Feminize Your Canon: Etty Hillesum


Feminize Your Canon

Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.

Etty Hillesum (Photo courtesy of the Etty Hillesum Research Centre, Middelburg, the Netherlands)

In 1942, the year before she died in Auschwitz at age twenty-nine, the Dutch diarist and mystic Etty Hillesum wrote: “I have the feeling that my life is not yet finished, that it is not yet a rounded whole. A book, and what a book, in which I have got stuck halfway. I would so much like to read on.” She was in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and had decided to stay, voluntarily, at the Dutch transit camp Westerbork as a “social welfare” representative of the Jewish Council—Joodse Raad—that had been set up to mediate between Jewish citizens and the Germans. Unlike some, Hillesum didn’t expect her association with the council to save her, and she harbored no illusions about the tragedy engulfing Europe. What the Nazis wanted, she realized, was “our total destruction.” Still, she had hopes of coming through the war alive. She longed to channel her prodigious literary talent into writing Dostoyevskian novels, as well as documenting the history she witnessed. “I shall wield this slender fountain pen as if it were a hammer,” she declared, “and my words will have to be so many hammer strokes with which to beat the story of our fate.”

Hillesum’s overriding impulse was not self-preservation but to share the fate of her people. “I don’t think I could feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer.” Despite offers of help, she refused to go into hiding, and returned to Westerbork of her own free will. During her months at the camp, thanks to her special mail privileges, she sent dozens of letters to friends. Composed with a finely developed novelist’s eye, the letters illuminated her day-to-day life and work in the hospital barracks, the squalor, the desperation, the awful spectacle of weekly deportations to Poland, the tension of not knowing who would be next. “Have you heard? I have to go,” one frail young girl told Hillesum. “Such a pity, isn’t it? That everything you have learned in life goes for nothing.” Remarkably, Hillesum’s optimism was unwavering. In July 1943 she wrote:

The misery here is quite terrible; and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire. And then time and again, it soars straight from my heart—I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force—the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent, and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.

A few months later, as Hillesum boarded a train to Auschwitz along with her parents and one of her two brothers, a friend described her as “talking gaily, smiling, a kind word for everyone she met on the way, full of sparkling humor, perhaps just a touch of sadness, but every inch the Etty you all know so well. ‘I have my diaries, my little Bible, my Russian grammar, and Tolstoy with me.’ ” Hillesum insisted on meeting death on her own terms: with an unbroken spirit and without, as she saw it, letting hatred reduce her to the moral level of “the savage, cold-blooded fanatics.” On a postcard pushed through the slats of her cattle car, found and posted by farmers, she had written: “We left the camp singing.”

The evolution of Hillesum’s strange and disconcerting capacity to transcend personal suffering, and to resist hatred in the face of the ultimate provocation, can be traced in the diary she kept for the last two years of her life. She gave the eight tattered notebooks to a friend (the ninth went with her to Auschwitz), intending for them to be published if she didn’t survive. But there was no interest, and Hillesum’s writings wouldn’t see the light of day for four decades. Finally, in 1981, an abridged volume of the diaries was published by the writer and editor Jan G. Gaarlandt. “The very first sentences I read fascinated and shocked me,” he writes in his introduction, “and they have remained with me ever since.” The English translation by Arnold J. Pomerans, An Interrupted Life, came out in 1983 (along with many other foreign editions), to widespread acclaim. In The New York Times Book Review, the Holocaust scholar Terrence Des Pres called Hillesum’s story “a marvelous gift” that has “the interior richness and woven design of a Jamesian novel.” The unabridged version and editions with Hillesum’s letters followed; all the original papers are kept at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

