An Interrupted Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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...

(The entire section is 1925 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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.