An Interrupted Life Summary
by Etty Hillesum

Start Your Free Trial

Download An Interrupted Life Study Guide

Subscribe Now

An Interrupted Life Summary

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.

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.


(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,...

(The entire section is 2,290 words.)