Hillesum’s inner chronicle, as charming and playful as it is philosophical and profound, begins in March 1941: nine months after Hitler’s takeover but before the Yellow Star decree. At first, Hillesum is not particularly preoccupied by the war, or by the tightening restrictions on the Jewish population in the Netherlands. She is an intellectual and extroverted law graduate doing postgrad studies in Slavic languages. Living in a shared house in the bohemian red-light district of Amsterdam, she rides her bike around, socializes with friends, and earns money from odd jobs including tutoring in Russian (her mother, Riva, fled the pogroms in Russia as a young woman). Naturally for someone in her twenties, sex figures centrally in Hillesum’s thoughts. She is, boasts her inaugural diary entry, “accomplished in bed” and should be “counted among the better lovers.” Later she characterizes herself as “erotically receptive in all directions,” including toward one of her students, a girl with a “slim and lively boy’s face.”

But it is Hillesum’s love for her psychotherapist, a divorced German Jewish refugee in his fifties named Julius Spier, that proves life-changing. A protégé of Jung and apparently a stranger to therapeutic boundaries, Spier practices psycho-chirology—personality analysis via palm reading—and a treatment that involves physically, but ostensibly nonsexually, wrestling with his patients. Hillesum, having first sought Spier’s help with her “inner chaos,” her mood swings and bouts of depression, becomes his secretary and then his lover. He tells her to keep a diary and to meditate, and under his guidance this previously irreligious and unobservant Jew reads the Old and New Testaments, Saint Augustine’s Confessions, and The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. Spiritually awakened and emotionally elevated, she grows besotted with her charismatic mentor. “I have never met anyone,” she marvels, “who had as much love, strength, and unshakable self-confidence.”

Spier has a fiancée who lives in London, as well as numerous other women clients, and Hillesum grapples with jealousy and cravings for “his concentrated, undivided love.” But she tells herself such feelings are irrational. She doesn’t believe in “eternal love,” and is innately polyamorous. Even at the height of her fixation on Spier, she remains fond of another lover, her sixty-something landlord, Han. “I don’t think I am cut out for one man … Nor could I ever be faithful to one man. Not because of other men, but because I myself am made up of so many people.” Reflecting on her concurrent sexual dalliances, she wonders: “Is that sordid? Is it decadent? To me it feels perfectly all right.”

Hillesum’s rejection of chastity reflects a sophisticated feminism that seems to have arisen independently (all the authors she reveres, her favorite being Rilke, are men). Women, she observes, too often view a man as their source of strength, an attitude “as distorted and unnatural as it possibly can be.” She admits to sometimes mistaking male desire for “the ultimate confirmation of our worth and womanhood,” and muses:

Perhaps the true, the essential emancipation of women still has to come. We are not yet full human beings; we are the “weaker sex.” We are still tied down and enmeshed in centuries-old traditions. We still have to be born as human beings; that is the great task that lies before us.

Hillesum hankers after neither marriage nor children. Mainly, she’s wary of passing on her family’s “taint”: the psychiatric problems suffered by her two younger brothers. Like their sister, both are geniuses. Mischa, a classical pianist, did a public performance of Beethoven at age six, and Jaap is a doctor who discovered new vitamins while still in his teens. But Jaap’s severe depression has led to several stays in hospital, and Mischa has schizophrenia. Hillesum writes: “When Mischa got so confused and had to be carried off to an institution by force and I was witness to the whole horror of it, I swore to myself then that no such unhappy human being would ever spring from my womb.” On realizing she’s pregnant, she doesn’t hesitate to self-abort by taking twenty quinine pills, supplemented “with hot water and blood-curdling instruments.” She tells the embryo: “I shall bar your admission to life, and truly you should have no complaints.” Within days, Hillesum is back to translating The Idiot, having sex with Han, and enjoying “a feeling of being at one with all existence.” It might be the most cheerful and pragmatic depiction of abortion in the whole of literature.

