a province of the Netherlands. Her father (Levie), a scholar, professor of ancient languages, and her mother (Rebecca), a Russian immigrant who fled the pogroms in her country, were both Jews, but were very different in character.
She inherited her father’s intellectual curiosity and her mother’s passionate temperament. After Esther was born came her brothers Jacob (Jaap) and Michael (Misha), both talented men.
The family moved whereever the father was appointed. After teaching in several cities, he settled in Deventer in 1924 as assistant director and then director of the municipal secondary school.
There, Etty lived a care-free youth. Her brother Misha became a virtuoso pianist, and Jaap a doctor.
On the religious ground, the family was cut off from its roots and rather devoid of convictions. The only concrete link with Judaïsm was a rabbi grandfather in the northern provinces. Culturally however, links remained : Etty learned Hebrew and for a while joined the Zionist youth.


Etty and her family in 1931: Rebecca, her mother, Levi, her father, Misha and Jaap her brothers
Etty 15

In 1932, she left her father’s gymnasium at Deventer, to study public law at the Faculty of Amsterdam where she got a bachelor’s degree, in June 1935. At the same time, she studied Slavic languages, German, French and especially Russian of which she gave lessons, as her mother did.

In 1937, she moved to the home of Han Wegerif, a widower, an accountant, the father of four children and owner of a house where a few other people also lived. She became his housekeeper, but also began an affair with him. While pursuing her law studies, she saw leftist students regularly and, in July 1939, got her master’s degree in Dutch Law.

At the beginning of the First War World - The German armies invaded the Netherlands in May 1940 - she was interested in psychology, which led her to meet a former student of Jung’s : Julius Spier in Frebruary 1941. This psychologist, palmist (chirologist), had emigrated from Berlin two years before and was Jewish, as she was. He quickly became her friend, her lover and mentor or, as she will say later, "the accoucheur of her soul".

March 9th, 1941 : under his influence and direction, she began a long introspective approach, writing the first page of her diary. She was then twenty-seven years.


Han Wegerif


Julius Spier


Book of Etty Hillesum exhibited at the Museum of Jewish History in Amsterdam

Her first confidences concern her sexual life, apparently free, radiant, yet inhibited : "Love with me may seem to be perfect, yet it is only a game evading the main point and deep inside me something remains imprisoned." Then comes her desire to write, the belief she was born to be a writer and the yearning to mature, "to finally feel grown up and able to help in my turn other creatures on this earth… that is what ultimately matters." This aspiration will be fulfilled in Westerbork. Meanwhile, Etty analysed her feelings, trying to understand her mind and put some order in her thoughts. In particular she sought to elucidate the hatred of the Germans which she experienced and reproached herself with.

As regards the intensity and the chaos in her desires, she noted some evolution at one time in her life. Instead of a painful, unhappy and unsatisfied desire to possess : "wanted to eat the flowers, to stuff myself with beauty", she said that faced with beauty, she suddenly experienced an enjoyment as intense as before, but detached. "This rage of possession has just left me... and now that I am free, everything is mine." At the same time came her first declarations of love to life, as it is and even though it goes by : "Today, I live fully, life is worth living and if I were to learn that I had to die tomorrow, I would say : it’s a pity, but I have no regrets." However, these moments of fullness alternated with others when she felt more agitated, more depressed, the cause of which was not only personal. Around her, the Nazi noose tightened, and deportation, death, became daily experiences. For instance, she mentioned the masters she knew who disappeared in the storm. Among them, Bonger with whom she conversed affectionately only a few hours he commited suicide. She listed : "Arrests, terror, concentration camp, fathers, sisters, brothers arbitrarily separated from their relatives… Everything seems so threatening, so fatal." And then there were the thousand little mortifications that Jews suffered daily.

Faced with the Nazi trial, Etty discovered what she called God : not as a forgotten belief, a theological concept, but an inner reality that sustained her and from which she was hardly distinguishable : "The deepest and richest layer in me where I collect myself, I call it God.", she rooted herself in this layer, she conversed with this God, experiencing him as a source and confiding in him. "The girl who could not kneel eventually learned to, on the rough sisal carpet of a bathroom."

