Les Amis d'Etty Hillesum

Etty Hillesum
Middelburg 1914 - Auschwitz 1943

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These extracts come from the diary of Etty, published in New York : Etty Hillesum, An interrupted life and Letters from Westerbork (Henry Holt and Company  - 1996).

In the past I would live chaotically in the future, because I refused to live in the here and now (...) I always lived in anticipation (...) But that feeling has dropped away from me completely. I live 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. (21 March 1941)

One must keep in touch with the real word 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 the inner life, or the reverse – that’s quite a task. (25 March)

I think that I’ll do it anyway : I’ll "turn inward" for half an hour each morning before work, and listen to my inner voice. Lose myself. You could also call it meditation. I am still a bit wary of that word. But anyway, why not ? A quiet half-hour within yourself. (8 June)

For a moment yesterday I thought I couldn’t go on living, that I needed help. Life and suffering had lost their meaning for me ; I felt I was about to collapse under a tremendous weight. But once again I put up a fight and now I can face it all, stronger than before. (14 June)

I have tried to look that "suffering" of mankind fairly and squarely in the face. I have fought it out, or rather something inside me has fought it out, and suddenly there were answers to many desperate questions, and the sense of emptiness made way for the feeling that there was order and meaning after all and I could get on with my life. (14 June)

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 possibly can be. (18 June)

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is burried beneath. Then he must be dug out again. (26 August)

I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heaven ward. They seek God outside themselves. And there are those who bow their head and bury it in their hands. I think that these seek God inside. (26 August)

Thinking gets you nowhere. It may be a fine and noble aid in academic studies, but you can’t think your way out of emotional difficulties. That takes something altogether different. You have to make yourself passive then, and just listen. Restablish contact with a slice of eternity. (5 Sept.)

One should accept things as they are and not try to lift them to impossible heights ; only if you let them be will they reveal their true worth. (11 Sept.)

That is your disease : you want to capture life in formulas of your own. You want to embrace all aspects of life with your intellect instead of allowing yourself to be embraced by life. You want to create the world all over again each time, instead of enjoying it as it is. (12 Sept.)

I have a sort of primitive love and primitive sympathy for people, for all people. I don’t think I am cut out for one man. Nor could I be faithful to one man. Not because of other men, but because I myself am made up of so many people. (6 Oct.)

Sometimes I want to flee with everything I possess into a few words, seek refuge in them. But there are still no words to shelter me. That is the real problem. I am in search of a haven, yet I must fisrst build it for myself, stone by stone. Everyone seeks a home, a refuge. And I am always in search of a few words. (20 Oct.)

Do whatever your hand and your spirit find to do, live every hour to the full, and stop fussing about with your thoughts and fears. I shall have to take your education in hand once again, my girl. (20 Oct.)

It is a slow and painful process, this striving after true inner freedom. Growing more and more certain that there is no help or assurance or refuge in others. That the others are just as uncertain and weak and helpless as you are. You are always thrown back on to your own resources. There is nothing else. (21 Oct.)

The only measure you have is yourself. And the only responsability you can shoulder in life is responsability for yourself. But you must do it with all your strength. (21 Oct.)

Tonight new measures against the Jews. I have allowed myself to be upset and depressed about it for half an hour. (24 Oct.)

The rottenness of others is in us, too. I see no other solution, I really see no other solution than to turn inward and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned from this war. (19 February 1942)

Why shouldn’t one feel an immense, tender ecstasy of love fot the spring, or for all humanity ? And one can befriend the winter, too, or a town, or a country. (12 March)

We are not allowed to walk along the Promenade any longer, and every miserable little clump of two or three trees has been pronounced a wood with a board nailed up : No Admittance to Jews. More and more of these boards are appearing all over the place. Nevertheless there is still enough room for one to move and live and be happy and play music and love each other. (12 March)

