An Interrupted Life

by Etty Hillesum
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Last Updated on October 23, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941–43 was published in 1981 and details Hillesum's life in the Netherlands under Nazi rule. Hillesum was born in 1914 into a relatively wealthy family and was educated well from a young age, studying philosophy, psychology, and literature. Hillesum begins writing her diaries in 1941, only nine months after Holland is taken by Hitler. In these diaries, readers are privy to a firsthand account of how drastically life changed not only for this young woman, but also for all Jews in the Netherlands in the space of only two short years. Hillesum aspires to be a writer, which is part of the reason she keeps a diary; however, when she begins her diaries, she is working as a Russian translator and teacher.

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At first, Hillesum's letters and diaries serve mainly as a repository for her intellectual thoughts and assertions; in these entries, it becomes clear just how bright, inquisitive, and interesting this young woman is. Hillesum notes that she has recently met Julius Spier, a renowned psychoanalyst, and devotes a number of entries to discussing how important her burgeoning friendship with Spier is in her life.

As the diary goes on, it is clear that daily life in the Netherlands becomes increasingly difficult for Jews. Hillesum secures a job at the Jewish Council, a group ostensibly formed so that the Dutch and the Nazi Party can negotiate an uneasy peace; this "peace" does not last long, however, and most Jews are sent to a detention camp called Westerbork. As a member of the Jewish Council, Hillesum is not ordered there herself, but she decides to volunteer as a sort of social worker so she can be at Westerbork with her family and friends. Although she has many opportunities to flee, Hillesum feels it is her duty to stay with her people, and eventually she too is imprisoned there.

Hillesum's mode of writing is mainly epistolary from this point forward. She describes the physical setting of Westerbork, detailing its many common spaces, which include a synagogue, a jail, and an orphanage. Hillesum also notes the cramped conditions in the dormitories, where prisoners are forced to sleep on bed springs without any sheets, blankets, or mattresses. Worst of all, she describes the constant fear and paranoia present in the community due to the daily shipments of human cargo to Auschwitz.

Despite these horrific conditions, Hellesum struggles to remain hopeful—and often succeeds. In a letter to a friend, she writes,

I have so much love in me, you know, for Germans and Dutchmen, Jews and non-Jews, for the whole of mankind—there is more than enough to go around.

And she pens this to another correspondent:

And yet life in its unfathomable depths is so wonderfully good. . . . I have to come back to that time and again. And if we just care enough, God is in safe hands with us despite everything.

Sadly, Hillesum, her brother, and her parents are all transferred to Auschwitz in September of 1943, and Hillesum dies in November of the same year. Although this is a tragic conclusion, Hillesum's diaries and letters offer valuable insights into both the daily life of Jews in the Netherlands and the conditions in the Westerbork camp.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1750

On November 30, 1943, a twenty-nine-year-old Dutch Jewish woman named Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz. Hillesum had known that she would not survive and had asked her friend Maria Tuinzing to save her diaries and give them to Klaas Smelik, a writer and a member of the Dutch Resistance. The diaries, which filled eight exercise books and came to more than four hundred pages, were rediscovered almost forty years later. J. G. Gaarlandt edited the diaries for publication and wrote an informative introduction to them.

Etty Hillesum was born in 1914 into a cultivated and assimilated Dutch Jewish family. Her father was a classical scholar and headmaster of a college-preparatory secondary school. One of her brothers, Mischa, was an accomplished pianist, and other brother, Jaap, was an outstanding scientist. A brilliant student herself, Hillesum took a degree in law and went on to study Slavic languages, philosophy, and psychology. The entire Hillesum family perished at the hands of the Nazis, a fact underscoring not only the overwhelming human tragedy of the Holocaust but also the inestimable loss of countless talented and decent individuals.

The diaries begin on March 9, 1941, in Amsterdam and end on December 11, 1942. The letters from Westerbork collection camp cover the period from July 3 to August 24, 1943. The last two years of Hillesum’s life as revealed in the diaries were a time of intense personal growth. She underwent a transformation from an intelligent but somewhat hedonistic protégé to an independent woman who faced her fate with courage.

It is no accident that the diaries begin at a point when Hillesum sought spiritual and psychological direction. She had begun psychoanalysis with Julius Spier, a German Jewish refugee and the founder of psychochirology (the study and classification of palm prints). Spier had trained under the distinguished psychologist Carl Jung and was almost twenty years older than Hillesum. She fell in love with Spier while she was involved with Han Wegerif, a widower of sixty-two. Her circle of friends included a variety of interesting people who were active in the Resistance.

While Hillesum was seeking her identity and the meaning of her life, the German occupation of the Netherlands was closing in on the Dutch Jews. In 1942, the Jews were subjected to increasing restrictions and humiliations. They were not permitted to ride bicycles, play the piano, shop for food during the day, or travel on the streetcars.

Hillesum chose to record her struggles by writing in her diaries. The entries begin with a statement acknowledging that she is taking the momentous step of describing her innermost feelings about herself and about the horror that is surrounding her. Her diaries discuss her lovers, her friends and family, her search for God, and her renewed sense of Jewishness.

In 1942, Hillesum became a typist for the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, but she refused to be hidden or to be granted exemptions. She decided to accompany a group of Jews to Westerbork. During this time Spier died; Hillesum was now completely on her own.

The final portion of An Interrupted Life contains a number of heartbreaking letters from Westerbork, letters written in Hillesum’s last months. These letters reveal what Gaarlandt calls Hillesum’s “radical altruism,” her devotion to the wretched prisoners, particularly the children, who were facing extinction.

