Etty Hillesum

Commissioned by Mickey Mangan

Etty Hillesum
Known as “the mystic of the Holocaust”

A reflection on Etty written by Mickey.

““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 buried beneath. Then He must be dug out again. I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heavenward. 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.” – Etty Hillesum, August 26, 1941

I want to tell you about someone. Her name is Etty Hillesum. I can’t write a deserving recommendation of her work. But, as Etty once told herself, “the smallest, most fatuous little essay is worth more than the flood of grandiose ideas in which you like to wallow.” I’ve been wallowing long enough in trying to express how important this woman is to me. So please consider this endorsement, however fatuous.

Etty lived in Amsterdam. She was twenty-seven when she picked up a pen and wrote “Well, here goes then”. For two years she kept a diary, in which she describes what she observes around her as her liberties were gradually taken away. She laments, in language more beautiful than I can summon, how poor a writer she is. She rejoices in her love (or is it love?) of one “S.”, mentor of hers and former student of Carl Jung. She tells of trying to make Nazi bureaucrats laugh while waiting in a queue. On March 21st, 1942, she remarks, “Keeping a diary is an art I do not understand.” And on April 30th she tells no reader in particular to “Never give up, never escape, take everything in, and perhaps suffer, that’s not too awful either, but never, never give up,” before going on to describe her friend Liesl’s stiff neck and the steaming black coffee they drank together.

And she keeps writing. She writes of lovers, she writes of flowers, she writes of arrests, she writes of being annoyed by her mother, she writes of yellow stars, she writes of how she wants her friend to quit smoking, she writes of hurting feet, she writes of Rilke.

She might have gotten her sense of humor from her dad. “My poor old father, the night before last. He said, ‘One should be thankful, nowadays, each day the sun shines and one is still at large.’ And he added a bit ruefully and ironically, ‘At least that’s what I tell other people all the time.’”

Etty and her father and her mother were murdered at Auschwitz before the end of 1943. She knew it was going to happen, long before it did. She grapples with her fate, with the question of whether or not it is fate, and with the tension between acceptance and defeat.

“And the suffering, the ocean of human suffering, and the hatred and all the fighting? Yesterday I suddenly thought: there will always be suffering, and whether one suffers from this or from that really doesn’t make much difference. It is the same with love. One should be less and less concerned with the love object and more and more with the love itself, if it is to be real love. People may grieve more for a cat that has been run over than for the countless victims of a city that has been bombed out of existence. It is not the object but the suffering, the love, the emotions, and the quality of these emotions that count. And the big emotions, those basic harmonies, are always ablaze (‘blazing harmonies’ is not bad!), and every century may stoke the fire with fresh fuels, but all that matters is the warmth of the fire. And the fact that, nowadays, we have yellow stars and concentration camps and terror and war is of secondary importance. And I don’t feel less militant because of this attitude of mine, for moral certainty and moral indignation are also part of the ‘big emotions.’

“But 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. Call it psychology, but we can’t let ourselves be led astray any longer; we must look at all that indignation we feel and discover whether its roots are genuine and deep and truly moral – Heavens, how I am digressing! All this in connection with that quarter of an hour over a cup of fresh coffee. It is now 8:30. And there is still soooooo much to write.”

It’s heartbreaking to think about all the words she didn’t get to write. It also makes me sad how few people have ever heard of her. Well, you’ve heard of her now. Maybe her writing can help you like it has helped me.

Etty’s struggles with her own indignation, and her efforts to channel that energy productively, and her refusal to allow it to extinguish her spiritually, resonate deeply with me. I want to be more like her. I want to strive creatively and hope with unfettered imagination, even when the world around me seems to be in the process of aligning itself toward violence. I want, like her, to eagerly search beyond my own environment and faith tradition for the goodness life gives me every day.

I started reading An Interrupted Life (as her diary was titled when posthumously published) while riding the bus from Cincinnati to Chicago. I don’t know what it is with me and Greyhound buses, but they kind of put me in an emotionally vulnerable place. Kind of like how I tend to cry more easily at movies if I watch them on a plane, I tend to relish in a book more if I read it on a long bus ride. I think it may be because I’m grateful for what the book is giving me – a space in which to lose myself. Etty gave me a lot during those six hours. And she stayed on my mind all weekend, including at the wedding I was in town to attend. One of my best friends was getting married. It was strange to be at the wedding while my mind was in a space of lamentation for Etty Hillesum – and the Holocaust in general – especially because it was a Jewish ceremony. Both the bride’s and the groom’s families were Jewish, and I couldn’t help but acknowledge to myself the painful fact that the same events that claimed the life of Etty Hillesum were part of the path that led to the overwhelmingly joyful occasion I was now celebrating.

I can’t stand the fact that unconscionable tragedy is sometimes traceable as a necessary catalyst for indescribable good. It’s a terrible paradox, and Etty Hillesum understood this.

Kelly Latimore is an Iconographer. In 2015, I was introduced to his work, and I was especially moved by his icons of John Muir and Frederick Douglass. Reading An Interrupted Life, I thought of Kelly and what he might think of the book. In the spirit of extending beyond faith traditions, and my introduction to her work coinciding with the marriage of my friends, I felt inspired to ask him if he’d do an icon of Etty Hillesum so that I could give it as a gift to the bride and groom. To my absolute delight, he agreed. Kelly’s painting turned out wonderful. To see her depicted as a saint in a Christian tradition is to me a beautiful embodiment of the paradox she carried within her and strived to convey in her diaries.

I heard a prayer the Sunday after the rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville at which Heather Heyer was murdered: “God, I am sorry about Charlottesville. I am sorry that we did that.” I started writing this the day of those events. I somehow want to share a view that is growing in me that all the hurt that is suffered by humans needs to be seen as hurt inflicted on ourselves. And all the hurt that is inflicted on others needs to be seen as hurt that we ourselves have inflicted. I am sorry about Charlottesville. I am sorry that we did that.

In her diaries, Etty seems to be having a dialogue with herself along the same lines as that prayer. I believe she was a true mystic who, in the face of utter annihilation, deeply felt our shared call as human beings to celebrate one another and heal one another by recognizing our shared struggle amidst the alienation we all suffer.

“I said that I confronted the ‘suffering of mankind’… but that was not really what it was. Rather I feel like a small battlefield, in which the problems, or some of the problems, of our time are being fought out. All one can hope to do is to keep oneself humbly available, to allow oneself to be a battlefield. After all, the problems must be accommodated, have somewhere to struggle and come to rest, and we, poor little humans, must put our inner space at their service and not run away. In that respect, I am probably very hospitable; mine is often an exceedingly bloody battlefield, and dreadful fatigue and splitting headaches are the toll I have to pay. Still, now I am myself once again, Etty Hillesum, an industrious student in a friendly room with books and a vase full of oxeye daisies. I am flowing again in my own narrow riverbed, and my desperate involvement with ‘mankind,’ ‘world history,’ and ‘suffering’ has subsided. And that’s as it should be, otherwise one might go mad.”

I believe the candor, humor, and generosity of spirit in Etty’s writing amount to a process of world-healing that she was desperate to discover. And I believe that to read them is to actively participate in that healing process. I hope you take a moment to explore her writing, and to contribute the healing we all seek in 2019.”

–Mickey Mangan

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