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...
(The entire section is 756 words.)