She nonetheless continued to experience intense human relationships related to her old bonds : "almost a married life" with Han Wegerif, a lover and disciple relationship with Julius Spear. Yet, she asked herself if she could live with a husband : "I could not remain faithful to one man. Not so much because of other men, but because I am myself a multiplicity of human beings. One man, one love  will never be my way." Beyond her sexual needs – "I have a strong erotic temperament, I yearn for caresses and tenderness" - she discovered in her "a very deep love and compassion for humans beings, for humanity in general", and these two aspirations kept her away from an exclusive relationship of a conjugal nature.

Basically, what Etty experienced, is the feeling of a multiple fidelity. "At two o’clock, walk with S…. Just as I am faithful to him in my heart, I am faithful to Han. I am faithful to everybody... I walk alongside a man ; twelve hours ago, I was in the arms of another man. Is that to be decadent ? For me, it is natural. May be because physical love is not, or is no longer essential." In fact, her relationship to these men and her love for them became less physical and fantasmatic and more realistic. She matured within her passions and not beside or in spite of them.

But other aspirations also brooded in her heart : like writing which I have already mentioned, and on which she often came back : "Sometimes, I would like to take refuge with everything that lives within me in a few words, to find for every thing a home in a few words." "Some day I’ll be a writer. The long nights I’ll spend writing will be my bests nights." A strong desire for freedom too : "It is a slow and painful process to give rise to a true inner independence. I am entrusted to my own care only and will have to support myself."

Conversely, she noted that she had no desires, not even to have a child for instance : "I believe I have no maternal instinct whatsoever." In fact, several things came into play in this deficiency. First the Nazi persecution. Faced with the misfortunes that surrounded her, Etty wrote : "I consider life to be a long Way of the Cross and I feel unable to take responsibility for increasing humanity with one more an unhappy creature." In addition to this, there was the heredity of her family which became concrete for her with the psychological problems of her brother : "When it was necessary to remove Misha in crisis, I vowed I would never allow myself to give birth to someone so unhappy." A resolution that she carried out by having an abortion on December 8 th, 1941.


The house of Han Wegerif where Etty lived from 1937


The building where Julius Spier lived

Etty5 Yet, Etty was not angry with life, far from it. Immediately after excluding the possibility of having a child, she wrote in her diary : "I feel nested in life which is great, good, exciting, eternal, and to grant so much importance to oneself, to fidget and to struggle, makes us miss this great, this powerful and eternal stream which is life." The impression that she felt then was that of an immense gratitude ; a gratitude which embraced all those that life had put on her way : her friends, her lovers, and also her mentors : Rilke, Jung, St Augustine, Dostoïevski, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the evangelists.

At this point of her diary, there is a change : her little personal problems tend to fade away, giving way to a more serious, broader reflection on what she experienced in her daily life and on the sufferings of all kinds which dwelled upon her and her relatives. Etty was then with her back to the wall, deprived of the small evasions and entertainement that had peppered her life so far : "How many times have I asked in my prayers,  less than a year ago : Lord make me a little more simple.  If this year has brought me anything, it is this undoubtedly greater inner simplicity." Then, she discovered a new power within her : the power to help strangers in difficulties. "This evening, we’ll be visited by a girl with problems, a Catholic. That a Jew should help nowadays a non-Jew to solve his or her problems, gives you a unique feeling of strength." For her, this was the beginning of a way of compassion that will transform her. She felt a force, a patience growing within her and felt ready to share it then with other people.

June 29th 1942, she noted in her diary what she had just learned on the British radio, that 700 000 Jews had already been exterminated by the Nazis. Then, she was seized by a double conviction that will never leave her : "They want to exterminate us to the last, this is a new certainty which I accept, but an acquired certainty should not be eroded by another. I work and live with the same conviction and I find life meaningful anyway, even if I hardly daresay so in society."

Etty now allowed for death, she faced it, embedded its probability, imagined its scenario, and found her life enlarged by this acceptance. She noted : "Great changes appear to operate in me and I do not think it’s only emotional." She gradually became more grave and innocent. Her love for Spier became purified, not of a guilt that she had never felt, but of a certain carnal arrogance : "We have behind us a passionate and unrestrained life, we have visited all kinds of beds, but each time we meet we feel as shy as on the first time."... "Between our eyes, our hands, our mouths, now passes an uninterrupted stream of sweetness and tenderness, in which the most tenuous desire seems to dissolve. The thing now is only to offer to the other all the goodness that is within us." However, Etty was aware that her relationship with Spier had to be more detached. Only on this condition, she said, will her love for him become "a reservoir of strength and love for all those who need it."