The book ends with a letter of September 7, 1943, written by Hillesum’s friend Jopie Vleeschower, who witnessed her departure for Auschwitz. This letter serves as an epitaph for the courage of Etty Hillesum and others like her. After her departure for Auschwitz, Dutch farmers found a postcard she had thrown out of the train. Her final message was that the Jews had left Westerbork singing.

The diaries of Etty Hillesum reveal an intense struggle for personal independence against the backdrop of unprecedented threats from without. Writing was Hillesum’s outlet, and it became the vehicle her spiritual liberation. By the end of 1941, the issues of life and death had taken precedence over all else. Rumors reached the Netherlands that the Jews were being sent to concentration camps in Poland. In her entry of November 10, 1941, Hillesum confesses “mortal fear in every fibre” and the collapse of her self-confidence. Yet as the diaries unfold, she continues to struggle for personal liberation as a woman, a Jew, and a human being. She rejects the resignation of her father, a scholar who withdrew into the rarefied world of pure ideas. She also begins to reject the pleasures of life as the main way to happiness. She is inspired by the works of the German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the novels of the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevski. By the spring of 1942 she discovers her destiny: the courageous acceptance of her fate. She will rebel against radical evil with moral indignation but without feelings of indiscriminate hatred and revenge, and she will draw on the sources of her faith in God and her faith in humankind.

Hillesum’s evocation of the details and the atmosphere of the times is remarkable throughout the diaries. For example, she describes listening to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach with the accompaniment of noise from an air raid. As the situation around her grows more desperate, Hillesum becomes intensely aware of the small comforts of life: a cup of coffee, a few good friends, a vase of freshly cut flowers on her desk. As the diaries progress, her writing begins to acquire a near-mystical intensity; every word is essential.

In April of 1942, the Dutch Jews were forced by the Nazis to wear the yellow star. Hillesum responds with a sense of pride in her Jewish identity. In a remarkable entry dated July 3, 1942, she accepts a “new certainty,” that the Germans were now intent on the total destruction of the Jewish people. Hillesum’s premonition is all the more amazing because the destruction of the Dutch Jews took a more subtle form than the open reign of terror carried out by the Nazis in faraway Poland. Although confronted with this vision of her own extinction, Hillesum affirms her struggle for a meaningful life. Above all, she vows to persevere and to remain productive. Like so many victims of the Holocaust, she strove to keep her inner dignity intact: “I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps. And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful.”

Her descriptions of the details of everyday life under the Nazi occupation are so vivid that the reader is made to see the value of each moment of her remaining days. Hillesum’s entries also convey the fragility of the human body in the face of the Nazi assault. When the Nazis prohibit the Jews from traveling on streetcars, she develops blisters on her feet from the constant walking. Hillesum reports the range of human behavior during this time. She describes the rare kindness of a German soldier and tells of a Dutch civilian who viciously asked her whether as a Jew she was allowed to purchase toothpaste in a pharmacy. She resolves to wield her fountain pen as a weapon and to bear witness for the sake of the future.

By the summer of 1942, rumors began to circulate that the Germans were exterminating the Jews by gas. Hillesum refused, however, to go into hiding. She turned to the Psalms and prayed to be able to help God, to safeguard what was left of God in man. Indeed, she composed new psalms appropriate for the times. Meanwhile, her health was undermined by the reduction in food rations. In a powerful passage, she likens her heart to a sparrow caught in a vise. Despite the interdependence of mind and body, Hillesum’s spirit refuses to be destroyed. She believes that the crushed sparrow that is her heart will take wing as she writes. Like other victims of the Holocaust, Hillesum believed that she would have to find a new language to convey the horrors of her experiences. Her diary closes with an affirmation of her mature philosophy: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”

Etty Hillesum’s closing letters from Westerbork document her confrontation with death. Like Primo Levi, an Italian writer and a survivor of Auschwitz, she remarks that one would need a new language to describe the hell that she has witnessed. Her portrait of the camp commandant who professes sympathy with a smirk while he sends people off to die is unforgettable, as is her description of the starving children who tell her of their suffering. Hillesum’s quiet heroism prevailed at the end, as she joined her family in a wagon bound for Auschwitz. Survivors of Westerbork would later marvel that Etty Hillesum had kept her humanity and courage to the end.

Above all, the focus of An Interrupted Life is directed from an unbearable present to the hope of a better future. Etty Hillesum knew that she would not live to tell her story. She wanted to leave her writings behind for future generations to share with others the solutions she had found for the problems of her own life. Herein lies the ultimate gift of Hillesum’s interrupted life. Her eloquent words and deeds reflect and reinforce one another.

An Interrupted Life takes its place alongside such classics of Holocaust literature as Anne Frank’s Het Achterhuis (1947; The Diary of a Young Girl, 1952), Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man, 1959; revised as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, 1961), and Elie Wiesel’s Un di Velt hot geshvign (1956; Night, 1960). Like Anne Frank, Hillesum retained her faith in God and man throughout her struggle. Because of Hillesum’s age and education, her work addresses the subjects of identity, femininity, religion, and personal fulfillment. Unlike the narratives of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, which unforgettably re-create the atmosphere of Auschwitz, Hillesum’s diaries emphasize the difficulty of living and loving while in the shadow of the most merciless system of destruction conceived by man.

The diaries of Etty Hillesum represent the coming-of-age of a sensitive young adult caught between the culture and charms of Amsterdam on one hand and the horrors of Auschwitz on the other. Her courageous and creative response to her suffering is portrayed with awe-inspiring eloquence. An Interrupted Life is a testimony to the great inner resources of the human spirit. Also available in English translation is Hillesum’s Letters from Westerbork (1986), a full volume of the letters from which a few examples were chosen to supplement the diaries in An Interrupted Life.

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