Last Updated on February 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 315
An Interrupted Life is a collection of diary entries written by a Jewish woman, Etty Hillesum, beginning in March 9th, 1941, in Amsterdam. As the Nazi Party rose to power, Etty Hillesum turned to writing as a means of coping with the horrors that were beginning to unfold around her and invade her previously peaceful and hopeful life. As her social mobility and ability to participate in everyday life became more and more restricted by the Nazis, Etty's diaries reveal the ups and downs of her existence, and ultimately, reveal her intense inner strength and resiliency as she refused to give up on the beauty she saw in humanity, even as she was taken away to Auschwitz.
When the initial restrictions and oppressive conditions began being enforced by the Nazi Party, Etty Hillesum fought back by further cultivating her sense of Jewish identity and embarking on a search for spiritual meaning through writing. As the Nazi occupation spread and stories of executions and death camps began to make their way through Jewish communities, Hillesum continued asserting that she would remain strong and present in the world. These diary entries are a testament to her strength and are reflective of the strength of millions of Jewish folks who remained determined to not be consumed by the horrors that were invading their lives. Hillesum realized, in 1942, that she would likely be murdered by the Nazis as part of their plan to totally exterminate the Jewish people. Her diary entries simultaneously reflect her terror at the realization, her desire to remain spiritually rooted, and her sympathy and deep commitment to others as she expresses deep sadness at the plight of Jewish children. Hillesum's diaries are full of strength, intense resiliency, sympathy, and utter beauty in the face of absolute horrors. They offer insight into how spirituality, empathy, and hope can be maintained even in the face of impossible circumstances.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1925
All lives, in one way or another, are interrupted, suppressed, inhibited, and locked away. In the first paragraph of her diaries (published in The Netherlands in 1981 as Het verstoorde leven: Dagboek van Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943), Etty Hillesum struggles to yield her deepest feelings. Writing “comes hard” because of “a sense of shame,” a “fear of letting go, of allowing things to pour out of me.” Not to write, however, would mean that her life has no “reasonable and satisfactory purpose.” Etty’s diaries, as she notes on several occasions, are her way of finding herself; they simultaneously represent her connection to herself and to her world, to an identity paradoxically made possible by a world that is in the process of interrupting and then destroying itself.
At twenty-seven, just beginning her diaries, Etty Hillesum is not an accomplished writer. On the contrary, she knows that she is a writer in the making, and she is never certain of having made it. She is firm in her faith in the future but just as certain of the fate of the European Jews. They will perish; she might go with them before knowing whether her ambition to be a great writer will be fulfilled. She writes enough, however, to mark a way to greatness, and some of her lines—even whole paragraphs such as her first one—are as good or better than any novelist could hope to imagine.
Etty Hillesum begins her diaries on Sunday, March 9, 1941, by comparing the urgency of writing to “the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love.” The shift from “me” and “my” and “I” in the first five sentences to “you” in the sixth seems natural and necessary for a woman preoccupied with how she can both find and merge herself with others. She seeks unity of self and society on many levels and aims for the integration of her sexual, intellectual, and spiritual energies in language that ranges from the concrete and the factual to the abstract and the ecstatic.
The diarist’s death in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943, and the nearly forty-year delay in the publication of her writings inevitably distort the design she might have wanted for her work. It is clear that she wanted her words saved, but in what manner? Matters of style and structure, the essence of a writer’s life, cannot be fully studied in this edition. In his introduction to the diaries, J. G. Gaarlandt notes: “I have tried to convey the contents of the exercise books as carefully as possible, taking out repetitions and many quotations. No word has been added.” Gaarlandt observes that over the years several publishers rejected the diaries, but he does not say why her diaries never reached print. Etty Hillesum was no innocent like Anne Frank. The diaries reveal an exuberant sexual life and an unorthodox, albeit profoundly moving, religious quest. Is the publication of her diaries now a sign of an increasing willingness to come to terms with the human complexities of the Holocaust? Certainly, Etty’s understanding of those particular complexities against the background of her intense self-interrogation makes her writing timely.
If the ending of the first paragraph of the diaries is conveyed exactly as she would have it, then Etty Hillesum, in her best moments, is embarking on an honest effort to balance the serene shape which words can give to life against the terrors of life that lie beyond words: “I seem to be a match for most of life’s problems, and yet deep down something like a tightly-wound ball of twine binds me relentlessly and at times I am nothing more or less than a miserable, frightened creature, despite the clarity with which I can express myself.” There is no record of how she reacted to Auschwitz, but from the very beginning she seems bent on establishing the perimeters of her feelings and searching out her special strengths and weaknesses.
As Gaarlandt puts it on his notes, for some time “Etty had felt her life needed sorting out and firm direction.” About a month before she started her diaries, she consulted Julius Spier, a psychochirologist, or therapist, specializing in the reading of palm prints. A vigorous man twice her age, he almost immediately challenged her to a wrestling match (part of his therapy), and to her delighted surprise she floored him. Although engaged to another woman living in Great Britain, Spier made no secret of his physical and spiritual attraction to Etty. An experienced woman sexually, Etty was drawn to his strong sensuality but held back in order to explore what each of them could share with the other apart from the physical embraces of a powerful man she had handled so decisively in their first encounter. Eventually he became not only her lover but also her teacher and confidant, whom she treasured in all of his facets without ever giving in to the immense authority that one of his age and reputation might have used to subdue her.
