Esther (Etty) Hillesum was born in 1914 in Middelburg to a mother of Russian descent and a Dutch father who taught classical languages. In 1932, she moved to Amsterdam to study law, and then Slavic languages. As a student, she moved in left-wing circles, which included many Jews who had fled Hitler’s Germany. One of these was Julius Spier, a psychoanalyst and, apparently, an expert at reading hands, who became a mentor for Hillesum, and her great love. Their relationship eventually became physical, even though she was living with another man, and even though she knew he had similar influence over other women.
In July 1942, Hillesum took a job at the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, but after two weeks asked for a transfer to Camp Westerbork, a transit camp used by the Nazis to assemble Roma and Dutch Jews. There she became ill in the winter, and, on recovering, refused offers of help to go into hiding, preferring to continue working at Westerbork. In September 1943, she and most of her family were transferred to Poland. Etty Hillesum died on 30 November in Auschwitz. Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia, the Etty Hillesum Research Centre, Gratefulness.com, and Catholic Ireland.
Hillesum began to write a diary in March 1941, probably encouraged by Spiers who she had consulted for the first time a few weeks earlier, and she continued to do so for 18 months until October 1842. Knowing she was unlikely to return from the camps, Hillesum gave her journals (eight closely-written exercise books - see a picture of them here) to the only writer she knew, Klaas Smelik, and his daughter. They tried to have them published, but were unsuccessful at the time.
Only in 1980, when the journals were shown to the journalist and publisher Jan G. Gaarlandt did they make it into print, in two volumes in 1981-1982, since when many editions and translations have followed. The first English versions, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans, were published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in 1983 and 1987. The following extracts are taken from An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943 published by Persephone Books in 1999. Some pages of the diary can be read online in a different edition at Googlebooks.
9 March 1941
‘Here goes, then. This is painful and well-night insuperable step for me: yielding up so much that has been suppressed to a blank sheet of lined paper. The thoughts in my head are sometimes so clear and so sharp and my feelings are so deep, but writing about them comes hard. The main difficulty, I think, is a sense of shame. So many inhibitions, so much fear of letting go, of allowing things to pour out of me, and yet that is what I must do if I am ever to give my life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose. It is like the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love. I am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers, and love does indeed suit me to perfection, and yet it remains a mere trifle, set apart from what is truly essential, and deep inside me something is still locked away.’
4 July 1941
‘I am full of unease, a strange, infernal agitation, which might be productive if only I knew what to do with it. A ‘creative’ unease. Not of the body - not even a dozen passionate nights of love could assuage it. It is almost a ‘sacred’ unease. ‘Oh God, take me into Your great hands and turn me into Your instrument, let me write.’ This all came about because of the red-haired Leonie and philosophical Joop. S [Julius Spier] reached straight into their hearts with his analysis, but I still think people can’t be reduced to psychological formulas, that only the artist can render human beings down to their last irrational elements.
I don’t know how to settle down to my writing. Everything is still much too chaotic, and I lack self-confidence, or perhaps the urgent need to speak out. I am still waiting for things to come out and find a form of their own accord. But first I myself must find the right pattern, my own pattern.’
24 April 1942
‘[. . .] And this, too: how can I explain that, whenever I have had physical contact with S. in the evening, I spend the night with Han? Feelings of guilt? In the past, perhaps, but no longer. Has S. unleashed things deep down inside of me that can’t yet come out but carry on their subterranean existence with Han? I can hardly believe that. Or is it perversity? A matter of convenience? To pass from the arms of one into those of the other? What sort of life am I leading?
Last night when I cycled home from S., I poured out all my tenderness, all the tenderness one cannot express for a man even when one loves him very, very much, I poured it all out into the great, all-embracing spring night; I melted into the landscape and offered all my tenderness up to the sky and the stars and the water and to the little bridge. And that was the best moment of the day.’
26 April 1942
‘Just a small red, faded anemone. But I like the idea that in years to come, I shall chance upon it again between these pages. By then I shall be a matron, and I shall hold this dried flower in my hands and say with a touch of sadness: ‘Look, this is the anemone I wore in my hair on the fifty-fifth birthday of the man who was the greatest and most unforgettable friend of my youth. It was during the third year of World War II, we ate under-the-counter macaroni and drank real coffee, on which Liesl got “drunk”, we were all in such high spirits, wondering if the war would be over soon, and I wore the red anemone in my hair and somebody said, “You look a mixture of Russian and Spanish”, and somebody else, the blonde Swiss with the heavy eyebrows, said “A Russian Carmen”, and I asked him to recite a poem about William Tell for us in his funny Swiss burr.’
1 July 1942
‘My mind has assimilated everything that has happened in these last few days. So far the rumours have been infinitely worse than the reality, for us in Holland at least, since in Poland the killers seem to be in full cry. But though my mind has come to terms with it all, my body hasn’t. It has disintegrated into a thousand pieces, and each piece has a different pain.’
3 July 1942
‘Yes, I am still at the same desk, but it seems to me that I am going to have to draw a line under everything and continue in a different tone. 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. Today I was filled with terrible despair, and I shall have to come to terms with that as well. [. . .] Even if we are consigned to hell, let us go there as gracefully as we can. I did not really want to put it so blandly.’