Etty Hillesum Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Etty Hillesum (HIHL-uh-suhm) was the daughter of a Jewish scholar of classical languages, the headmaster of a municipal Gymnasium, or college preparatory high school; her mother was a refugee from anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia. The family also included two sons, and all three siblings were exceptionally talented. Hillesum attended college in Amsterdam during the early years of World War II. After taking a law degree at the University of Amsterdam, she turned to advanced studies in Slavic languages. Her brother Mischa was expected to have a brilliant future as a pianist; the youngest brother, Jaap, became a doctor. With the exception of Jaap, the entire family was killed in the concentration camp Auschwitz, and Jaap died after the liberation, before he could return to Holland.

The diary in which Hillesum recorded the last two years of her life consists of about four hundred pages and was subsequently edited for publication. It reflects her preoccupation with three areas of her life: the blossoming self-knowledge of an intelligent and sensitive young woman struggling to grow as a spiritual human being; her intimate intellectual and physical relationship with her mentor, Julius Spier, the founder of psychochirology (the study of personality through palm prints); and, interspersed throughout, the encroaching threat of Nazi terrorism.

Hillesum began her diary about a month after meeting Spier as a way to analyze her life and emotions. At the age of twenty-seven, she was struggling to define herself as a human being, as a woman, and as a spiritual extension of God. Her changing moods express a sensitive woman’s intellectual growth and emotional maturation, which take place against the backdrop of the external political situation. In one passage, for example, she recalls that after the Dutch capitulation to Nazi forces...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Costa, Denise de. Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum: Inscribing Spirituality and Sexuality. Translated by Mischa F. C. Hoynick and Robert E. Chesal. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

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 et al. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. A woman’s perspective.

Gaarlandt, J. G. Introduction to An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943, by Etty Hillesum. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. This introduction to the English translation of Hillesum’s diary provides an excellent review of the life of the writer and the significance of the diary.

Halperin, Irving. “Etty Hillesum: A Story of Spiritual Growth.” In Reflections of the Holocaust in Art and Literature, edited by L. Randolph Braham. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. A study of the luminous qualities of Hillesum’s personality.

King, Peter. Dark Night Spirituality: Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Etty Hillesum—Contemplation and the New Paradigm. London: SPCK, 1995. Includes bibliographical references.

Piechowski, Michael M. “Is Inner Transformation a Creative Process?” Creativity Research Journal 6 (1993). A psychological and sociological approach to the diaries.

Woodcock, John. “The Therapeutic Journals of Joanna Field and Etty Hillesum.” Auto/biography Studies 5 (Summer, 1989). An exploration of Hillesum’s psychological dimension.