Throughout my academic career, I avoided dealing with the monumental human tragedy known as the Holocaust. History classes required that I read sterile, chronicled information, learn names and dates, and understand the causes and results. History classes have never required that I read a first-hand account of the horrors of a Jewish woman in this inhuman and appalling era and reflect upon it.
As I read, there were moments that I had to put the book aside and get my mind on something else. It is inconceivable that such suffering and carnage was accepted, supported, or denied by the people of the world. I was sometimes nauseous and sometimes tearful. However, along with the misery and bloodshed of the Holocaust, Etty Hillesum is able to convey a joy in living, appreciation for the moment, and love of humanity in her book An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork.
Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jew from Amsterdam. Her life might have been unremarkable and her story might never have been told had she not been an aspiring writer. Through these letters and diary entries, I watched a young woman in her mid and late twenties for almost three years until she died at Auschwitz in 1943. Her book begins about nine months after Hitler's Germany invaded the Netherlands. In addition to her diary, she wrote letters to her loved ones from Westerbork Detention Camp, where Jews were confined before being taken to the death camps. "If I have one duty in these times," she asserted, "it is to bear witness.
Etty Hillesum wrote about the little things in her life, like eating breakfast. She also wrote the same things that all young women write about -- men and romance. Considering her circumstances, I expected that much of her day was spent anticipating her empty future and contemplating when she was going to die. Her optimism and her gentle spirit, particularly under these dire circumstances, were astonishing.
She wrote a great deal about her love for a man she identified as S. Although many of her romantic passages were comparable to any young woman in love, this relationship had a profound impact on her ability to reach deep inside her and record these emotions.
S. was actually Julius Spier, a psychotherapist who had studied with Carl Jung. Spier was her closest friend and her lover. She was both captivated and conflicted over him. She spoke of her physical desire for S. And conversely, her aspiration for a spiritual union devoid of eroticism. However, her deep emotional attachment for S. was the impetus for her soul-searching contemplation and her ability to grow and love in an environment of death.
Etty Hillesum described herself as "a soul without a skin." She had overwhelming sensitivity and was attuned to her environment and her deepest thoughts. It is this awareness coupled with her love of life that makes An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork a less disturbing, but more intense accounting of the individual lives of people in these extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances. This book captures the horror and the beauty of her existence. Her personal musings and profound internal discoveries are extraordinary accomplishments during horrendous times. Her diary begins with the statement, "I am accomplished in bed." This could be the speculation of any young vital woman. She is able to convey an everyday complexion to her brutal state of being.
Hillesum describes herself as impulsive, whimsical, and brilliant in the first half of the book. Her overriding thoughts were of her passion for Julius Spier. However, the time came when Dutch Jews were required to wear yellow stars for identification. Hillesum became more pragmatic about her circumstances and more philosophical about her mission in this life. As the Nazis harassed and repressed the Dutch Jews, she drew strength from her faith. "When I pray," she explained, "I hold a silly, naive, or deadly serious dialogue with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God."
She never retreated from the world around her or her many friends. She claimed that
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