Biography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

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.

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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 she had seen one of her professors walk dazedly through Amsterdam’s main square, allowing Hillesum to accompany him without seeming to recognize her; she may have been the last person to see him alive, for the next evening she learns that he committed suicide not long after they parted company. Memories of him were reawakened by the deaths of other intellectual Dutch Jews.

Hillesum’s deep faith helped her to survive emotionally and to find hope in the world. At a time when some people experienced a crisis of faith, unable to reconcile divine benevolence and Nazi persecution, Hillesum found even deeper faith. She was thoroughly familiar with the Old and New Testaments and kept a Bible near when she wrote. When she voluntarily accompanied Jewish prisoners to a transportation camp at Westerbork in 1942, she kept her Bible under her straw pillow. She read St. Augustine for his fervent devotion, recognizing that spiritual insight could be received from a believer of any faith. Even after seeing Westerbork, Hillesum was able to write, “how good and beautiful it is to live in Your world, oh God, despite everything we human beings do to one another.”

Hillesum’s personal life was dominated and guided by Spier. After careers in banking and publishing, he had studied in Zurich with Carl Jung, who had encouraged Spier to pursue psychochirology as a professional therapist. When Hillesum met Spier, he was fifty-four years old, a divorced father of two engaged to a woman in London. Spier had a charismatic effect on his clients, especially women. His therapy included close physical contact of wrestling matches between therapist and client, as well as extensive, illuminating conversations. Hillesum became Spier’s secretary soon after meeting him, and she critically examined their relationship even as it developed. She recognized that she had no desire to be a wife, and she was opposed to the idea of bringing children into a world of persecution and terror. She strove to avoid both arid intellectualism and self-indulgent emotionalism, and she saw Spier’s humanitarian approach to psychological healing as the promise of a balance. His sudden illness and death in 1942, during a period when Hillesum had been allowed to leave Westerbork and visit Amsterdam, inspired her to carry on his work among the Jews in the camp.

Hillesum’s eyewitness reports from Westerbork are captured in her letters as well as her diary. With compassion and objectivity she recorded the transit trains to Poland pulling away with thousands of Jews. Not yet knowing what it is that actually awaited them, she imagines them slaving under a Polish sky and dying of overwork and neglect. In early September, 1943, Hillesum and her family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, and by the end of November Hillesum had died there.

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