Life may be brimming over with experiences, but somewhere, deep inside,, all of us carry a vast and fruitful loneliness whereever we go. And sometimes the most important thing in a     whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inward in prayer for five short minutes. (14 March)

I took the blackout paper down from the window, and suddenly they were two stars at the head of the bed. They were not the same stars I see through my window, but I felt in touch with them all the same, and suddenly I was quite certain that no matter where I was in the world I would always find stars and be able to flop down on a bed or on a floor, or anywhere else, and feel absolutely at home. (16 April)

One can often say much more with a very, very small gesture than in the wildest and most passionate night of love. (24 April)

Last night when I cycled home from S., I poured out all my tenderness into the great, all-embrancing spring night. I stood on the little bridge and looked across the water ; I melted into the landscape and offer all my tenderness up to the sky and the stars and the water. And that was the best moment of the day. (24 April)

Genuine moral indignation must run deep and not be petty personal hatred, for personal hatred usually means little more than using passing incidents as excuses for keeping alive personal hurts, perhaps suffered years ago. (30 April)

An organic process is at work. Something in me is growing, and every time I look inside, something fresh has appeared and all I have to do is to accept it, to take it upon myself, to bear it forward, and to let it flourish. (30 April)

Now I have a right to a destiny (...) It is a terrible, sacred, inner seriousness, difficult and at the same time inevitable. (30 April)

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. (18 May)

I walked back home in the evening, through the soft night, and I was suddenly absolutely certain of what I now again doubt : that I shall be a writer one day. (26 May)

Michelangelo and Leonardo. They, too, are part of me, they inhabit my life. Dostoyevsky and Rilke and Saint Augustine. And the Apostles (...) These writers tell me something real and pertinent. (26 May)

It is sometimes hard to take in and comprehend, oh God, what those created in Your likeness do to each other in these disjointed days. But I no longer shut myself away in my room, God, I try to look things straight in the face, even the worst crimes, and to discover the small, naked human being amid the monstrous wreckage caused by man’s senseless deeds. (26 May)

I try to face up to your world, God, not to escape from reality into beautiful dreams, and I continue to praise your creation, God, despite everything. (26 May)

Through suffering I have learned that we must share our love with the whole of creation. Only thus can we gain admittance to it. But the price is high : much blood and tears. (23 June)

The latest news is that all Jews will be transported out of Holland through Drenthe Province and then on to Poland. And the English radio has reported that 700,000 Jews perished last year alone, in Germany and the occupied territories. And even if we stay alive, we shall carry the wounds with us throughout our lives. And yet I don’t think life is meaningless. (29 June)

We have to accept death as part of life, even the most horrible of deaths. And don’t we live en entire life each one of our days, and does it really matter if we live a few days more or less ? I am in Polland every day, on the battlefields, if that’s what one can call them. I often see visions of poisonous green smoke ; I am with the hungry, with the illetreated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window ; there is room for everything in a single life. For belief in God and for a miserable end. (29 June)

I am often dog-tired after standing about with queues, but I know that this too is part of life, and somewhere there is something inside me that will never desert me again. (29 June)

I must admit a new insight into my life and find a place for it : what is at stake is our impending destruction and annihilation, we can have no more illusions about that. They are out to destroy us completely, we must accept that and go on from there. (3 July)

Very well then, this new certainty, that what they are after is our total destruction, I accept it. I know it now, and I shall not burden others with my fears. I shall not be bitter if others fail to grasp what is happening to us Jews. I work and continue to live with the same conviction, and I find life meaningful - yes meaningful - although I hardly dare say so in company these days. (3 July)

Living and dying, sorrow and joy, the blisters on my feet and the jasmine behind the house, the persecution, the inspeakable horrors - it is all as one in me, and I accept it all as one mighty whole and begin to grasp it better if only for myself, without being able to explain to anyone else how it all hangs together. (3 July)

Yes, we carry everything within us, God and Heaven and Hell and Earth and Life and Death and all of history. (3 July 1942)