Hillesum congratulates herself, in the same sentence, for not adding “another unhappy being to those peopling this sorrowful earth” and for not having foisted a bad book on the world. Her desire to write a great book—“another Brothers Karamazov”—is the source of much inner turmoil. She suffers from the artist’s affliction of identifying, painfully and too clearly, the gulf between all she perceives and her ability—even the ability of language itself—to capture it faithfully. Decrying her earlier flights of creative inspiration as “mental masturbation” and swearing off “clever formulations overflowing with wit,” she swings between wild ambition and self-castigation. “Life is composed of tales waiting to be retold by me,” she pronounces grandly, before countering with, “Oh, what nonsense—I don’t really know anything.” Hillesum doesn’t regard her diary entries as literature, but as a means of self-exploration and psychological unblocking: “You don’t put things down on paper to produce masterpieces, but to gain some clarity.” Yet many of her ruminations, for example on the ideal literary style she hopes to one day perfect, are indeed mini-masterpieces:

Looked at Japanese prints with Glassner this afternoon. That’s how I want to write. With that much space round a few words. They should simply emphasize the silence. Just like that print with the sprig of blossom in the lower corner. A few delicate brush strokes—but with what attention to the smallest detail—and all around it space, not empty but inspired. The few great things that matter in life can be said in a few words. If I should ever write—but what?—I would like to brush in a few words against a wordless background. To describe the silence and the stillness and to inspire them. What matters is the right relationship between words and wordlessness, the wordlessness in which much more happens than in all the words one can string together.

Hillesum’s literary dreams are eclipsed by the travails of living in a society where she and her friends can’t use public transport, ride bicycles, enter parks, or purchase basic necessities, but her cosmic serenity only deepens. “I am not afraid of them … I don’t know why; I am so calm it is sometimes as if I were standing on the parapets of the palace of history looking down over far-distant lands.” The more she is tested, the more she believes that, as she often asserts, “life is beautiful and meaningful.” At the same time, she increasingly doubts that writing can bear adequate witness to her reality. “I shall have to invent an entirely new language,” she remarks after beginning work at the Jewish Council, “to express everything that has moved my heart these last days.”

The reader is left in little doubt that Hillesum, had she lived, could have invented an entirely new language, written novels to rival her beloved Russian epics, and become an important spiritual guru: a female Viktor Frankl. The body of work she did produce in her brief life is of immeasurable importance, both as feminist social history and as Holocaust testimony. That Etty Hillesum isn’t a well-known name, certainly not compared with Anne Frank, may be because of her ambiguous philosophical legacy. She is claimed by some as a Christian saint, owing to her diverse theological inspirations, such as the New Testament. This complicates Hillesum’s status as a Jewish heroine, as does her principled refusal to go down fighting. Tzvetan Todorov, in his book Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, argues that, ultimately, “her fatalism and passivity lent themselves to the murderous project of the Nazis.”

It’s a fair response to Hillesum’s Tao-like creed of pure acceptance. But she always felt, given the Nazi systemization of mass murder, that scrambling to survive would be like “crowding onto a small piece of wood adrift on an endless ocean after a shipwreck and then saving oneself by pushing others into the water and watching them drown.” To instead divert her energies into kindness and fellowship, into helping those around her, seems no less moral a choice. Hillesum’s nonsectarian spirituality, which was underpinned by the type of meditation now correctly seen as a panacea for many twenty-first-century ills, makes her truly a woman for our time. Her advice for “turning inward” is as worthwhile today as it was three-quarters of a century ago:

A lot of unimportant inner litter and bits and pieces have to be swept out first. Even a small head can be piled high inside with irrelevant distractions. True, there may be edifying emotions and thoughts, too, but the clutter is ever present. So let this be the aim of the meditation: to turn one’s innermost being into a vast empty plain, with none of that treacherous undergrowth the impede the view. So that something of “God” can enter you, and something of “Love,” too. Not the kind of love-de-luxe that you can revel in deliciously for half an hour, taking pride in how sublime you feel, but the love you can apply to small, everyday things.


Read earlier installments of Feminize Your Canon here. 

Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly RoundtableLongreadsNewsweekThe Daily BeastSalonThe AwlWords without Borders, and other publications.