'There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried underneath. Then He must be dug out again. I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heavenward. They seek God outside themselves. And there are those who bow their heads and bury their faces in their hands. I think that these seek God inside.'
Etty Hillesum Short Biography
The Paris Review - Feminize Your Canon: Etty Hillesum
Essential Writings (2009)
Etty Hillesum
In Summary

God can be found even amid the Holocaust, hidden in the heart of the mystic which opens up and expands to encompass it and everything else.


Theodor Adorno once famously stated ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ Etty Hillesum’s writings were certainly poetic, but they also inhabit their own idiosyncratic genre of mystic neuroticism. More to the point, there would be no ‘after’ the Holocaust for Etty, nor for any member of her immediate family. Though her journals were published posthumously in the 1980s, she wrote them in the 1940s, penning the last entry while travelling to Auschwitz, and then throwing these precious papers from the train to later be found by Dutch farmers.  

Etty had numerous opportunities to flee before that fateful day, yet freely chose to remain in Nazi-occupied Netherlands where she could help care for her fellow Jews. This eventually led to her being sent to her death.  

However, in her early twenties, she had not been so saintly. Through the early trials of the war and the tutelage of psychologist Julius Spier, she had embarked upon a mystical journey of learning, captivated by the writings of Rilke, Augustine and Dostoevsky. Her journals reflect this spiritual transition, as she evolved from being self-focused and promiscuous into a woman on a mission to serve others and love God, ‘despite everything.’  


Etty’s journey begins with a psychological peering within, for she suspects that ‘all the problems of our age, and of mankind in general, must be confronted inside my little head.’ This battle involves a kind of ‘spiritual hygiene’ – admitting one’s flaws, exploring one’s motivations, silencing distractions and beginning to get one’s inner house in order. This tidying then makes room for God and love to enter.  


Calling herself a ‘kneeler in training,’ Etty begins to submit herself and her desires to God, withdrawing ‘into a prayer as into a convent cell.’ Despite the Nazis knocking on the door, she still says to God that no one is truly ‘in their clutches who is in Your arms.’ She found these moments of prayer to be ‘more intimate than sex’ – her former physical temptations fading as she advances further within the spiritual realm. She used to ‘leap about in bed with a man for nights on end,’ longing ‘for a man as a definition, a demarcation of my own being.’ Yet now she’s able to say truthfully, ‘I would sooner sleep with books than with men.’  


Etty begins to see God in even the smallest and most sorrowful things. God is one with us and all the world. Therefore, all trials must be taken on, endured and embraced. We cannot accept the joys without the sorrows, for it is the divine dance of life and death that makes a meaningful and unified whole. One must ‘accept suffering into the bargain. And it is certainly no small bargain these days.’  


Is it barbaric to pray after Auschwitz; to whisper to an unflinching Father; to search for a God within who won’t lift a finger for us in the world without; to talk of one who is said to be beauty, truth and goodness itself, yet who allowed such ugly, false and evil things to unfold? These are difficult questions, yet Etty’s diary serves as one possible answer to them. Those who believe that the ideals of the Spirit must somehow touch down and reckon with the grim realities of history may find Etty to be a thought-provoking guide. More practically, she is an excellent companion for anyone who must confront strife (essentially all of us, at some time or other).  


Etty Hillesum’s diary presents a living, breathing, anxious, hilarious and spellbinding tour through the life of a brilliant young woman. Her personality shines through the dark onto every page, with comments so witty and idiosyncratic they almost succeed in banishing the shadows. (For example, she writes ‘God save me from one thing: don’t let me be sent to a camp with the people with whom I now work every day. I could write a hundred satires about them…’) Hers is a tale worth telling not only for its religious hope and ennobled end but also for its honest and enjoyably human journey.  

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