Such detachment was soon offered to her dramatically : Julius Spier fell ill and died of lung cancer in September 1942. Etty accompanied him in his last moments, paid him a vibrant tribute, and drew a lesson from this death which affected her deeply : "I will continue to live with this part of my dead friend which has eternal life and I will bring to life what in people alive is already dead. So, only life will remain, a great universal life, my God." Thus, even in his death, Spier was the architect of Etty’s conversion to universal love.


Westerbork Camp, 1940-1945
Shortly before that, in July 1942, she had landed a job with the Jewish Council of Amsterdam looking after the problems of the Jew community. In working there, she entered the antichamber of hell : a place where were settled the problems of the deportation of the Jews whose fate she found herself to share. Realizing how impossible it was for the majority of proletarian Jews to go into hiding, she too refused that possibility, just as she refused her privileged status as Jew in the Jew Council and the role they wanted her to play. "The collaboration provided by a small portion of Jews to the deportation of all the others is obviously an irreparable act. History will judge." In the following month, she applied for and was granted her assignment to Westerbork : a transit and gathering camp for Jews. In this transfer, she saw the opportunity to fully assume "mass destiny" which befell her. Above all, she felt she would be more useful there.

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 generously and bore the daily brunt of the stress in the camp : the deportation of a part of its population every week-end. 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 : "I would like to be able to overcome everything with words, I would like to describe these two months behind barbed wire, the most intense and the richest in my life, which have given me the most striking confirmation of the most serious and highest values in my life. I have learned to love Westerbork and I yearn for it." Recalling her sleepless meditative nights in her shed, she wrote : "May I be the thinking heart of this shed."

On 5th June 1943, when friends offered to help her to hide, she chose to return to Westerbork and stay there to continue her work. Then, she also had the opportunity to help her parents and her brother Misha who had been the victims of the great roundup of 20-21 June. In the following month, she lost her capacity to walk freely within the camp. Stuck as she was in this ghetto, she then engaged in what she perceived to be a vocation and a mission : "I feel within me the binding and driving force of an ever present, ever deeper gravity... My real job has only just begun : Hitherto, basically, I was only having fun." Such judgement however did not concern the human passions she had experienced, especially the one with Julius Spier, because she added : "I thank you my God, for letting me meet so completely one of your creatures both in my flesh and in my soul." But this concerned the past. From then on, in a delusional context of insecurity and distress, Etty devoted herself to the daily exercise of universal love.


Westerbork - Interior of a barracks

Misha having demanded that his parents enjoy the protective status of "cultural Jews" which only he could claim, the only way to release the nazi stranglehold disappeared. An awkward letter by Mrs Hillesum to H.A.Rauter, the commanding officer of the police and the SS in the Netherlands, exasperated him and caused the whole Hillesum family to be deported. On september 7th, 1943, they were all sent to Auschwitz with 986 other Jews (1). According to the Red Cross, Etty was thought to have died there on 30th november 1943.

What survives her is a diary covering the last three years of her life. There are ten notebooks sent by Etty’s relatives to Dr Smelik. Since Etty wanted them to be published, he sought a publisher. In vain. Until a yellowed text fell into the hands of J.G.Gaarlandt, director of the Haan Publishing company. In 1981, he published part of the diary under the title : A shattered life. The text was almost immediately translated into French and English.

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 usually written by someone else in the past tense. 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.

In 1986, a Dutch edition, then in 2008, a French edition, presented all of Etty’s writings. What these texts reveal, besides an obvious literary talent, is the rapid and moving evolution of a young woman who moved from an anecdotal and chaotic existence to an intense inner life. Etty did not live long and the richest part of her life was very short. Yet, the depth which she has reached is as vibrating and illuminating as that which in other writers, took much more time to mature.

This text is an excerpt from the book by Alain Delaye : Sagesses concordantes (t.1) published by Accarias - l’Originel in 2007.


Center Etty Hillesum in Deventer


Portrait of Etty Hillesum by Peter Starreveld, husband of Hanneke, friend of Etty in Amsterdam


Monument "A broken life" in memory of Etty Hillesum on the banks of the Ijssel


(1) 93 trains started from Westerbork to the Eastern camps (and 2 from Vught). 105.000 Jews were thus deported from the Netherlands out of the 140 000 who lived there before the war. The destinations were mainly Auschwitz (60 000) and Sobibor (34 300) but also Mauthausen, Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen. About 100 000 Jews died there.