(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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,...

(The entire section is 1750 words.)