Etty Hillesum: an intellectual woman ahead of her time

Mary Evans on the insights into persecution, knowledge and sexuality of a Dutch Jewish writer killed in Auschwitz

February 27, 2014

Etty Hillesum: The Complete Works, Vols 1 and 2
Edited by Klaas A. D. Smelik and Meins G. S. Coetsier
Shaker Verlag, 1182pp, €37.90
ISBN 9789042304388
Published 7 January 2014

The centenary of the birth of Etty Hillesum on 15 January gives us an opportunity to look again at the work of a remarkable woman. Not only does she rank with Primo Levi and Anne Frank as a chronicler of the Holocaust but her writings take us beyond her own times and raise issues of knowledge, gender and sexuality that remain contemporary.

Her work consists of diaries and letters written to friends while she was living in Amsterdam and later in the Westerbork transit camp in the north-eastern Netherlands, and from where she, her younger brother and parents were transported to Auschwitz in September 1943. She was killed two months later.

A selection from this material appeared in 1984 under the title An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43, which perhaps hints at her ongoing relevance. Her birth centenary has been marked by a conference at Ghent University, Etty Hillesum: Her Letters and Diaries, and the first complete edition of her writing (with facing Dutch and English texts), which allows us to trace the development of her thinking in greater detail.

Before everything was transformed by the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940 and the subsequent assault on the Jewish population, Hillesum had lived the kind of life that is more common today than it was in the first half of the 20th century, namely as an urban, educated and independent young woman. Reflecting on the tension between domestic and intellectual life in October 1941, she writes: “I think it is bound to be the ‘desk’ after all, and not having a family. That was always the case with me. Other girls had visions of husbands and children, but I used to have visions of a hand that was busy writing.”

Hillesum was widely read in all aspects of European culture. She had graduated from the University of Amsterdam with a degree in law and was studying Russian language in the years immediately before her death, yet she writes in her diary in September 1941: “Knowledge is power and that’s probably why I accumulate knowledge…out of a desire to be important…But Lord, give me wisdom, not knowledge.”

Although she does not define what “wisdom” means to her, Hillesum does articulate two questions that have continued to haunt the global North. What are the links between technological and moral progress? And what is the place of the intellectual, and particularly the intellectual woman, in the world?

Some discussions of Hillesum’s work have shied away from these themes. Several papers at the recent conference interpreted her intellectual development in the light of religion, marginalising other aspects of her life that were just as important to her and to subsequent generations. In particular, her bravery and kindness in terrible circumstances are read in terms of her religious beliefs, rather than her humanism (or even what her contemporary, the imprisoned German priest Dietrich Bonhoeffer, described in 1943 as “non-religious theology”).

Thus, we are encouraged to see Hillesum as a pilgrim towards “spirituality”, a view to be found in Patrick Woodhouse’s 2009 book Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed, and in former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ introduction to it, where he speaks of a “journey of faith”. At the Ghent conference, Woodhouse and others made much of such quests for spirituality, and various papers considered issues of mysticism and sainthood.

Dutch Jewish families leaving Amsterdam, 1942

Yet it is clear that Hillesum recognised problematic aspects in her quest for God, as when she makes ironic use of religious terminology to describe the dynamics of intimate, heterosexual relationships. She was well aware that her attraction to two much older men depended partly on age and, particularly in the case of the psycho-chirologist Julius Spier, intellectual ability and status as a teacher. “We women,” she writes in her diary in September 1941, “we foolish, idiotic, illogical women, we all seek Paradise and the Absolute.”

In another wry comment on heterosexuality from March 1942, Hillesum reflects that: “It is slowly beginning to dawn on me that we women have a great task to perform in men, and I am gradually beginning to see the path we must follow. Men reach their own soul through ours.” Yet before Simone de Beauvoir was to voice a similar thought in The Second Sex (1949), we also see Hillesum working her way towards a crucial feminist insight: “We [women] still have to be born as human beings; that is the great task that lies before us” (diary, August 1941).

The second aspect of Hillesum’s diaries and letters that demands more attention than it sometimes receives is her exceptionally clear-sighted analysis of the mechanics of persecution.

The attack on the Jews, she shows us, was the work of coherent and efficient organisation, made possible through the application of a horribly perverted form of rational thought. And it can only be understood through careful rational reflection, rather than by simply calling certain individuals or groups “evil”. It was not until 1963, in response to the Eichmann trial, that Hannah Arendt coined her famous phrase about “the banality of evil”. Yet Hillesum expressed essentially the same insight two decades before, as she reveals the banal fashion in which evil unfolded on the ground.

Take the 32-page documents drawn up by the bureaucracy responsible for the identification of Jewish citizens and the extent of their property. Hillesum makes us see that these were both pointless and essential. Pointless because the confiscation of property was already taking place, yet essential in their demonstration of the rituals of order, which played a part in reassuring the Jewish community.

Possessing few illusions about what could be expected from Nazi bureaucrats, Hillesum had little hope for what she would be able to achieve when she became a member of the Jewish Council and began working for a body described as the department for “Social Welfare for People in Transit”. Yet many people around her kept clinging to fantasies about the continuity of normality. One woman, for example, worried about the wrong sizes of children’s clothing sent to her in the transit camp and assumed that this could somehow be corrected.

An even more tragic instance of a belief in the essential “fairness” of bureaucracy was when Hillesum’s mother wrote a letter to a senior Nazi bureaucrat asking for assistance. The man was so infuriated by what he saw as the impertinence of a direct communication from a Jewish woman that he ordered the whole family to be immediately transported.

In the end, of course, there was nothing to be done. Jewish property was going to be stolen, the children and their mother were going to die. By the time that Hillesum is documenting these appalling developments, she has come to the conclusion that her capacity for independent thought is all that remains and all that can provide some slight relief in enduring the horrors around her.

Her remarkable fortitude, her acute insight into the unfolding social processes of destruction and her strikingly modern sense of the ambiguous sources of human sexuality all make her writings among the most powerful of her times.

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