Etty Hillesum, with her law degree and talent for writing and languages, was in her own right a highly educated and gifted woman, the offspring of a comfortably placed, if not wealthy, family. Several times in the diaries, nevertheless, she acknowledges woman’s temptation to be mastered by a man; in this respect, as in so many others, Etty consciously charts her own course out of an acute sense of the choices others have made. Spier represents in its most concrete form the human experience she tries to make coherent in her diaries: The problem for her is how to learn from him without being overwhelmed. Later, it is how to get a hold of herself in the throes of the Holocaust while never for a moment forgetting how it will most likely swallow her up. In her diaries, she counts on Spier being with her to the end, and her hardest moment comes with his sudden death. Her writing abruptly stops, and it takes months for her to gain enough momentum to write again.
Even before Spier’s death, however, it is clear that Etty is exploring how she can survive on her own—not by relying on her writing or her sense of self alone but on a force greater than any support she has hitherto imagined: the force of God. A Jew by birth, she is fully assimilated into Christian and secular culture. An avid reader of Rainer Maria Rilke and Saint Augustine, she also calls for “the courage to speak God’s name.” This is not necessarily the all-powerful God of Judeo-Christian tradition but a God who embodies her need to accept the world in all of its contradictions, a God who fails people but who can also help them to rise above their sufferings with the aid of their very fervent need for Him. Etty’s God seems existential in the sense that existence requires his presence. Her dialogues with God reflect not a craving for a piety that soothes the spirit but a disciplined self-examination before a greater power capable of guiding her to the very deepest part of herself that she had so much trouble liberating at the beginning of her diaries. God becomes, among other things, her Muse and the inspiration of much of her writing. Consequently, as she enters into the second year of her diaries, her style develops a more objective awareness of the Holocaust and of her part in it.
The diaries make compelling reading because their author never loses sight of the life in front of her:Sunday evening, 9:30. I tell myself: keep calm, Etty, why get so worked up about a young lady with the sleek head of a boy, who wears trousers, has piercing blue eyes, and wants you to teach her Russian? Or about her provocative girlfriend, who so wants to get to know you because she finds you so “charming,” which of course flatters your vanity. And then the bacon and eggs. Things like that are quite an adventure these days—any moment now I shall be writing about nothing but food. “A real week for guzzling,” said S. this afternoon.
Such passages skip with life and make the abrupt, vital shifts in attention that characterize experience in all of its immediacy. Such reports of experience put the larger, more intricate designs of art to shame. In this kind of passage, life is not held in reserve for prose; life emerges, rather, into its own artfulness—or, perhaps, life here is Etty’s found art. At the other extreme is Etty the budding artist looking for striking similes and metaphors: “The tree outside the house seemed a lifeless lump of timber stabbing a dull sky.”
It is truly extraordinary how this woman is able to find a perspective on herself and her times, managing through her writing and her dialogues with God to see not only the uniqueness of the Holocaust but also how it must be related to the sufferings, the interruptions, of every human life. “It is not the object but the suffering, the love, the emotions and the quality of these emotions that count,” she concludes after noting that “people may grieve more for a cat that has been run over than for the countless victims of a city that has been bombed out of existence.” With so many lives seemingly counting for nothing, her mission is to “bear witness.” Reflecting on her own likely imminent departure for Auschwitz, she laconically comments: “A camp needs a poet,” one who will act as “the thinking heart of a whole concentration camp.”
It is hard to think of such a camp as having a heart, and at least one reviewer of the diaries wonders if Etty Hillesum was capable of equaling the equanimity of her prose in the camp itself. Many Jews had it worse in other parts of Europe than this middle-class Dutch woman, it is argued. Still, her depth of feeling is unmistakable, as is her own concern, even skepticism, about her willingness to suffer: “Why am I in such a hurry to share the deprivations of those behind barbed wire?” Surely her answer comes a few passages later: “When I suffer for the vulnerable is it not for my own vulnerability that I really suffer?” A friend of Etty, writing to mutual friends after Etty left for Auschwitz, remarks that in her departure the diarist was “every inch the Etty you all know so well.”
At the end of the diaries, Etty does indeed stand as a human being who allowed herself to become known. She rid herself of the inhibitions she worried over when she first faced “a blank sheet of lined paper.” Her last pages are filled with letters to friends in which she describes the horror of the Holocaust as she witnessed it: the tumultuous scenes of people trying to prepare themselves for the train ride to death. In Westerbork, the embarkation camp, she made contact with as many people as possible, and her letters, as a result, have a documentary quality quite unlike the diaries. After getting to know her so well, the letters strike with unusual force, for she now has to contend with the immensity of an atrocity she has spent two years contemplating. As always, her writing takes the measure of the experience without for a moment pretending that the whole of it has been rendered: “I can see ah, I can’t begin to describe it all”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 160
Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust—Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.
Costa, Denise de. Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum: Inscribing Spirituality and Sexuality. Translated by Mischa F. C. Hoyinck and Robert E. Chesal. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
Ergas, Yasmine. “Growing up Banished: A Reading of Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum.” In Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, edited by Margaret Randolph Higonnet, Jane Jenson, Sonya Michel, and Margaret Collins Weitz. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.
Figes, Eva. “Thou Shalt Not Kill, Not Even to Save Your Own Life? Eva Figes on the Terrible Dilemmas Faced by Victims of the Holocaust.” The Guardian, December 11, 1999, p. 10.
Flinders, Carol. Enduring Lives: Portraits of Women and Faith in Action. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin Books, 2006.
Pleshoyano, Alexandra. “Etty Hillesum: A Theological Hermeneutic in the Midst of Evil.” Literature and Theology 19, no. 3 (September, 2005): 221.
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